Blame Bibi: Natalie Portman explains her decision for declining award in Israel

"I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear as endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu," she said

By Rachel Leah
Published April 23, 2018 4:38PM (EDT)
Benjamin Netanyahu; Natalie Portman (AP/Sebastian Scheiner/Jordan Strauss)
Benjamin Netanyahu; Natalie Portman (AP/Sebastian Scheiner/Jordan Strauss)

Oscar-winning actress and director Natalie Portman, who was awarded the 2018 Genesis Prize, has declined to participate in the ceremony in her honor, which was set to take place in June in Jerusalem. Her representatives say she has been distressed over "recent events" in Israel.

Observers have speculated that Portman is referring to the killing of Palestinian protestors on the Gaza border in ongoing protests over the past month. Human Rights Watch called the killings "unlawful," with nearly 40 Palestinians slain, including a Palestinian journalist said to be wearing a distinct press vest.

Amid the backlash from Israeli politicians, Portman, who is Israeli-American, elaborated. "My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others," she wrote on her Instagram. "Let me speak for myself. 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."

The Genesis Prize Foundation honors a person each year who has attained "excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values," the website says. The award includes a $1 million prize meant to be donated to charities.

After Portman said she would not be attending, the foundation announced that it was canceling the ceremony. Israeli culture minister Miri Regev accused Portman of falling "into the hands of the BDS supporters." He added, "Portman, a Jewish actress born in Israel, joins those who tell the successful, wondrous founding of the State of Israel as 'a tale of darkness and darkness.'"

In Portman's Instagram statement, she addressed this allegation directly. "I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it," she said. "Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation."

My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. Let me speak for myself. 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 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. Please do not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own. This experience has inspired me to support a number of charities in Israel. I will be announcing them soon, and I hope others will join me in supporting the great work they are doing.

A post shared by Natalie Portman (@natalieportman) on

And Portman has been critical of the right-wing Israeli prime minister in the past and particularly of his comments during his 2015 campaign for re-election that were perceived as anti-Arab and racist. "The right-wing government is in danger," Netanyahu said in a short video clip he posted on Facebook. "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls," he added, referring to Israel's Arab citizens.

When Netanyahu was re-elected, Portman said she was "very, very upset and disappointed," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, she made it clear that her critiques were not about Israel as a nation. "I find his racist comments horrific," she said. "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’s 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."

Still, Israeli politicians continue to rip into her decision.

"Natalie Portman has played into the hands of the worst of our haters and of the worst of the anti-Semites in the Middle East," Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Kan public broadcasting corporation Sunday, adding that Portman owes Israel an apology.

Internal Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan referenced "Star Wars" in a letter to Portman. "Anakin Skywalker, a character you know well from 'Star Wars,' underwent a similar process. He began to believe that the Jedi Knights were evil, and that the forces of the Dark Side were the protectors of democracy," he wrote. "I call upon you not to let the Dark Side win."

In Portman's statement, she tried to highlight the nuance of the situation.

"Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust," she wrote. "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."

"This experience has inspired me to support a number of charities in Israel," Portman concluded. "I will be announcing them soon, and I hope others will join me in supporting the great work they are doing."


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