Last week I wrote a piece entitled “What If You’re Wrong?” that I sent to my distribution lists of people in the energy field, certain Jewish organizations and others. While Israel and BDS were part of it (indeed I start with that subject), the basic premise was broader. It was that we all would be better if we recognize our fallibility and act accordingly. I never imagined the perfect illustration of that would occur the very next day.
By now, you know that actress Natalie Portman declared she would not go to Israel in June to receive a $2 million Genesis Prize she was slated to receive. Her representative told the Genesis Foundation that Portman is troubled by “recent events” in Israel and “does not feel comfortable participating in any public event in Israel.”
The BDS movement had a field day. Their triumphalism was unbounded. They celebrated that a famed Jewish actress, who also is an Israeli citizen, is now practicing exactly what they preach.
Portman tried to backtrack. She explained that the reason she pulled out was not because of BDS but because of Prime Minister Netanyahu. “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it,” she said. She then added, “like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation.”
Portman’s actions and statements are wrong on so many levels that only someone as intelligent as she could attempt to harmonize all of the internal contradictions. She refused to participate in the ceremony yet is keeping the $2 million prize. She refused to go to Israel yet she travels to film festivals in countries that censor films and who, by any legitimate measure, have human records far worse than Israel. Worst of all, she practices BDS – indeed becoming its most famous adherent – yet claims to disagree with it.
All of this comes at a time when Israel truly does face existential enemies. Iran and Hezbollah are not mythical. What happens Ms. Portman if instead of effecting a change in the Israeli government as you hope, your actions help weaken Israel at a time when the wolf truly is at the door? Are you that convinced in the righteousness of your cause?
My star in “What if You’re Wrong?” was a young social worker from the University of Oregon who, having not been brought up with any religious background, was baffled by anti-Semitism. She needed to ask the most basic and naïve questions to obtain even a rudimentary understanding, yet she was willing to do so. That young woman was so clueless she was brilliant. Portman is her polar opposite. She is so brilliant she’s clueless.
Only someone as intellectually bright as Portman could internally compartmentalize her boycott of Israel and distinguish that from BDS. In fact, Natalie Portman IS BDS. If a famous Israeli citizen does not feel comfortable going to Israel now, how could she encourage others with no connection to the country to travel there? Was this Harvard graduate so blind that she did not realize her actions would be pounced on immediately by the BDS movement and used as the ultimate example of their cause, no matter what she says? What intellectual gymnastics did she go through to announce simultaneously that she is not comfortable going to Israel, but she does not agree with an organization that advocates people not going to Israel?
It’s one thing however to criticize Ms. Portman. It’s another to search for a way she can convert this debacle into something positive, for her, her political convictions and the country she claims to love. Surprisingly there is a way, but Ms. Portman must be willing to admit that yes, sometimes she too can be wrong.
If Natalie Portman feels uncomfortable participating in a public ceremony in Israel at this time, don’t. But if she also feels that Israel as a nation should not be boycotted, don’t do that either.
Go to Israel Ms. Portman, and make your trip very public. You’ve already blocked out the time. Admit that you made a mistake with your initial announcement and that you now understand how easily it can be misconstrued. You’ll get plenty of press for your Israel trip, and you can use it to show the beauty of the country and its people, express your dread over the current political situation, explain your hopes and dreams for its future and reiterate your disapproval of the BDS movement. Don’t participate in any public ceremonies, but do show that you refuse to be associated with BDS in the same way that you will not be associated with Israel’s current political leadership.
There really is no other way. After having accepted the Genesis Prize (which you easily could have refused quietly), you can’t back out as you did without that being considered a prime example of BDS.
While I am skeptical that your political opinions will make much difference – like in the US I feel most Israelis resent famous people using that fame to express their political beliefs – the fact that you recognized quickly how your boycott was perceived and adjusted accordingly will reflect positively on you. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s a great political skill to realize an error and backtrack from it. Famous half-Jewish New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia once said, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.”
You have that opportunity now Ms. Portman. Don’t double down on failure. Take the situation as it is and make the most of it. By doing so you will be honoring yourself, your people, your birthplace and your conception of what you believe Israel can and should be.