MY WORD: On flying kites and Natalie Portman

The regular Friday protests in Gaza along the border with Israel are being portrayed as innocent, non-violent rallies, although their stated aim is a March of Return.

Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman (photo credit: GENESIS PRIZE FOUNDATION)
Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman
‘Let’s go fly a kite!’ The song from Disney’s Mary Poppins sends spirits soaring like the children’s toy itself. So imagine this: Kids in a field and kites flying high, not bound by physical borders. Let’s take it a stage further: The kites are decorated – some in the colors of the Palestinian flag, others with a swastika. Still feeling positive? Now imagine that attached to the kites are fire bombs. I know you’re having problems with this image because it’s not normal to attach an incendiary device to a kite. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Finally, imagine the kite flyers letting go of the strings in the hope that the kites will cross the nearby border and set fire to farmers’ fields in the neighboring country. Did you just land back down on earth with a bump? Welcome to our world.
The regular Friday protests in Gaza along the border with Israel are being portrayed as innocent, non-violent rallies, although their stated aim couldn’t be clearer from their slogan: The March of Return.
As a PR ploy it’s ingenious. No matter what happens, Hamas wins and Israel loses. Place kite-flying kids and picnicking families in an open area along the border as human shields. Burn tires to try to prevent soldiers the other side of the fence from being able to detect any infiltration attempt. If a protester is shot, it’s Israel’s fault and a trophy image; if Israel doesn’t manage to prevent an infiltration, Israel can be portrayed as weak.
Either way it provides more fuel for future protests, thus promoting the violence that serves Hamas and Islamist terrorism so well.
The demonstrations and violence are expected to escalate next month when Israelis celebrate Jerusalem Day, the reunification of the capital; Palestinians mark the Nakba (the “catastrophe” of Israel’s creation); the US is scheduled to open its embassy in Jerusalem; and it is the start of Ramadan, the holiest period in the Muslim calendar, tragically often marred by a rise in terrorist attacks.
Into this complex situation, Natalie Portman catapulted herself with all the grace of one of those burning kites that randomly and indiscriminately ignites the fields of Negev farmers.
It seems unlikely that Portman, an Oscar-winning actress and aspiring director, has a true picture of what is going on along the border with Gaza. Despite being Jerusalem-born, she has lived outside Israel for many years. Spending her time in Paris and Hollywood, she is physically removed from the harsh realities of the Middle East. Making a cinematic version of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness does not make Portman an expert on the challenges facing Israel today.
Perhaps she should consult with the kibbutz members who live in communities along the Gaza border.
They are not known as radical right-wingers – most are affiliated with the Left, in fact – but years of rocket and mortar attacks, wars, and the threat of terror tunnels in their backyards, have given them a perspective that Portman can’t get moving in the gilded environment of liberal celebrity circles abroad.
Portman last week generated publicity that both she and Israel could do without when it was announced that she would not be coming to Israel in June to receive the $2 million Genesis Prize at a much-vaunted ceremony.
The reasons she backed out are still not clear. On April 20, the Genesis Prize Foundation cited Portman’s concern about “recent events in Israel.”
Various interpretations of her decision have been bandied around: Almost every left-wing cause celebre in Israel was able to turn Portman into the celebrity of that cause. Israel’s response to the Hamas protests in Gaza? Tick. Israel’s policies on migrants? Tick. Israel’s elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu? Not just a tick, a huge black mark.
In an Instagram post after the controversy broke out, Portman denied she had become a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.
“Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation,” wrote Portman.
Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who leads the government’s fight against BDS, called on her to reconsider her decision. Referring to one of Portman’s hit movies, Erdan wrote: “Anakin Skywalker, a character you know well from Star Wars, went through a similar process. He began to believe that the Jedi knights were evil, and that the forces of the Dark Side were the defenders of democracy. I call on you not to let the Dark Side win.”
Portman earned the further ire of many Israelis by her statement: “Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust... Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”
The desire of Jews to return to their homeland started with their dispersion after the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Zionism as a national movement gained strength in the 1880s.
If Israel was born because of the Holocaust and not despite it, why were so many other countries formed as the British Empire broke up in the post-World War II period, including India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar)? Portman hasn’t been transported to the Dark Side; she hasn’t suddenly become an ugly person, or less talented as an actress. She has, however, shown herself to be the opposite of how she wanted to be seen: a proud Jew and a cosmopolitan, intellectual opinion-maker.
She might not have intended to lend her name to the BDS movement, but that only goes to prove her naiveté.
She, of course, could have turned down the prize when it was first offered to her. Or, since the money is donated to a charitable cause, she could have picked a recipient that best matched her ideals. She could have come and used the occasion to make her point in public. If she did not want her picture taken with the democratically elected prime minister, she could have forewarned the organizers to make sure they avoided it.
Portman’s petty attempts at making a political statement can be contrasted with others. Israeli actress Gal Gadot has not hidden the fact that she served in the IDF; she has turned it into an advantage. In 2014, actress Scarlett Johansson ended her eight-year term as Oxfam’s celebrity ambassador after it demanded she quit her role advertising SodaStream because its factory at the time was based over the Green Line. Unlike Portman, Johansson came out on the side of peaceful coexistence rather than divisive politics.
In particular, Portman’s behavior is markedly different from that of stridently left-wing Israeli author David Grossman, a recipient of this year’s Israel Prize.
He accepted the award from Netanyahu in the traditional televised ceremony on Independence Day, having reportedly announced the night before that he would donate the money to the Family Forum for bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families and an organization that cares for the children of asylum seekers.
Grossman is mature enough and smart enough to be able to separate the role of the country he loves and the prime minister he doesn’t.
Real life goes beyond the everyday politics. It’s not a scene from Mary Poppins. One hopes that the Hebrew University- and Harvard-educated Portman realizes that Israel’s continued existence and growth depend on many factors. Not changing its policies to suit the passing whims of a Hollywood star is one of them.
Above all, Portman should understand that more than she added to the delegitimization of Israel, she detracted from her own standing as a strong, independent- thinking, intellectual woman. She doesn’t deserve the prize she doesn’t want to come to Israel to accept.