I have always been a fan of yours. Throughout my teenage years my bedroom walls were covered with your posters from different movies and magazines. I can’t even say with conviction that I ever got over that particular crush. To this day my friends associate me with you – to the extent that following your recent decision, I began receiving texts to the tune of “hey man, what’s up with your girlfriend?”. In any case, I have always viewed you as a source of considerable pride and inspiration. I still do.
For this improbable and likely unjustified reason, I feel compelled to write to you today. Not to deride or insult you, not to berate or shame you, but rather to engage in dialogue and to provide what I hope is a fresh and nuanced perspective on recent events.
I offer this open letter as an Israeli and a Jew, though I’d like to think that we have something further in common. Your parents (including your Israeli father) moved to the United States where you grew up. My parents moved from the United States and from England to Israel, where I grew up. In some sense, one might say we traded places. I therefore write to you today as an American-Israeli, to a fellow Israeli-American.
Despite growing up in Israel, I am no stranger to the diversity of American Jewish attitudes. My family has been in the US for 11 generations, tracing back to before the Revolution. Both in terms of Jewish affiliation and of support for Israel, the predisposition of my family members in the US range everywhere from strong affiliation and support to total indifference to outright hostility. I am ever conscious of the complexities inherent in the bond between the world’s two major centers of the Jewish people. Perhaps not unlike yourself, I often find myself straddling both these worlds. This duality has deeply defined my personal life and my worldview — tellingly, it so happens that I am a licensed attorney in both Israel and in New York.
It is in the spirit of this acknowledgment of complexity that I would like to proceed. My following remarks are made in the vein of respectful and dignified debate. I believe you to be an intelligent, thoughtful and fair individual, and I hope that this letter will find you a willing participant and a receptive audience. So here goes.
Like many others here, I am deeply saddened by your decision not to come to Israel to accept a prize and by your ensuing statement; and I find them both to be fundamentally and alarmingly misguided.
First, let it be clear: Jews anywhere should be able to voice their opinions and feelings about Israel and to exercise independent judgment in this regard, including those sentiments which Israelis may find unpleasant or inconvenient. Israel cannot expect to be the global heart of the Jewish people, and at the same time expect diaspora Jews to maintain a soulless distance of reverence and deference. If Israel desires to be a basic part of Jewish identity, she must accept that with affiliation comes involvement and commitment.
I therefore find much of the Israeli criticism against you to be misplaced. You do have a say. You are entitled to airing your grievances. This would be true even if you were not an Israeli citizen. Some have characterized your decisions as treacherous, or as submission to superficial peer trends, or as a cynical public-relations ploy for personal gain. I must reject these claims as unfounded and unfair. Not to mention of course, the vocal minority who employ the slur of anti-Semitism, which is absurd as it is obscene. I harbor no such accusations.
Ignore then, for a moment, the populists and demagogues who seek to gain political capital by competing for the most radical and outlandish condemnation. Their comments say more about Israeli political culture and discourse than they do about actual Israeli sentiments — this is, perhaps, one of the oddities of being a Western liberal democracy in the heart of the Middle East. Or maybe, this is a phenomenon not so unfamiliar to the contemporary American. Such unnecessary comments notwithstanding, the harsh reaction in Israel and the ferocious intensity of the ensuing debate must be placed in context.
Israel receives a constant stream of ostensibly well-meaning yet deeply condescending and patronizing “advice” (to use a mild phrase). Countless celebrities, politicians and public figures go out of their way to single out Israel for brutal and toxic criticism. High-minded foreigners feel free to preach to Israelis from the safety of their perch, while exhibiting woeful ignorance of the most basic realities here. More often than not it seems that Israel is merely a convenient scapegoat used to garner favor with decidedly anti-Israel (and indeed, anti-Semitic) audiences, with little risk of adverse consequences.
Israelis have developed a special skepticism towards those critical of her in the name of Jewish values. This can hardly be surprising, when criticism of Israel seems to be the sole expression of Jewish affiliation for many such critics; that is, the only active “Jewish” engagement in their lives is the derision of the State of Israel. It is not rare to find a negative correlation – the less one has to do with Jewish life or with the Jewish state, the more they seem eager to inflict grievous injury on Israel. You would surely agree, this is a peculiar manifestation of Jewish affinity.
Natalie, whether you like it or not, your decision fits neatly into a pattern of disparaging and undermining attacks against Israel, made commonly by detached smug coastal elites in staggering arrogance and sinister ignorance. You clearly couldn’t be further from this category — but from this distance of thousands of miles, it can be hard to tell the difference. To the casual and uninformed observer, your decision merely confirms a well-earned suspicion. Many Israelis can no longer help but lash out at this form of perceived bigotry, especially when the source of their pain is a public figure long held as one of our own.
I now turn to the heart of the matter.
Natalie, I assume you to be familiar with Israel, with its realities and complexities, its challenges and triumphs. I am certain you are a curious and informed individual, and I have no doubt you are sincerely engaged with the Jewish world and with Israel. Clearly you have many channels of information and interpretation to aid you in forming a rich, multifaceted worldview.
However, your decision leads me to call upon you in the timeless words of Sir Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
You surely understand that in your social and cultural circles, same as anywhere else, there are certain conventions and accepted truths which are rarely challenged. What is the level of confidence you are willing to attribute to your strongly held beliefs about Israeli society, politics and culture? How diverse are your sources of knowledge and judgment with regard to Israel? When have you last heard a reasoned and well-articulated argument in direct contradiction to your basic paradigm of Israel?
Are you willing to consider the possibility that your knowledge and comprehension of the subject matter are more limited than you’d like to believe? Do you consider yourself immune from the global trends of polarization, partisanship and especially of unwittingly residing in an echo-chamber of agreeable sentiment? I am asking these, because I implore you to question whether your true level of understanding merits the strength of your convictions.
You decided to forgo a prize ceremony in Israel, and made a statement via your Instagram account. Let us explore this statement.
You did not want to endorse Benjamin Netanyahu. I understand the many reasons one could object to his policies or take issue with his personality. And yet. Leave aside, for a moment, that he is the Prime Minister of a sovereign, democratic state, elected by millions of kind, humble, dignified human beings from all walks of life. Leave aside, for a moment, that participating in the same event is as much of an “endorsement” as is reading the same book as him.
I must ask — what is so repugnant about Netanyahu that one could hardly stomach merely sharing the same air for the better part of an hour? What were his heinous crimes? What deeds merit treating him as a leper, a pariah, and by association affronting millions of people, both Israelis who voted for him and those that didn’t? Would you sincerely argue that Netanyahu is so abhorrent and his actions so distasteful, so that even the most remote connection would implicate you by association?
Whatever your reservations about Netanyahu, you have subjected him to treatment – a boycott for all intents and purposes — that would be appropriate only for the very worst of mankind. Is Netanyahu to be lumped together with Pol Pot and Pinochet? I am certain you would not entertain such a bizarre notion.
You write, correctly, that you can be critical of the leadership of Israel without wanting to boycott the nation. Indeed. But let us not mince words – being “critical” is engaging in dialogue, it is a form of painful recognition of the other side. Shunning an event due to the physical presence of another is not “criticism,” it is rather the rejection of dialogue of any kind. It is the statement that your adversary is not even worthy of your criticism. That is precisely the strategy of the BDS movement which you have unwittingly adopted — avoid discussion and debate; reject the very legitimacy of your adversary.
I understand that in some circles Netanyahu is vilified as an abomination. But hopefully you can understand that this is precisely the kind of narrow, echo-chamber conviction that goes unchallenged and has little basis in reality. If I may add a simple question: have you ever had an in-depth and sincere conversation with a reasonable, articulate and informed supporter of Netanyahu? Every fourth Israeli citizen voted for him, most of whom are secular liberals by any measure. If you haven’t, does that not give you pause?
Make no mistake. Whatever policies and deeds of Netanyahu you may dislike, I assure you there would be little difference if the elected leader of Israel was from the opposite political camp. The vast majority of his decisions are part of the political and strategic landscape that Israel must survive in, and if anything are more benign than those of his many predecessors bearing more agreeable political inclinations. The demonization of Netanyahu and his supporters is primarily a façade to provide an easy excuse to dissociate oneself from the Jewish state, for those that wish to do so.
Natalie, I am certain you have taken many decisions in your life which have surely required courage and fortitude. Would you say this recent decision was bold, or merely convenient? Do you feel as though you have gone against the grain, or are you swimming with the current?
You did not want to be seen as “endorsing” an objectionable but democratically elected leader of the Jewish State. Yet you seemed undisturbed by the prospect of being perceived as endorsing the obscene notion that Netanyahu and his policies are vile beyond the scope of what could be tolerated of any sovereign state or leader. Surely you realize that the latter “endorsement” is far more plausible, and indeed far more damaging, than the former.
Finally, kindly consider: is your decision conducive to and consistent with the important universal values of dialogue, tolerance, pluralism and moderation? I cannot fathom how.
So much for Netanyahu.
You note that you treasure your Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, dance, and I imagine many other novelties that make Israel a popular tourist attraction. I have no doubt you also treasure Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, as the birthplace of the Jewish nation, and as the modern manifestation of the Jewish right to national self-determination and autonomy. The former is fleeting and can change, and is therefore unconvincing. What happens when these are gone, or are no longer suited to your tastes? The fine, desperate and heroic men and women who built this State came with no friends and no family, there was no Israeli food or cinema to speak of, yet they loved this land and spent their lifeblood creating and protecting it and its people.
I’m pleased you cherish these Israeli things. If I may return the compliment: I treasure my Jewish-American friends and family, Jewish-American food, books, art, cinema, and dance. But these American Jews, friends and family whom I hold dear, are a minority in their country and do not bear the weight of the fate of the world’s Jews on their shoulders.
They needn’t concern themselves with the ugly, grueling, odious and often heartbreaking decisions required of an independent people.
They needn’t carry the pain, the fear or the paralyzing uncertainty of steering a mature, powerful and prosperous state.
They needn’t take part in the agonizing daily decisions of responsibility, of distributing resources and enforcing justice, of jailing criminals and conducting business, of writing laws and digging sewage tunnels.
They needn’t break their backs or risk their lives defending borders; they needn’t worry about rockets raining down upon their schools and homes or their buses and restaurants exploding in a cloud of screams; even the Occupation, that cursed Gordian knot with no end in sight whomever you choose to blame, needn’t trouble their sleep. The Israeli cousins will take care of it all.
I say this, Natalie, to illustrate that while I love my American brethren, I bear a burden they never will and may never truly understand. An independent state is an ugly, gritty business. Sometimes, to Israelis, it feels as though our American cousins love an ideal Israel that exists only in their minds, or a superficial and whimsical Israel that only exists in Birthright trips.
Indeed, as you say, Israel was founded 70 years ago, but not “as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust”. I do not presume to lecture you on history, Israeli or otherwise, and I do not intend to dwell on this point. Yet it must be said: Israel was perhaps founded in anticipation of the Holocaust (and Leo Pinsker’s “Auto-Emancipation” of 1882 can attest to this, written after witnessing the Odessa Pogrom of 1881); but never as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust.
All these predated the Holocaust by decades, centuries and millennia, to name a few: The Judean and Israelite Kingdoms; the yearning for Zion throughout 2,000 years of exile; the massive waves of immigration in the late 19th century; the first Zionist Congress in 1897; the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund; the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1922 League of Nations mandate for Britain to establish a Jewish home; the flourishing Jewish towns, fields and communities; the Haganah. The notion that Israel was born somehow as a result of the Holocaust or a reaction to it is a dangerous fallacy. If anything, the Holocaust merely confirmed what Zionists had been saying for half a century: that the Jews would never be safe and never be free without a strong, stable, independent state to call their own.
Finally, you state the reasons for your discomfort coming to Israel at this time: the “mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities,” and also “violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”
I admit, I believe this vague statement has done you a disservice, as it has caused rampant speculation as to the meaning of these allusions. Some (due to lazy reading, poor English, or dishonesty) have portrayed you as accusing Israel of “atrocities”, though this is clearly not the case. I believe that a more straightforward statement of the “recent events” prohibiting you from attending the ceremony, would have ultimately focused the debate while providing greater clarity and less room for manipulation.
I have no intention of trying to change your mind in this letter. In a way, that would be contrary to my entire point – namely that so often, our opinions are formed and shaped by such small and shallow exchanges of information, incapable of providing the most rudimentary grasp of the issues at hand. I will however, ask as I have done before: Have you heard another opinion about this so-called “mistreatment” of those who have suffered atrocities? Have your views on this matter ever met with an articulate, informed and reasoned challenge? If not, does this not give you pause?
I should be more explicit. By “mistreat”, I assume you are alluding to the African migrants in Israel (at least, that’s my best guess). Do you sincerely believe that the widespread consensus in Israel in favor of deportation is due to crude racism? Are you willing to disregard and discredit the authentic concerns of millions of citizens in a country where you have no “skin in the game”? Have you ever heard the case in favor of the “adverse” policy from a reasoned, articulate and informed source? If you think there is no such case, I would merely say that you have been tragically deceived.
Are you aware that Switzerland is about to deport thousands of Eritrean back to their home country, after rejecting their asylum requests and ruling they faced no danger in Eritrea? Do you know that Israel provides a range of social services to all African migrants in Israel, including full and free healthcare? Do you know that African migrants can work in any job throughout Israel, with no restrictions, and enjoy all the benefits and privileges of Israeli labor law? Did you know that the children of migrant receive automatic state subsidies for daycare until 6pm every day? Did you know that the original deportation plan to Rwanda excluded all children and women, and also anyone who had even submitted an asylum request? Did you know that Israel has not violated a single obligation under international law with regard to the treatment of asylum seekers?
If you have not heard some of these, does this not give you pause? Would you at least be willing to entertain the thought, that your understanding of this extremely delicate and complex matter is not as comprehensive as you may have believed? Would you be willing to reconsider whether the decision to chastise Israel for a policy you don’t necessarily understand was entirely appropriate?
The marvel of the medieval blood libel was not the fantastical nature of the grizzly stories about the Jews. It was about the willingness of their haters to automatically accept the most outrageous and horrific accusations. That is what the current demonization of Israel, and many of her policies, is about – the presumption of guilt; the automatic attribution of malice; the acceptance of any vicious motive, no matter how base or wicked.
Have you at all wondered, whether you have been hasty in believing the worst? Whether the most damning explanation is often both offered and accepted with indifference or unwarranted eagerness?
Finally, I don’t know what “violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power” allude to, though frankly I wish I did.
Perhaps “violence” refers to the Bedouin and Arab practice of honor-killings, tragically ignored by the police so as not to upset the delicate balance and in fear of being branded as racist; perhaps “corruption” refers to the bogus charges brought against dozens of politicians perceived as “inconvenient” to the system, only for the charges to be dropped or to fail in court after lives and careers have been ruined, with no one held accountable; perhaps “inequality” refers to the Israeli labor unions and labor laws, rewarding an influential few at the expense of the mass of the workforce and citizens; and perhaps “abuse of power” refers to an un-elected and self-appointing Supreme Court, beholden neither to the law nor to the people, rather only to their own abstraction of obscure principles, used to manipulate even the most precise statutes to fit their own personal agenda, while inventing a Constitution that was never debated nor adopted by the public or the legislature. I look forward to finding out.
Natalie. I return to my plea – “think it possible you may be mistaken”. I know your intentions are wholesome, and I hope you continue to engage as a powerful voice about Israel – indeed, even to criticize us, our policies and our leadership. You are, after all, one of us. I hope this letter of mine has given you pause, to consider for a moment whether a spot of skepticism and self-doubt may be in order, and whether perhaps there could be cause to err on the side of caution.
If I may be allowed a final thought. While writing this letter I was minded of Esther Kauffmann. Esther was born in Poland and survived the horrors of the Holocaust. She was the sole survivor of her extended family. She came to Israel in 1947 utterly alone at the age of 23 and fought in the War of Independence. She was killed in battle by the Jordanian Arab Legion on May 13, 1948, thus being the last of her line and of her family. Since that time those that visited her grave were far and few between.
Nearly 70 years later, this year on Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron), I visited her grave on Mt. Herzl with a few others to honor her memory. Such moments are deeply sobering and inspiring. I cannot but be in awe of her bravery, selflessness and nobility. I have no doubt she would be proud of Israel, proud of what we have achieved; and also proud of Natalie Portman, one of our own. It would serve us well to be reminded, every now and then, of Esther Kauffmann.