She turned down Israel’s Nobel Prize — and kicked off a major firestorm.
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.
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 [Apr 20], 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.”