Like any good demagogue who will do anything to stay in power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his minions know very well that the best defense is a nasty offense.
So when Natalie Portman announced that she would not come to Israel for the Genesis Prize ceremony because she does not feel comfortable participating due to “recent events in Israel” that have been “extremely distressing to her”—which she later clarified as not wanting to appear she was endorsing Netanyahu—the Israeli government sprung into all-out defensive-attack mode.
“I was sorry to hear that Natalie Portman fell into the hands of the BDS supporters,” declared Netanyahu groupie Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev. “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,’” she continued, somehow trying to twist the fact that Portman had adapted Amos Oz’s award winning novel, A Tale of Love and Darkness, into a movie that she directed, starred in and made in Israel into a negative.
Gilad Erdan, Minister of Strategic Affairs, said she had let “the Dark Side win”—making a reference to Star Wars, in which Portman had starred. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz opined that Portman’s actions “border on anti-Semitism,” and Likud Knesset member Oren Hazan (who has been suspended from the Knesset for bullying other MKs) called on Interior Minister Arye Deri to revoke Portman’s Israeli citizenship—Portman was born in Israel and speaks Hebrew—and called on the public to boycott her films.
The right-wing supporters in the United States joined the attack. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, added in misogyny when he tweeted, “Natalie Portman’s absurd, uninformed, inaccurate, dangerous views on Israel, while ignoring the anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist views/actions of Hamas and Palestinian Authority gives credibility and legitimacy to the ludicrous, false, nonsensical belief that beautiful women aren’t too bright.”
Portman made many mistakes in the way she handled herself during this whole affair. If she had reservations about attending the ceremony for the Genesis Prize, which is partly sponsored by the prime minister’s office, then she shouldn’t have accepted it in the first place. Her subsequent responses were vague and poorly worded. I would have preferred that she take the prize and use the ceremony, and the award money, to criticize the policies she so detests.
But none of that explains this over-reaction. After all, Portman has lots of Israel cred: She was born here. She spent a year studying here. Her kids have Hebrew names. She was a research assistant for Alan Dershowitz. She once made a silly video about Hebrew slang, and even her accent is passable.
So why is she considered such a threat? Because of one clear sentence: “Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership in Israel without wanting to boycott the entire nation.”
And this terse statement, in the eyes of Netanyahu and his supporters, represents a threat against which they must defend themselves.
As the criminal cases against him mount, Netanyahu has anointed himself Emperor of Israel and King of the Jews. He wants us all to believe that criticizing him and his leadership is tantamount to rejecting the very right of the State of Israel to exist. L’etat c’est moi, he demands—even though police investigators have recommended that he, not the state, be indicted for corruption, bribery and breach of trust.
All means are valid to keep his regime propped up. Netanyahu has fostered a siege mentality, trying to convince us all that the very existence of the State of Israel is at risk and that, therefore, anyone who is concerned with “secondary” issues—such as human rights, free speech or equality—must be a traitor. He foments tribal loyalties, so that anyone who criticizes the tribe is seen as an unworthy outsider.
We’re used to it here. David Bitan, who at the time was chair of the coalition (he is now out of the Knesset because of the corruption investigations against him) once suggested that leftists be stripped of their citizenship, and Netanyahu did not contradict him. Human rights organizations such as B’Tselem and the Association of Civil Rights are regularly accused of treason. And as a way of diverting attention from his failed, cowardly policy to deport the African migrants to Rwanda, Netanyahu blamed the New Israel Fund, which funds civil society organizations in Israel and is largely funded by American and Canadian Jews, for purportedly contacting Rwanda’s government to torpedo his plan.
As far as Netanyahu and his supporters are concerned, if we criticize the government’s actions on the Gaza border, we are denying Israel’s right to defend itself. If we do not line up with wave-the-flag and salute-the-leader Netanyahu, then we are accused of being traitors. If we care for the fate of refugees, we are self-hating Jews. If we criticize the shoot-to-kill policies in Gaza, then we are denying the country’s right to defend itself. If we support the Supreme Court against Netanyahu’s attempts to destroy it, we are undemocratic.
Abroad, most of you have been less willing to publicly dissent—and so the government has not been as critical of you. Despite your values, you have largely refrained from getting involved in Israeli politics and have offered uncompromising support for the government’s policies. Fearful of creating divisions within the Jewish community, you have enabled the government to incite divisiveness.
Natalie Portman violated those rules. She made a political statement: You, Mr. Netanyahu, she said, are not the state.
I hope that more of you will follow her lead. As I have written before in this magazine, the fact that those of you in the Diaspora don’t vote in Israeli elections does not mean that you don’t have power here. I hope you understand that if you care about the moral fiber of the State of Israel, you have no choice other than to be politically involved. Your leaders can, and must, speak up to Israeli politicians and the Israeli public and make your concerns about the moral and political implications of Israel’s policies heard.
The Genesis Prize is given, its PR tells us, to celebrities who exemplify “the core traits of the Jewish character and values of the Jewish people.” To argue, to criticize, to question, to expect more of our leaders, to embrace complexities—these are core traits of the Jewish character.
And speaking truth to power is a core value of Judaism.