Natalie Portman is wrong about Israel — here’s why

  • Natalie Portman has pulled out of an Israeli event at which she was scheduled to be honored.
  • The actress has since clarified that she does not support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign.
  • Her statements have made clear that despite being born in Israel, Portman is confused about the state’s founding.

With one recent decision, Natalie Portman garnered both condemnation and commendation.

The Oscar-winning actress was slated to be in Israel on June 28 for the Genesis Prize ceremony.

The organisation, which “honours individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values,” had selected Portman as its 2018 laureate.

She recently pulled out of the event, and her spokespeople explained that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”

“Any public events in Israel” is a strong phrase, and many – myself included – took this to mean that Portman was joining the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign. Portman issued a statement explaining that this was not the case, but in doing so, she earned further condemnation by entirely misrepresenting the state of Israel’s history, and undermining the legitimacy behind its creation.

Portman is not a government official, and she doesn’t represent anyone but herself. But her words, like those of any celebrity, carry weight. And what the star may not realise is that, by virtue of the fact that she was born in Israel, many in this country take her to be an authority on the conflict and Israel-related issues more broadly.

So when she released a statement explaining that her “decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others,” it seemed like a level-headed explanation of her actions was about to follow.

To some extent, that happened. Portman explained that she is “not part of the BDS movement and [does] not endorse it.” Rather, she “chose not attend because [she] did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.” Being critical of specific politicians in Israel is in no way similar to advocating a wholesale boycott of the state, and while I disagree with her decision, no one could reasonably fault her for deciding it would be improper to share a dais with a man with whom she so vehemently disagrees.

But then she went on. While praising Israeli food and culture, she noted that “Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust.”

It’s hard to imagine that a woman who once worked as Alan Dershowitz’s research assistant could get this so wrong. Portman holds dual citizenship, and she, more than most Americans, should understand that Israel’s founding was the rebirth of a nation. The creation of the modern state of Israel was not a result of the spontaneous outpouring of sympathy from world powers aghast at what befell the Jews during World War II, but the product of many years of hard, determined work. Zionism as a political movement far predated the creation of the state, and that movement came centuries after the Jews were exiled from their national homeland.

It’s a shame that 70 years after Israel’s creation the most basic facts of its existence are unclear even to those who were born within its borders.