Column JN April 28 2018 by Jenni Frazer
Politics, we are often told, makes strange bedfellows, a dictum of which we could scarcely fail to be reminded in the wake of this week’s Natalie Portman furore.
For those who have been asleep in their caves over the winter and are just peering out to see if it’s spring yet, the former Neta-Lee Herschlag is an Oscar-winning actress, born in Jerusalem, who left the country for America with her parents when she was four.
Portman has made a point, as her international career garnered her more fame, of saying she would not attack Israel from abroad. And someone in the hierarchy of the Genesis Prize, often described as the Jewish Nobel awards, must have thought that giving one of this year’s prizes to Portman would have sprinkled a pretty measure of stardust, real and assumed, over the ceremony in this 70th independence year.
But — and of course, there are several “buts” in this story — Portman balked at the last minute. Her decision on Friday not to travel to Israel to receive the $2 million Genesis Prize, which she had chosen to give to women’s charities, threw the whole event into disarray, and, in fact, the June ceremony has been cancelled.
She said she felt “uncomfortable” about going to Israel to receive the prize. It emerged later that one of the sources of discomfort was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to give a speech at the award ceremony, and she did not wish to appear to endorse him.
Here’s the second “but”. Portman may be many things, but stupid isn’t one of them. In a gracious but sad statement the Genesis Prize people made it clear that they and she had been in touch for months about the mechanics of getting the prize, and she could not have failed to be aware that Bibi was a participant on stage. So how disingenuous was it of Portman to wait until the week of Israel’s independence celebrations to drop her little grenade that she wasn’t going to attend?
Trying to clarify, Portman claimed: “Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance”.
In some respects I rather admire Portman for refusing to take part in an event with someone she plainly despises. It has many echoes of the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment in Hollywood, with which she has been closely associated.
Nevertheless, there is some regrettable fall-out from her decision. The first is that women’s charities, which would have benefited from some of that $2 million, will now not receive it, and that is a shame.
And the second is that Portman’s controversial stance has brought the usual lunatic suspects out of the asylum, with right-wing politicians such as Oren Hazan calling for the Interior Minister, Arye Deri, to revoke Portman’s Israeli citizenship, just because she had the temerity to say she didn’t like the prime minister or did not approve of Israel’s most recent ventures on the Gaza border.
It’s quite refreshing to hear a film star speaking candidly, even if one disagrees with her; and I also don’t think Portman will be the last to make such a declaration. Israel needs to pay attention to the disaffected diaspora. As for Portman, her choice was to reject the strange bedfellow.