JERUSALEM — The Wall may really have been wailing last week. How could Oscar-winning, Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman as well as students at one of the most prestigious—and heavily Jewish—colleges in the U.S. hit Israel with a one-two punch on the 70th anniversary of its founding as a state?
First, Barnard College students voted roughly 2-1 Wednesday in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and will ask the university to divest from eight companies that “profit or engage in the State of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”
Then on Thursday Portman bailed on the $2 million Genesis Prize ceremony—aka the “Jewish Nobel Prize”—where she was to be honored here in June. Her representatives initially said she found “recent events” in Israel to be “distressing.” (At least 34 Palestinian protesters have been killed by Israeli forces on the Gaza-Israel border since Palestinians launched what they call the “Great March of Return” on March 30.)
Pro-BDS activists leapt on Portman’s announcement as proof that the growing number of Hollywood celebrities (a number of them Jewish) speaking out against Israeli policy in Gaza and on the West Bank is reaching a tipping point.
Then Portman issued a statement on Instagram late Friday saying her decision was being “mischaracterized” and the actual reason for her cancellation was that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be at the ceremony.
“I chose not to attend because I did not want to appear to be endorsing Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony,” she said. “By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it.”
She continued: “Like many Israelis and Jews around the world, I can be critical of the leadership of 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.”
Portman’s dissing of the Genesis Prize Foundation, an organization founded in 2012 by Russian-Jewish oligarchs, infuriated Israeli right-wing politicians so much that one said Portman should be stripped of her citizenship.
Barnard’s pro-BDS vote did not go over much better. An editorial in the New York Daily News said “BDS is pure BS” and said the “smart, overwhelmingly progressive young women of Barnard” have been “conned” and “duped” by an anti-Semitic movement bent on destroying Israel.
Before Portman issued her clarifying statement late Friday, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev accused Portman of falling “like a ripe fruit into the hands of BDS supporters.”
A surprising number of American friends of mine over a certain age (30) have never heard of BDS but if you want to cue the conspiracy (of silence) theories you can’t blame George Soros this time.
You can, though, point a finger at people like conservative casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, whose tenacious Maccabee Task Force formed in 2015 to fight BDS was widely believed to be behind, among other things, a poster drive on college campuses that publicly targeted pro-BDS and pro-Palestinian activists by calling them “terrorists.”
According to the Guardian, Adelson also funds Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s World Values Network, which famously went after the singer Lorde earlier this year when she cancelled plans to perform in Tel Aviv. Boteach took out a full-page ad in the Washington Post branding the 21-year-old a “bigot.”
Iron-fisted, heavily-funded crusades like Adelson’s have helped push anti-BDS legislation through in the U.S. and other countries and discouraged some dissenters but they’ve also had a boomerang effect.
As Barnard alumna Jenny Singer wrote in The Forward Thursday, “Barnard’s pro-BDS vote is what happens when you don’t let us question Israel.”
Singer described arriving at Barnard knowing only of a mythic “fairytale” Israel after 18 years of a Jewish education. She was ill-equipped, she said, to debate fellow students who accused Israel of apartheid and “daily genocide” against the Palestinians.
“When we teach Jewish children to love Israel without question when we don’t mention the word, ‘Palestinian,’ when we fill kids with hummus and falafel instead of the facts of history, we hurt Israel,” Singer said.
I’m not Jewish but oddly related to Singer’s account, especially after arriving in Israel for the first time earlier this month, just as the Gaza protests began.
I thought I knew more about Israel than the average American. Years living in France has altered my own “fairytale” view embedded from childhood: that Israel was a country beyond reproach because of what had happened to the Jews in the Holocaust.
I’m now as familiar with fiery critics of Israel, everyone from Norman Finkelstein to Max Blumenthal, as I am with self-described “Israel Warrior” Shmuley Boteach himself, who’s been a friend for 15 years and once had me to his home for a Seder.
But when I actually got to Israel, I felt everyone—from Portman to Netanyahu—had buried the lede.
Decades of watching films and TV shows and reading books about the Holocaust had made me imagine Israel only through the prism of tragedy and sacrifice and pity—despite the horrifying occupation of Gaza, especially, and the West Bank.
I wasn’t prepared to be awed by Israel, even if that’s not quite the right word. Maybe it was more of a bittersweet jealousy, on behalf of all my Irish Catholic ancestors.
It hit me as I watched the life of Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl presented at the Herzl Museum in Jerusalem or when I gazed at the gleaming Tel Aviv skyline from the now-dwarfed ancient Arab city of Jaffa. Or in the pages of the classic “O Jerusalem,” about the ferocious and triumphant struggle for Israel in 1948 that reads like a thriller.
The sense you are in a place that exists through sheer dint of will and skill is daunting.
After the Holocaust, Jews vanquished the Arabs, took over this land and built this powerful modern state complete with nuclear weapons in just 70 years. In their spare time they revived a dead language that everyone is eerily speaking today as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
Irish Catholics famously endured 800 years of oppression under British rule, including having the majority of their land confiscated in less than one century and their language virtually stamped out.
Ireland got its independence in 1922 but still doesn’t have its six remaining counties back from the British and what’s more, until the recent Brexit threat of a new hard border, they no longer really cared. Chances of restoring Gaelic as the main language are nil. The Irish kicked some ass, but not enough at least compared to here.
So I felt envious and humbled by Israel—which is refreshing after thinking it was a place you have to either pity, attack or defend.