Western celebrities, Israel and inferiority complexes

Why is Natalie Portman suddenly at the center of some massive cosmic battle over Israel's soul?

The view of downtown Dubai at sunset from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The view of downtown Dubai at sunset from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Floyd Mayweather, the boxer, was apparently hanging out at a mall in Dubai in early May. He wasn’t the only one. A long list of other famous people were nearby. Most of them didn’t even get their photos taken, because no one cared. Meanwhile, in Israel, some people were unhappy when rapper Azealia Banks tweeted after having a bad experience with airport security that she wouldn’t return to the country.
She joins a long list of celebrities – some no longer famous or only so in the 1970s – whose stories the media tell us in the hope Israel gained the latest stamp of approval. Every musician who comes to Israel somehow becomes a bellwether of Israeli success. Nick Cave is coming. Victory. Lorde didn’t come. Sad. Roger Waters dislikes Israel. More sad. But Israel has got Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John and Alanis Morissette.
But wait. Just when you thought things were going well, some group that supports a boycott of Israel puts out a new meme. Apparently Mel Gibson, Woody Harrelson, Javier Bardem, Danny Glover and Matt Damon have not come to Israel. I don’t even know who Bardem is. Wasn’t Harrelson only good in that movie about basketball? Does Israel need Mel Gibson?
The obsession with celebrities and the need for approval from them is a constant theme in Israel’s media. It is not so much a theme among average Israelis. They tend to be content with their own celebrities and couldn’t care less about some singer from the 1980s who didn’t come to the Jewish state. Unfortunately major media tend to interpret these celebrity visits, or lack thereof, as if the country’s reputation and future depends on them. It’s a bit like the pathetic kid at the playground in constant need of affirmation from the local football star. “Oh, please, please, come over here and give me attention, just a tiny bit.”
The peak of this celebrity-affirmation obsession came when Natalie Portman canceled an appearance at an award ceremony. She was awarded the Genesis Prize and was supposed to come to receive it in Israel. Instead she chose not to. It was never entirely clear why. She implied that it had something to do with the clashes in Gaza, while others said it had more to do with the attendance at the ceremony of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The real reason is probably more complex. But what is not complex are the reactions to her decision.
Portman was accused of boycotting Israel in open letters to Israeli newspapers. She was made out to be a “symptom of US Jewry’s changing attitude” toward Israel. She was accused of being “fooled by Hamas.” It was a “betrayal of Israel.” Government ministers ran to comment. People said she was going to the “dark side,” a strange allegation that mistook her for a character she once played.
FEW PEOPLE stopped, stepped back and asked why this mattered. So, she didn’t want to attend a ceremony. Hasn’t she made at least one movie in Israel? Hasn’t she written and spoken extensively about her deep connection to Israel? Why is she somehow a symbol of every young American Jew? Why is she suddenly at the center of some massive, cosmic battle over Israel’s soul?
Let’s ask what would happen if some other celebrity had declined to turn up in Abu Dhabi, or Oslo or Beijing. Would anyone care? There are many reasons to not attend events in other countries as well. It’s true that most other countries are not subjected to a cultural boycott by a few angry activists in the West. It is true that some cancellations are due to pressure on artists not to perform. But then again, at least that means Israel is interesting enough to create a debate about whether to perform in it or not.
Most other countries get celebrities for other arbitrary reasons. Nice beaches in Italy, so the celebrities go. Notso-nice beaches in Slovenia, so no one goes. Opulent malls in Dubai, so people go. Less opulent malls in Chad, so no one goes. Many celebrities go to European countries simply because something they want is there. It’s not some massive social commentary on social justice in Switzerland when a rock star goes and hangs out at a ski lodge and visits the Jungfraujoch. They don’t even meet Swiss people when they go. It’s just to see some sites and relax. And if there is a concert, it’s just about making money.
Israel has turned foreign celebrities into a domestic stamp of approval. In so doing, the country has set itself up for disappointment. Sometimes a celebrity won’t come. Some of them are into politics and want to look good for their social-justice friends back home. They get letters and emails about Palestinian suffering and decide they don’t want to perform. But mostly that’s not the case. Most celebrities would come to Israel if invited. The problem with Israel is that it hasn’t sold itself as some kind of Dubai-SwitzerlandMaldives tourist spot. If Israel wants to create a celebrity subculture, it will have to work on that. The real reason some celebrities are missing during some seasons is simply because other countries have become their playgrounds.
Does Israel really want to become some kind of zoo for the rich and famous to pop in and out of, where the local people can wait on them hand and foot? Perhaps not. Perhaps a more dignified Israel can separate itself from the need for constant approval. If Israel truly believed in the brand it sells – “hi-tech, start-up nation and cherry tomatoes” – it wouldn’t need this feeling of constant reaffirmation.
The next Lorde who doesn’t come shouldn’t be lorded over. Just let them decide not to come, or to come, and be done with it. And stop pretending that every aging ’70s rock star gives Israel some cosmic boost it always needed.