David-Seth Kirshner
Author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness

Natalie Portman’s Colossal Mistake

Natalie Portman, the Israeli born, proudly Jewish, Schechter Day School graduating, Oscar winning actress made headlines in the Jewish world this week because of what she rejected instead of what she accepted.

Portman was selected to be the 2018 recipient of the Genesis award, a relatively new prize devised to be a “Jewish Nobel” for people who are ambassadors of Israel and Judaism. Previous awardees include Itzhak Pearlman, Michael Douglas and Michael Bloomberg. Portman was an excellent choice to keep that standard high and strong.

Little fanfare was made on the selection of Portman but, the news cycle was reeling when she decided just weeks before the ceremony to be held in Jerusalem, that she will refuse the award because of “recent decisions” made by the Israeli government.

Because of the vagueness Portman offered in her reason for abandoning the award, armchair pundits divined her meaning and intention with certainty.  It was another fuel source for the ongoing fire of divide between the left and the right, the Likud and Labor, the Hatfields and the McCoys. One side claimed victory while another side demanded that Portman’s Israeli citizenship be revoked. We seem to operate best in the mud-pit of anger and aspersion and no longer can create space to listen and understand.

After further clarification, Portman explained that her decision was because Prime Minister Netanyahu would be at the award ceremony and making a speech. Portman was afraid that his attendance and speaking would be an endorsement of Netanyahu’s views. Sadly, the extremists were too embroiled in their arguing and justifying their positions to even hear the explanation she offered.

I assume that Portman draws ire with Netanyahu’s decision over reneging on his promise to grant asylum to refugees in Israel seeking a haven. After long challenge and debate, a compromise was made to offer a fair solution for asylum seekers and refugees. These are people that came to Israel for salvation from oppression, something we Jews are too familiar with. Then Bibi broke his own deal to accommodate his base, leaving these displaced seekers without a place to call home or any assuredness of their future.

I deduced this conclusion simply because this is only significant change that has happened from the time the award was offered to Portman and agreed upon, and the time she changed her mind. Israel, as a force in Judea and Samaria, was the status quo before and after the award was offered to Portman. Humanitarian crises in Gaza were, sadly, the status quo before Portman was selected and after she pulled out. Toughness on the Iran nuclear regime and stopping Hizbullah has been an ethic for all time with Israel. The only “change” I notice during this time was the agreement and then renege by Netanyahu on asylum seekers.

Still, Portman made a mistake. By not accepting the award she punishes everyone who is not deserving and further empowers Bibi.

The Genesis committee is wounded by this move, causing it to lose irreparable resources and time that cannot be recaptured. Further, not by design, Portman has made the Genesis Prize a thick log that she has now thrown into the burning fire of political divide. Natalie has given fuel to the trigger-happy extremists to jump to conclusions about the other side. That is a shame.

Were I deputized with giving Portman counsel, I would have advised her to go to Jerusalem and make a powerful and impactful speech in what would be known as her finest performance. I would have encouraged her to speak directly to the prime minister, the cabinet and all of the citizens of Israel, those on the fringe and those in the center.  She could have crafted words that speak of her immense pride in being Jewish and Israeli, and how that has caused her to always accept the good and look for better. I would have told her to look Bibi in the eyes and explain to him that Israel should be tough on Iran and eliminate threats within Syria’s borders and still open our gates to those wounded that cannot find medical attention in the war-savaged country. We should stop — at all costs — terrorists on the fence in Gaza trying to break down our borders who seek to do harm to our citizenry while having empathy for the Gazan mother who only prays to have milk for her baby. Israel can indeed offer a home to all of its people that align its destiny with the Jewish people, according to the “Law of Return” and still make space for those that are persecuted, oppressed and under the threat of death in their own country. That is the balance necessary of living in a Jewish state and a Jewish state of mind.

Sadly, Portman left an empty microphone and ceded the podium to pundits instead of using her voice to shape the place she wants to help create. We can only hope that those who step up in her absence speak truth to power and make the most of the opportunity she squandered.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC and an adjunct faculty member at the Academy for Jewish Religion, (AJR). He is the author of Streams of Shattered Consciousness, featured in The NY Times Book Review (Feb '24) and has over 11,000 copies in circulation in its first three months since publication. He has spoken on his book and topics connected to Judaism and Zionism across the world.
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