The Natalie Portman Affair

Natalie Portman (Mira (on the wall) via Flickr)

by Daniel Amir

A familiar scene on the Internet and in countless homes in Israel takes place as follows. A non-Israeli resident (or Israeli ex-pat) will make a statement critical of Israel’s foreign or domestic policy. Israelis will inevitably respond: you don’t live in this country; you don’t have as much at stake as we do; it’s all very well to point fingers from the outside.

Unsurprisingly, Natalie Portman suffered the same fate when the Hollywood star refused the Genesis Prize last week and landed in an international media storm. Portman stated that her refusal of the prize had come in light of “extremely distressing” recent events in the country, pointing an implicit finger at Israel’s reaction to weeks of protest in Gaza.

Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev fervently criticized Portman’s decision, and Likud Knesset member Oren Hazan argued that her Israeli citizenship ought to be revoked. Prominent rIghtist voices online vituperated against Portman as part of a “generation of failure” among a litany of ad hominem attacks on her skills and appearance.

The Genesis Prize Foundation said it regretted the prize’s politicization. Yet this comment in itself ignores images of past events that position Hollywood greats like Michael Douglas celebrating his victory alongside a smiling Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister. The so-called Jewish Nobel is a de facto political event, where Netanyahu is at the centre of the PR bonanza. So when the committee regrets the prize’s politicization, it’s really concerned about politicization in the wrong direction.

What is at play in the scandal over Portman’s refusal is a kind of double standard of the Israeli right—of which Portman is not the only victim. Last year’s NGO Law, which requires organizations receiving the bulk of their funding from outside of the country to reveal that fact, makes this same argument: critique of Israel from outside the country is unfounded and will be hounded out. Even domestic human rights groups with external support like B’Tselem have been subjected to unwelcome criticism and attempted delegitimization.

Trying to influence Israeli policy from the outside is enough to render you anathema, then, but the party that Culture Minister Regev and Knesset member Hazan support so vehemently is guilty of the very same behavior. Enter Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson has long been a patron of the Israeli right. The US tycoon has poured tens of millions of dollars into Republican campaigns in his home country. He has done just the same in Israel with the establishment of the rightist newspaper Israel Hayom. The newspaper is so overtly partisan that its nickname in Hebrew is “Bibi’s paper.”

Adelson’s U.S. activities through the Israeli American Council also strive to sway US policy on Israel. Last year the IAC’s annual conference was attended by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, alongside mostly right-wing MKs from the Netanyahu bloc. This is not a coincidental alliance. Netanyahu and Trump share not only hawkish policies on Palestine but also the same donors.

AIPAC’s activities lurk so prominently in the background in Israel that they could almost go unmentioned. The forum unabashedly supports Netanyahu and helps to tout his policies and worldview to US lawmakers.

To be clear, Netanyahu and his coalition partners are party to the very accusations that they levy against Portman and Israeli NGOs. Adelson’s backstage influence, which espouses aggressive Israeli policy towards Palestinians, is arguably more malign and deeply embedded. Above all, it has the ears of power in Israel in a way that human rights groups do not.

In the common conversation outlined above, the boilerplate rebuttal is as follows. Adelson and AIPAC are friends of Israel, helping to improve its image and lot on the world stage. They contribute to creating a strong country, with warm alliances with important nations, and buttress the security of Israel’s continued existence. B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and now-unmentionables like Natalie Portman are doing the opposite: they are playing into the agenda of Israel’s enemies. They are feeding the destruction of the Zionist homeland.

But critics are naive if they see the main threat to Israel as coming from the outside. Let us not forget the self-enforced instances of diplomatic isolation, the continued allegations of corruption that rack the prime minister and his colleagues, and the constant assaults on the country’s judiciary. Israel’s reputation abroad may be important to the country’s right-wing. But these otherwise sensitive defenders of the homeland are blind to the institutional decay creaking around them. This is the Israel that Adelson and AIPAC help keep afloat.

Israelis can vote as they please, but they must also understand that Israel is at the center of a set of international frictions that excite comment from outsiders. The right knows this and leverages it expertly to its advantage. At the very least, it must allow the rest to do so too.

Portman and others are not part of a “failed” generation. They are looking for a country that will reflect compassionate Jewish values and provide a just homeland for all. Portman told her Instagram followers that she will be partnering with a number of charities in the country to advance this cause. Compassionate dissenting voices like hers must be welcomed and included into the discursive battle for Israel. This is far from the destruction of the country: it will be its making.

Daniel Amir is a graduate of Oxford University in Persian Studies and an MSc candidate in Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics. He has extensive experience in counter-terrorism and foreign policy research in Jerusalem, London, and Washington. @Daniel_Amir1. 

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One Comment

  1. “… you don’t have as much at stake as we do; it’s all very well to point fingers from the outside.”

    And there is a huge echo chamber in the U.S. condemning her actions as well.
    Oh that we would at least be consistent in applying this principal. I wish I had a dime every time someone in the U.S. advocated ‘regime change’ in Syria or somewhere else or waxed eloquent about Picot- Sykes as they casually talked about hacking Arab countries into pieces.

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