Below is a letter I penned to Natalie Portman.
Let me first say what a big fan I am of yours. I have followed your career from one of your very first movie roles in “Heat,” the best cops and robbers film of all time. I thought your portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie” was haunting. Your role as Rebecca in Israeli director Amos Gitai’s film “Free Zone,” was amazing even though the movie was strange. “Star Wars” was Star Wars. And congratulations on your director’s debut in the film version of Amos Oz’s autobiographical novel, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”
I am not writing, however, about your film accomplishments. I am instead writing about your decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony at which Prime Minister Netanyahu would be speaking. The committee selected to give you this award in recognition of your dedication to the Jewish community. Other recipients were Michael Bloomberg, Itzhak Perlman, Michael Douglas, Anish Kapoor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
You shared your reasoning on Instagram (not the best forum for intellectual discourse I might suggest):
I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony. By the same token, I am not part of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement and do not endorse it. Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.
People have lambasted you. Israeli ministers have called you antisemitic. Many have accused you of disloyalty. They have suggested that you are influenced by Israel’s enemies and in particular Hamas’ propaganda. Such claims are false. They are, moreover, deeply troublesome. Many in our community are no longer able to have civilized debates about Israel’s policies. Disagreements are portrayed as treason. You are either with us or against us.
Protest means that you hate Israel. Love of Israel is deemed synonymous with devotion to one political party or a particular Zionist ideology.
Natalie, it is not only your right to protest, it is in fact your duty.
I remember when Elie Wiesel spoke up against Ronald Reagan. The president intended on visiting the Bitburg cemetery during his upcoming trip to Germany. There, Nazi SS troops were buried. In the weeks prior, Wiesel was scheduled to receive the Congressional Medal of Achievement. I would have certainly understood if Wiesel refused to attend the ceremony saying, “I will not shake the hand of any president who lays a wreath at the graves of my family’s murderers.” I doubt people would have criticized him.
Instead, he accepted the award and then (lovingly) chastised the president. Wiesel said, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” Reagan did not change course. He visited the ceremony. And yet Wiesel’s words are perhaps the most enduring legacy of the president’s visit.
Natalie, I take issue with your manner of protest. I do not doubt your love of Zion. I do not quarrel with your right to protest or in fact your duty to do so. Far more could have been accomplished by your attendance at the ceremony. You could have spoken of what so distresses you about Netanyahu’s policies. Is it his treatment of African refugees? Is it instead Israel’s shooting of Palestinians on Gaza’s borders? There is much to debate about these policies. I understand and appreciate the arguments on both sides. And I would be happy to discuss, and debate, these issues with you.
Moreover, what Jewish values move your heart? Whether you wished for this or not, you are seen as a Jewish leader. Your blessing, or your curse, is his mantle of leadership. Now is the time to speak up. Now is not the time for generalities.
Many believe, as I do, that Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, is becoming increasingly unmoored from its democratic foundations. I am disheartened that he recently introduced a bill that would allow legislators to veto Supreme Court rulings. If this is your view then tell us. Give to charities that are working to secure such a democratic vision. Last year’s winner, Anish Kapoor, donated part of his winnings to the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. If you believe as the Israeli author David Grossman has said that Israel is more of a fortress than a home, then speak out. Use your voice to magnify your vision. At the very least, I implore you, write an eloquent letter detailing your loving critiques of the country we both cherish but wish to do better. Then we would have the content of your critiques to debate.
Use your unrivaled skills, your passionate Jewish commitments and what should be seen as your unimpeachable love of Israel, to serve our collective future. Let your words be remembered by history. Let your example be seen as a model of a person who lives by her ideals.
The Torah states, and lest those with whom I might share this letter and who often think that I too often talk about politics but rarely Torah, “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your kin.” (Leviticus 19)
With admiration and support,
Rabbi Steven Moskowitz
P.S. We would love to see you at our congregation when you visit your Syosset home.