Sois belle et tais-toi!

Be beautiful and shut up!

I first heard this line in Montreal, when I immigrated to Canada some sixty years ago. At that time it was meant to be directed only to women, beautiful women who said stupid things or behaved in a stupid manner. Since then I trust it is now also said to fetching or handsome men who behave likewise.

The phrase sprang in my mind instinctively upon reading the comments made by Hollywood’s Israeli-born, American citizen star Natalie Portman when she refused to come to Israel to receive the Genesis Prize, which is said to be the “Jewish Nobel”.

The prize was established by a number of wealthy Russian-Jewish businessmen and it operates in partnership with the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel.

According to the website of the Prize,

  1. The Mission of the Genesis Prize is “[to honour] individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.
  2. The Prize, in the amount of $1 million ($2 million in the present case), is endowed by the Genesis Prize Foundation and awarded annually. Through a worldwide nomination process, the Genesis Prize inspires unity throughout the global Jewish community and the State of Israel by recognizing the many faces and forms of Jewish nationhood in the modern world.”(Italics mine”)

Further, “nominees must demonstrate outstanding achievement and international renown in their chosen professional fields and have a positive impact on society beyond their discipline. In addition, they must display a commitment to Jewish values, be proud of their Jewish identity, and their conduct and actions should exemplify a meaningful connection to the Jewish People and/or to the State of Israel.”

There is something very fishy here. Why on earth would any one or more people in his, her or their right mind award Portman such a prestigious and rich prize?

From all her utterances reported in the press, to me it looks like this time around the prize  was awarded to a pretty faced successful woman who, by all indications, happens to belong to that  segment  of American Jewry that self describes itself as “liberal” or “progressive”.

Yes, she has attained fame by becoming a Hollywood star and film director, but the usual reward for this kind of success is one or more of the prizes, such as the Oscars, awarded to the outstanding achievers in the film industry.

Did she inspire others through her dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values? I presume the community in question is the American Jewish community and the American version of Jewish values, which are a bunch of secular values said to be Jewish because the ones who espouse and proclaim them are Jewish persons. And if you were to ask an American Jew on the street, to name one such value, unless he or she happens to be a rabbi or scholars of Judaism, the chances are better than 9 to 1 that the answer will be “Tikkun olam” as they spell it down south of the border.

Portman is said to be a Jewish activist. What kind of activist? Judging from her own pronouncements and comments she strikes me as one of those who cannot stop vilifying Netanyahu and lecturing the Israeli government from their comfortable and safe pews as to what it needs to do and how it needs to go about doing it to achieve peace with people who are not interested in the least to make peace.

She is the kind of activist who publicly supported the V15 organisation funded by foreign governments which are not exactly Israel’s bosom-bodies, whose object was, and probably still is, to unseat the Likud government by legally meddling in the 2015 election.

In 2015, Portman bad-mouthed the Prime Minister Netanyahu by stating:”I find his racist comments horrific” without identifying the races targeted by the Prime Minister. Of course, that is not to say that he is a racist, because in the U.S., as well as in Canada, any adverse comment about or to members of an ethnic, national or religious group is labelled racist, as is for example a slur against a person who is a Muslim, regardless whether that person is an African black man or a European white man.

Having said that to a Hollywood reporter, she then went on to say:

”However, I don’t –what I want to make sure is, I don’t want to use my platform[the wrong way].I feel   like there are some people who become prominent, and then it’s out in the foreign press. You know, shit on Israel. I do not .I don’t want to do that.”

She must have changed her mind in the intervening three years because that is precisely what she did when she refused to attend the prize giving ceremony in Israel.

Instead of discreetly approaching the Genesis Prize Foundation (the “Foundation”), to tell them privately that she did not wish to go to Israel to receive the prize and to work out some sort of excuse to justify her decision, she made it known to the Foundation, not personally but through a representative that, “she was experiencing ‘extreme distress’ over attending its ceremony”, and, what is more she “would not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”

The Foundation, in turn publicly  reported that she notified it through her representative  that “the 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.”

And what recent events was she speaking about that her good conscience would not let her move forward?

Well, the most immediate recent event she could have been thinking of was the situation on the Gaza front. But it was not. If it was the issue of the deportation of the Ethiopian and Eritrean illegal immigrants she did not mention it at the time.

It turns out that the source of her distress was the Prime Minister of Israel, and the thing that her conscience vehemently objected to, was the “unconscionable fact” that Prime Minister Netanyahu would attend the prize-giving ceremony and make some remarks appropriate to the occasion.

She explained it this way: “My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterised by others. Let me speak for myself .I chose not to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”

When it was pointed to her that by refusing to attend the ceremony in Israel she was boycotting the entire nation, she was boycotting Israel, she rejected the argument and said:  I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance.”

Ooops! Did she leave out anybody? Yes, you guessed it right: She left out the rest of the Israelis, who are not her friends or part of her family: practically the entire Israeli society.

But hey! Wait a second: She did say that she was “proud of [her] Israeli roots and Jewish heritage” Never mind, being proud of Israel and its people, never mind being proud of her Judaic heritage.

Then came Portman’s pontification from the very same platform she said she did not want to use the wrong way” so that her criticism of Israel comes out in the foreign press, to use her own expression, as, “shit on Israel”.

“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 against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.”

(Surprise, surprise!  Despite Portman’s wishes not to see it happen,  her  statement was readily  picked up by the BDS in Hollywood and  by other movements of the same ilk,  who then publicly and gleefully pointed out that, in effect even Portman “shits on Israel”.)

Putting aside her historical reductionism about the establishment of Israel, here again we find another example of American Jewish simple-minded comparison of the plight and the fate of the Jews under the Nazis and later under both them and their allies, from 1933  to 1948 when, among others, the American and, for that matter, the Canadian governments, did not want to give refuge to them, with that of  by and large the economic immigrants, most of whom masquerading as refugees, entered Israel illegally for a better life than in any other country, nearer than Israel they could have immigrated to or seek refuge in. Unfortunately for Portman, her so-called “Jewish values” are of no help against flawed analogies.

Come to think of it, did she ever wonder why, despite her grave charges against the state of affairs in Israel, in 2018 the country ranked as the 11th happiest country as measured by the  World Happiness Index? I would not think so, lest the facts confuse her assessment of the country.

At all events, the ills of Israel about which she complains dramatically, are to be found in many multiples in her very own backyard in her adoptive motherland. Since I am sure that she cares very much about her motherland, I suggest that she put her Jewish values to work and attend to these domestic problems as a matter of preserving the delicate state of her mental health by sparing her from going through all the unbearable emotional trauma and painful pangs of conscience that led her to refuse to come to Israel to collect her prize.

In the circumstances, there remains on more set of decisions for the Foundation to make and take this opportunity to demonstrate to the Jewish  people at large that it has not lost its ability to make judicious decisions. Those would be:  first, not to let Portman touch the award monies; second, not to let her have any say in the distribution of the money; and  finally, in the light of her behaviour and negative comments about Israel, to make sure that the entire $2 million dollars are shared among Israeli charities, programs and projects designed to improve and enrich the lives of the Israelis so as to afford them to live with dignity starting first and foremost with the Holocaust survivors.

This brings me to the two of the prescribed qualities/ qualifications which candidates must possess in order to be considered for the Prize. These are: [persons who through] their conduct and actions should exemplify a meaningful connection to the Jewish People and/or to the State of Israel.”

In the present case, Portman’s misbehaviour and ill-considered utterances after being awarded the Prize, exposed her dark side that she does not in fact exemplify a meaningful connection with the people of Israel and more particularly with all the Israeli voters who support the parties that formed the coalition government headed by Netanyahu and especially those who voted especially for Likud, or, for that matter, with the State of Israel.

How could one have a meaningful connection to the Jewish people when one, as Portman put it, “would not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”

In the circumstances, should the Foundation withdraw or annul the Prize for Portman? If such a course of action is not possible under the present rules governing the awarding of the Prize, should the rules be amended to provide for such a contingency?

Clearly, the Portman case also raises the issue  as to whether, a candidate whose conduct and actions exemplifies a meaningful connection with the Jewish People  while other conduct  and actions  of the candidate also exemplifies hostility towards the State of Israel, would he or she nevertheless be deemed to have qualified for this requirement framed in the alternative?

There are two further problems with the selection of Portman. These are:

First, the Foundation’s website claims that  the Genesis Prize …….inspires unity throughout the global Jewish community and the State of Israel by recognizing the many faces and forms of Jewish nationhood in the modern world.”(Italics mine”)

Surely, Portman’s behaviour and utterances cannot be said to have inspired unity throughout the global Jewish community the State of Israel? Quite to the contrary, it demonstrates yet again, as if further proof was needed, the lack of unity between a significant segment of the American Jewish community and Israel.

Second, I am not sure what is meant by the claim  that the Prize inspires unity…… by recognising the many faces and forms of Jewish nationhood in the modern world”. To me this sounds like a deliberate obfuscation of whatever reality   the Foundation is seeking to describe without  ruffling some people’s feathers. What is a face of Jewish nationhood?

What are these “many faces? Is the Foundation referring to supporters of “J Street”, a two faced outfit which speaks with crooked and forked tongues?

And what about the “many forms” of Jewish nationhood? What on earth could this mean?

To me, all this mumbo –jumbo sounds like justifying the way the various factions of the American Jewry think, feel and behave in the United States and vis-a- vis Israel.

At the end of the day, the Portman affair gives the Foundation a lot of food for thought and the necessity of taking some corrective action, including re-writing the objects of the prize in plain English.

About the Author
Doğan Akman immigrated to Canada with his family. In Canada, he taught university in sociology-criminology and social welfare policy and published articles in criminology journals After a stint as a Judge of the Provincial Court (criminal and family divisions) of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he joined the Federal Department of Justice as a Crown prosecutor, and then moved over to the to civil litigation branch . Since his retirement he has published articles in Sephardic Horizons and e-Sefarad and in an anthology edited by Rifat Bali titled "This is My New Homeland" published in Istanbul.
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