Natalie Portman, one of the most famous Jewish celebrities on the planet, just announced she was boycotting a major Israeli event.
Portman was scheduled to travel to Jerusalem to receive the Genesis Prize, a prominent award sometimes referred to as the “Jewish Nobel.” On Friday, she abruptly canceled her visit, writing that she “did not want to appear as endorsing [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu” in an Instagram post explaining her decision. It’s not yet clear what’s happening to the $2 million in prize money that comes with the award.
Celebrities deciding to avoid Israel on political grounds is not all that uncommon. Hollywood is left-leaning, and many celebrities are outspokenly pro-Palestinian. Netanyahu’s government is one of the furthest right in Israeli history, particularly when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians. Tensions are to be expected.
But Portman is an altogether different case. She is an Israeli citizen, born in Jerusalem, though she was raised in America and currently lives in France. In the past, Portman has been an outspoken advocate of Israel — as an undergraduate at Harvard, she worked on a prominent book defending the Jewish state against its critics. She speaks fluent Hebrew; in 2015, she wrote, directed, and starred in a Hebrew-language adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir.
So Natalie Portman turning down a visit to Israel in protest is not business as usual, and Israeli politicians are not treating it as such. Oren Hazan, a member of Israel’s parliament from Netanyahu’s Likud Party, called for Portman’s Israeli citizenship to be stripped. A member of the cabinet, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, said her decision “has elements of anti-Semitism.”
This is not a marginal controversy, some kind of celebrity sideshow. It is a leading indicator of the rising tensions between liberal American Jewry and the increasingly right-wing Israeli government. Portman is the canary in the coal mine, warning Israel that its policies on the Palestinians and African migrants are putting it increasingly at odds with its most natural friends abroad.
Why Natalie Portman is skipping Israel’s version of the Nobel Prize
The reason for Portman’s decision is more nuanced than it appeared at first blush.
The Genesis Prize, in its own statement, said “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her,” adding that “she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.” This was widely interpreted as a reference to the crisis on the boundary between Israel and the Palestinian-populated Gaza Strip, in which Israeli troops have shot a number of Palestinians during occasionally violent demonstrations near a border fence.
If Portman were boycotting Israel entirely over Gaza, it would be a stunning development. It would suggest that she, one of a relatively few celebrities to have prominently defended Israel in the past, was supporting the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. She would have, in effect, been signing up to serve as a prominent advocate for the international Palestinian cause.
But Portman’s Instagram statement, which came after the Genesis Prize comment, gives a somewhat more subtle explanation. First, she explicitly denied that she was a BDS advocate; she was only skipping this event because Netanyahu was also scheduled to speak at it. “Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation,” she writes.
Second, her statement of grievance with Netanyahu’s government seemed to be at least in part about refugee policy. There are currently about 40,000 undocumented migrants, mostly African asylum seekers, in Israel. Netanyahu’s government backed off initial plans to deport them, but in early April reneged on an agreement with the United Nations that would give them permanent status in Israel, leaving the refugees in limbo. Portman’s statement seemed to imply that this was the “recent event” that had so upset her.
“Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust,” she writes. “But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values.”
However, focusing on the past month or so of Israeli political developments somewhat misses the point. Portman has long been a critic of Netanyahu’s government; after his 2015 reelection, she told the Hollywood Reporter that she was “very, very upset and disappointed,” blasting him for “racist” comments about Arab voters during the campaign.
Indeed, her statement contained a largely overlooked line — “because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power” — suggesting that this is about more than just current events, but rather broader concerns Portman has with the Netanyahu government. This is less about a boycott of the Israeli state writ large, and more an American Jew and Israeli citizen expressing her concern with the state’s current leadership.
That, however, is still a big deal. Very few Jews, Israeli or diaspora, support a wholesale boycott of Israel. But views on Netanyahu’s government, specifically, are far more mixed. The fact that Portman is framing her criticism as coming from a place of affection for the Jewish state, not hostility, makes it more likely that other Jews — especially Americans — will take it seriously.
“This is an important symbolic moment,” says Jeremy Pressman, a scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Connecticut. “She cannot just be written off as a BDS supporter.”
Natalie Portman points to a growing divide between Israel and American Jews
If this were just one person taking a one-time stand, it wouldn’t be all that noteworthy. But Portman’s stand against the Netanyahu government points to much broader and deeper divides emerging between Israel and American Jews.
On one level, the divide between Israeli and American Jews couldn’t be simpler: Israeli Jews are, on the whole, more conservative than their American peers. Forty-nine percent of American Jews identify as liberal, per Pew data; only 8 percent of Israeli Jews say the same. Nearly twice as many Israeli Jews (37 percent) as American Jews (19 percent) described themselves as politically conservative in Pew’s survey.
This owes to profoundly different historical experiences. American Jewish identity comes from “a sense of exclusion from American society,” Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told me. Israel has a long and robust socialist political tradition but has tilted sharply rightward after the 1990s peace process collapsed into the violence of the Second Intifada and a 2005 military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip ended up with a takeover of the territory by the Islamist group Hamas.
In every presidential election in recent memory, a majority of American Jews have voted for the Democratic candidate. Israel’s center-left Labour Party has not won an election since 1999.
The result is a slow but steady sense of alienation of American Jews from the Israeli political system. A growing number of American Jews look at Israel and see a country that is occupying Palestinian territory and breaking up peaceful Palestinian protests using force and a Jewish state that only recognizes one socially conservative strand of Jewry, Orthodox Judaism, as legitimate — which manifests in things like preventing liberal American Jews from praying in mixed gender groups at the Western Wall, the holiest prayer site in Judaism.
The Pew data shows a clear age gap here: Younger American Jews are, overwhelmingly, more skeptical about Israel’s political direction than their older peers. Five times as many American Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 think the United States is “too supportive” of Israel as those over the age of 65. Only a third of Jews between the ages of 18 and 49 believe Israel’s government is making a sincere attempt at peace with the Palestinians; the number is 10 points higher among Jews ages 50 and up.
Natalie Portman, age 36, is one of the most prominent members of the younger cohort of American Jews. Her decision to cancel the speech serves not only as an example of tensions between liberal America and conservative Israel boiling over, but actually stokes the conflict: She is serving as a role model, a Jew and Zionist in good standing who’s willing to take a vocal stand against the Israeli government.
This is why prominent Israeli politicians — who are, notably, right-wing — have called for her citizenship to be stripped, or tried to marginalize her as somehow anti-Semitic. They worry, not without cause, that she’s a harbinger of future conflict between Israel and its most important international ally.
Now, there have always been tensions between Israel and diaspora Jewry. Every community has internal issues. But the ideological divide, particularly with respect to the Palestinians and the synagogue-state divide, has never been sharper. Brent Sasley, a political scientist at the University of Texas Arlington, tells me this an example of “the harmful global effects of the rise of the neo-nationalist/religious right in Israel” on Israel’s relationship with the diaspora — and it’s hard to argue with him.
So long as Israel continues its rightward drift, incidents like this will almost certainly become more and more common.