ANALYSIS: Power, politics and the Natalie Portman Rorschach test

The real story of what happened with Portman is... complex.

Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman (photo credit: GENESIS PRIZE FOUNDATION)
Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman
Natalie Portman almost broke the Internet over the weekend. The Genesis Prize Foundation said last Thursday it was canceling its prize ceremony scheduled for June 28, after a representative of Portman was quoted as saying the actress was not comfortable participating in any public events in Israel and could not “in good conscience” move forward with the ceremony. Portman later wrote on Instagram that she chose “not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu.” She also distanced herself from “today’s atrocities,” noting they were not “in line with my Jewish values.”
The vague statements have left a lot of people guessing and turned the fiasco into a Rorschach test that is virtually breaking the Internet. On the Right, she has been accused of not accepting a prize from the “people of Israel” and shamed for “boycotting Israel.” Others have pointed out that her decision seems hypocritical. As Israeli writer and strategy consultant Hen Mazzig wrote, “She never boycotted any American award given to her” due to Donald Trump.
The Forward ran an article online with the headline “Natalie Portman speaks loudly for young American Jews with snub of Israel.” Its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, wrote that the decision means “something is shifting.”
The real story of what happened with Portman is far more complex. When making the film Tale of Love and Darkness, based on Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s book with the same name, she said the project was her “passion for almost a decade.” In 2015, she spoke passionately about an entire generation in Israel that was trying to “create utopian communities.” At the same time, she was also openly critical of Netanyahu’s reelection in 2015, and said, “I find his racist comments horrific.”
So Portman was a known quantity, a woman with strong views and an intimate interest in Israeli history and the country’s elite cultural scene. She was the first young woman selected to win the Genesis Prize, which in previous years has been awarded to Anish Kapoor, Itzhak Perlman, Michael Douglas and Michael Bloomberg. There is a widespread perception that Israel has an image problem among younger American Jews and that this problem intersects with a feeling that Israel’s values do not represent their liberal-leaning values.
OVER THE years, a variety of initiatives have sought to address this. How to get young American Jews interested in Israel? Hundreds of thousands have come on Birthright Israel trips. But Google “young US Jews and Israel” and you’ll get headlines about “estrangement” and “hostility” and “turning away.”
A ceremony with Natalie Portman might have symbolized a positive chance to address this issue, with a young woman who could inspire connection to Israel. Now, media interpretations indicate that has spectacularly backfired. The reason that Portman’s decision resonates so strongly online reflects that people in their 20s and 30s – the active social media users – feel this incident reflects something raw and genuine.
For Israel supporters, it results in a backlash. They’ve gone on the attack. For critics of Israel, or its government, this represents catharsis. Finally, their values are at the forefront as a major actress appears to challenge Israel’s government.
It should be a learning experience as well. Portman’s views deserve to be listened to and aired. Was no one listening in 2015 or before? Did no one ask her what she thought? The initial statement by her representative that she wasn’t attending any public events in Israel seemed to be a way out for her from the ceremony. It wasn’t against the government or the ceremony or the prize, just against public events. But that was interpreted as a boycott. Once the controversy had broken, she had to clarify the statement and sought to put the ball in Netanyahu’s court.
The whole incident now symbolizes a larger struggle for power, politics and influence in Israel. There is an unwillingness by some critics and cheerleaders to see nuance on the other side. Which is more important for Israel: public ceremonies affirming the government, or encouraging a positive relationship with the complex realities of Israel and the lived experience of its 8.8 million people?
A healthy relationship with critics in the Diaspora should encourage connections to the larger milieu of Israel. The Portman case shows that Jerusalem cannot take for granted that voices like hers will not seek pushback on Israel’s policies or the demands of its leaders. That means taking seriously the views of those like Portman and respecting that they have something to say. A relationship between Israel and the Diaspora can’t be predicated on clichés and a few days of meetings every year. The Portman Rorschach test teaches us that we need to engage year-round and respect differing views. Then these kinds of surprises or scandals will be less likely.