Why everyone is wrong about the Natalie Portman Genesis Prize scandal

The Israeli-born actress doesn’t support BDS, isn’t an antisemite, might still donate the money and isn’t the first to skip the award ceremony.

Natalie Portman speaks onstage during The 2018 MAKERS Conference at NeueHouse Hollywood on February 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (photo credit: RACHEL MURRAY / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)
Natalie Portman speaks onstage during The 2018 MAKERS Conference at NeueHouse Hollywood on February 5, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
The Genesis Prize Foundation thinks Natalie Portman is “a highly accomplished actress, a committed social activist and a wonderful human being.”
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz thinks her actions border on antisemitism.
Both of these statements were made following Portman’s decision to pull out of the upcoming Genesis Prize ceremony in Jerusalem. And both statements reflect not only the wide range of reactions to the Oscar-winning actress’s decision, but also the deep misunderstanding of her statements, of the prize, and of the future of that $2 million.
In November, Portman was selected by the Genesis Prize Foundation to be its fifth laureate, receiving a grant of $1m. to donate to charitable causes, specifically those advancing women’s rights. In December, prominent philanthropist Morris Kahn announced he would double the prize money, giving Portman another $1m. to funnel to the organizations of her choosing.
Natalie Portman Declines Honor and Cancels Israel Trip, April 20, 2018 (Reuters)
Early on Friday, the Genesis Prize committee informed the media that Portman had decided not to attend the ceremony slated for June in Jerusalem, and therefore it would be canceled.
Both the foundation’s statement and Portman’s further explanation posted to Instagram were clearly referring only to the ceremony; not the prize, nor the prize money. For all intents and purposes – until further notice, should it come – Portman is still the 2018 Genesis Prize laureate, and she will still choose where the funds are allocated. After all, if an Oscar winner doesn’t show up to the award ceremony, it doesn’t mean that the person didn’t win the Oscar.
While Kahn released a statement Friday saying that the money will be distributed by the Genesis Prize Foundation and “not by Ms. Portman,” the foundation itself has been careful to say no such thing. In conversations on Saturday and Sunday, sources connected to the foundation would not comment on the future of the funds, or the possibility of Portman’s continued involvement.
As of Sunday afternoon, Portman was still listed as the 2018 laureate on the Genesis Prize website, and her image still graced the banner of the prize’s Facebook page.
OVER THE WEEKEND, right-wing Israeli politicians and Palestinian activists alike labeled Portman’s actions as supporting BDS. Neither side was particularly swayed by the actress’s own statement on Instagram, saying that she does not endorse the BDS movement and that she loves Israeli culture but did not want to be seen as endorsing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Many public figures in America – particularly sports stars – have declined invitations to the White House so as not to be seen as supporting US President Donald Trump. Nobody considers them to be boycotting the United States of America.
But would an appearance at the Genesis ceremony really have been seen as supporting Netanyahu?
Those saying that the prize has nothing to do with Netanyahu – and her boycotting the ceremony is therefore an insult to Israel as a whole – are certainly misinformed. The prize has a lot to do with Netanyahu. It is handed out by the prime minister, and his director-general is on the prize committee. Netanyahu was the one who announced the prize’s creation in 2012, and it was labeled then as a joint initiative between the government, the Jewish Agency for Israel – a quasi-governmental group – and the Genesis Prize Foundation.
Of course, Portman knew all that when she accepted the prize, and has known that for the five months since then. She needed to look no further than the images of a grinning Michael Douglas, Michael Bloomberg and Itzhak Perlman – the prize’s first three winners – being awarded the prize by Netanyahu to know what she had signed up for.
It should be noted that the prize’s fourth laureate, Anish Kapoor, also canceled the prize ceremony in Jerusalem after receiving the honor. Kapoor said in May 2017 that it would be “inappropriate” to hold a festive ceremony “in light of the escalating war in Syria.” The famed artist directed the $1 million to five global NGOs who work assisting refugees around the world.
PORTMAN COULD potentially have exited the ceremony in a way that drew less attention – and disparagement – but she made her choice deliberately. The Harvard graduate and mother of two has never shied away from speaking her mind, and she did not do so this weekend.
But labeling her a supporter of BDS is false and patronizing, particularly when she has explicitly stated otherwise. Portman has long spoken of her love for Israel, its culture and its language, and even gave her two children Hebrew-inspired names – her son is named Aleph (the first Hebrew letter) and her daughter Amalia (“labor of God”).
In 2015, Portman chose, for her directorial debut, to adapt the Amos Oz novel A Tale of Love and Darkness for the screen. Portman also wrote and starred in the film, which was shot in Jerusalem. On Sunday, Oz’s daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, posted a photo on Twitter of Oz, Portman and her co-star Gilad Kahana during filming.
“I took this pic of Amos Oz with his cinematic parents #NataliePortman & Gilad Kanana on the film set of ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’” Oz-Salzberger wrote. “Natalie chose it as her directing debut, shot it in Hebrew, played my grandma, filled it with her love. To claim she’s anti-Israel is so idiotic.”
Portman is not an elected official, nor a representative of any movement. Her decision to skip the Genesis Prize ceremony is significant, yes, but it is hardly a crisis of historic proportions. Israelis have bigger concerns, such as the fate of Avera Mengistu, an Israeli being held in Gaza; the future of a prime minister mired in scandal and potential indictments; and the deepening concerns of Iranian action along the border with Syria.
Ultimately, it was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman who had the most sensible response to the scandal, when he was asked about it while visiting the Gaza border on Friday.
“We’re here talking about security,” he said. “We came here to see that the nation of Israel is receiving all the security it needs, and it is.”