“Good conscience”: What’s up with Natalie Portman’s sudden Israel controversy

“From love to darkness”

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Actress Natalie Portman has said she will not travel to Israel to receive the “Genesis Prize.” The Genesis Prize Foundation announced that her representative had explained why. “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.” The June 28, 2018 ceremony has now apparently been cancelled.

Portman was announced as the 2018 winner in November 2017. The Foundation noted “Portman was born in Israel and, after moving to the US as a child, retained a close connection to her Jewish and Israeli roots. In 2015, she directed Tale of Love and Darkness, a Hebrew-language film made in Israel and based on the novel by an Israeli writer Amos Oz. Portman also played a leading role in this picture.” Portman’s original name was Neta-Lee Hershlag.

She was praised last year. Stan Polovets, co-founder and Chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation spoke of “her talent, her commitment to social causes and her deep connection to her Jewish and Israeli roots are greatly admired. She exemplifies the core traits of the Jewish character and values of the Jewish people.” Chairman of the Genesis Prize Selection Committee, Natan Sharansky also lavished praise, calling her an example of excellence and dedication to Jewish values, she is an exemplary Genesis Prize Laureate.”

“I am deeply touched and humbled by this honor. I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage; they are crucial parts of who I am,” Portman said at the time. In December 2017 the prize money awarded Portman was doubled to $2 million. US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also received a lifetime achievement award in 2017 from the Genesis Prize Foundation.

From ‘Love and Darkness’ to what happened?

So what happened between 2017 and 2018? We don’t know exactly. She has already been criticized in Israel for her decision. The Jewish Press also ran an article very critical of the whole affair. It wondered why the philanthropic prize said it was concerned with being politicized. “Is there anything more political than the prime minister of Israel handing out awards to celebrities who are as far away from a traditional definition of Who Is an Inspirational Jew?” The piece, by David Israel, also claimed “Portman will now likely become the darling of the Hollywood BDS movement, which has been doing a job on A-list celebrities to reject tour packages and other gifts from the Israeli Tourism Ministries — in February those good-will packages, worth a reported $55,000 each, have been rejected by 26 out of 26 A-listers.”

Portman has a long history of living and working in Israel. She studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2004. I was a student there at the same time and I recall that some other students thought it was a big deal to be studying alongside her.

She has also wrestled with Israeli history in film and in discussions about Israel. In 2014 when she came to film A Tale of Love and Darkness some people protested the filming in Jerusalem. She was very proud of the project. “A Tale of Love and Darkness has been my passion for almost a decade now since I read Amos Oz’s masterful book and knew I wanted to adapt it into a film…I’m so proud, and feel so lucky, that the film we made will be distributed by Focus World. It is a great honor to have their brand of thoughtful distribution delivering the film into the world,” said Portman after it premiered at Cannes in 2015.

She told the Los Angeles Times “The period it [A Tale of Love and Darkness] takes place in is one I’ve thought about my whole life…Some people grow up imagining science fiction, other realms. For me, this was my imagination — what was it like for my grandparents and their entire generation to lose their families and then immediately go and try to create utopian communities? It’s such a weird, crazy moment in history … and such a fraught emotional and political topic.”

The 2015 elections

Some have pointed out that Portman was very critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory in 2015. “I’m very much against Netanyahu…I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was reelected. I find his racist comments horrific.” The victory came between filming A Tale of Love and Darkness and its premier. Now that she has moved beyond that film perhaps her views of Israel have changed or perhaps she just doesn’t want to be part of a very public, and clearly pro-Israel, event.

The words “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony” are very strong. Conscience indicates a major change in relationship with the country. But the term is also coupled with “public” events and therefore seems to relate to government events.

It is also interesting that the foundation that was to award her the prize announced her decision not to attend. This will cause a lot of discussion in the coming days about Israel, BDS, and other issues. There will be pressure for Portman to attend or make some kind of statement. That statement will probably search into the same depths of wrestling with the country’s history that she explained in 2016.