Natalie Portman and the Anti-Semitism Smear

Palestine Center Brief No. 312 (April 24, 2018)

By Mohamed Mohamed

The oldest trick in the Zionist handbook is to quickly allege anti-Semitism against people who speak out or take a position that is even in the slightest opposition to the state of Israel, its leaders, or its many oppressive policies. This is a smear tactic that is meant to paint the person speaking out as a bigot or racist, which of course can undermine their perceived credibility and integrity.

The ruthlessness of this tactic is apparent when considering the fact that Jews, and even Israeli Jews, are not immune to this attack. For criticizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinians and repression of their rights, Senator Bernie Sanders was blasted as a “sick man” and a “self-hating Jew” by a Jewish-American conservative talk radio host. Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist who writes for Haaretz and frequently advocates for the rights of Palestinians, was labeled in an Israeli newspaper as a self-hating Jew who has “surpassed them all.”

The latest victim of this assault is the Israeli-American, Jerusalem-born, and Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman. In November of 2017, she was awarded the “Genesis Prize,” which has been described as “the Jewish Nobel.”

This prize is meant to honor “extraordinary individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement and commitment to the Jewish people and Jewish values, such as social justice, tolerance and charity.”

An awards ceremony was scheduled for June 28. However, a representative for Portman informed the Genesis Prize Foundation that “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel,” and that “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.”

Presumably, this decision is alluding to recent Israeli aggression against unarmed protesters in Gaza, which has left at least 39 people dead and over 4,000 injured. These Palestinians have been protesting for four weeks in what has been called the “Great March of Return,” with demonstrators calling on the Right of Return to their homeland based on UN Resolution 194, which was passed almost 70 years ago in 1948. Protesters are also trying to draw attention to their horrid living conditions in Gaza, which has been under a cruel Israeli siege since 2007, and which is frequently referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison.

From the Israeli point of view, concerns about Israeli brutality against unarmed Palestinian protestors are unacceptable. But any human being with a conscience would take issue with snipers firing upon unarmed civilians trapped in what amounts to a cage, and who pose no physical threat to Israeli forces anyway.

It is worth noting that Portman never even mentioned Gaza, and that after the backlash from Israelis, she decided to clarify that she made this decision in order to avoid appearing as if she was endorsing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was supposed to give a speech at the ceremony. It was not because of pressure from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which she does not endorse.

Last November in a statement after the award announcement, Portman said, “I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage; they are crucial parts of who I am.” Portman is not a right-wing Zionist, but she is undoubtedly a liberal Zionist and a firm supporter of Israel.

Despite this, Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure, Energy, and Water Resources, Yuval Steinitz, said that Portman’s decision to boycott the awards ceremony “bordered on anti-Semitism.” Oren Hazan, another right-wing member of the Israeli parliament, called on the government to revoke Portman’s Israeli citizenship.

Once again, like clockwork, we see the vicious personal attacks against anyone who dares to speak out against Israeli government policies. It does not matter that the person speaking out is in fact a supporter of Israel. Dissent is intolerable, even if the dissenter happens to be a Jewish Israeli. And if the dissenter happens to be anyone else, or even worse, a Palestinian, the attacks are guaranteed to be much more malicious.

Rachel Azaria, a more centrist member of the Israeli parliament, warned that Portman’s decision is a sign that support for Israel is decreasing among younger American Jews. She is correct, and this observation has been noted by others in recent times. In fact, a leader of the Jewish Agency recently described this trend as “extremely worrisome.” This is why such baseless charges of anti-Semitism and other personal attacks may continue to increase, because Israel is slowly but surely becoming more unable to defend its oppressive behavior, which is in violation of international law.

Back in 2002 while Natalie Portman was a student at Harvard University, she wrote a letter to the editors of the university’s newspaper in which she criticized another writer’s characterization of Israel’s behavior as apartheid. She wrote that “Outrageous and untrue finger-pointing is a childish tactic that disregards the responsibility of all parties involved.” Ironically, she is now being subjected to outrageous finger-pointing tactics that she once complained about, except from the Israeli side. Hopefully this will be a wakeup call of how Israel deals with those who dare to speak out.

The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.