Actress Natalie Portman on Friday explained her decision to snub a prestigious Israeli prize known as the “Jewish Nobel,” saying she did not want her attendance to be seen as an endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Jerusalem-born Portman was to have received the award in Israel in June and said in a statement issued late Friday that her reasons for skipping the ceremony had 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,” she wrote.
“I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it,” she said, referring to a Palestinian-led global movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. “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.”
News of Portman’s decision to skip the event triggered an angry backlash Friday from some in the Israeli political establishment.
That was due to reports Thursday that Portman through a representative had told the Genesis Prize Foundation she was experiencing “extreme distress” over attending its ceremony and would “not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.”
Further explaining her rationale, Portman said in her Friday statement: “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.”
She added that she planned to privately “support a number of charities in Israel” which she would be announcing soon.
She asked people to “not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own.”
The actress’s statements did not clarify which events specifically caused her distress, although the United Nations and the European Union recently called for investigations into the use of live ammunition by Israel’s military in clashes along the border with Gaza that have left dozens of Palestinians dead and hundreds wounded.
They could also refer to the Israeli government’s controversial ongoing efforts to deport tens of thousands of African asylum-seekers to third-party African countries where their safety may not be guaranteed.
Much of the US Jewish community has been at odds with Israel’s right-wing government in recent years over the latter’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its support for ultra-Orthodox Jewry on issues of religious identity and practice, and its stance on African migrants.
An Israeli minister wrote to Portman on Friday after she decided not to come to Israel to receive the award, telling the Jerusalem-born Hollywood star she had been hoodwinked by Hamas propaganda and inviting her to come and see the truth.
Portman had initially agreed to accept the $2 million award at a ceremony scheduled for June.
But on Thursday, the foundation said that it had been notified by Portman’s representative that “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.”
Portman will no longer get to choose where her $2 million prize will be donated. Instead the Genesis Prize Foundation will decide where the money goes.
“It appears that the events to which you are referring are those that took place on our border with Gaza,” Strategic Affairs and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wrote to Portman.
“Sadly, it seems that you have been influenced by the campaign of media misinformation and lies regarding Gaza orchestrated by the Hamas terrorist group,” he said inviting her to come and tour the border, its communities and the IDF soldiers guarding it.
His invitation came on a day of further clashes when some 3,000 Palestinians protested along the Gaza border with Israel, burning tires and flying flaming kites across the frontier to set Israeli fields ablaze, witnesses and the army said. Soldiers responded with tear gas and live fire, killing four Palestinians, including a 15-year-old, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
“It is not surprising that you have seen the media reports which have distorted the truth and portrayed the recent riots on the Israel-Gaza border as peaceful demonstrations, and Israel’s response as disproportionate,” Erdan wrote. “It is in fact precisely this narrative which Hamas hoped to portray when it organized the riots. Unfortunately it appears that this Hamas-designed narrative has impacted your decision.”
Erdan said the truth was that Hamas was using the “riots as a cover to carry out armed terror attacks.”
Erdan urged Portman to come and see the situation for herself, warning that the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign was “taking advantage” of her stand.
Earlier, Culture Minister Miri Regev lambasted Portman, saying she had “fallen into the hands” of the BDS campaign that aims to isolate the Jewish state.
Regev said she was sorry that Portman had “fallen like ripe fruit into the hands of BDS supporters.”
She added, “Natalie, a Jewish actress who was born in Israel, joins those who relate to the story of the success and the wondrous rebirth of Israel as a story of darkness.”
Calling on Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to cancel Portman’s Israeli citizenship, Likud MK Oren Hazan labeled her “an Israeli Jewess who on the one hand makes cynical use of her origins in order to advance her career and who, on the other hand, prides herself on having avoided being drafted into the IDF.”
Portman left Israel with her parents at the age of 3.
Kulanu lawmaker Rachel Azaria said that Portman’s decision was a reflection of changing attitudes toward Israel among US Jews.
“Natalie Portman’s cancellation should be a warning sign,” she tweeted. “She’s totally one of us, identifies with her Jewishness and Israeliness. She’s expressing the voices of many in US Jewry, and particularly those of the younger generation. This is a community that was always a significant anchor for the State of Israel and the price of losing it is likely to be too high.”
In a statement announcing the cancellation of the prize ceremony, the Genesis Prize Foundation said that its organizers “fear that Ms. Portman’s decision will cause our philanthropic initiative to be politicized, something we have worked hard for the past five years to avoid.”
In November, the Genesis Prize announced that Portman would receive its 2018 award, which comes with a cash prize that recipients may direct toward causes of their choice. She joined artist Anish Kapoor, violinist Itzhak Perlman, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and actor-director Michael Douglas as winners of the $1 million prize, which “honors individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement along with their commitment to Jewish values and the Jewish people.”
Genesis said in December that Portman’s prize money had been doubled to $2 million by a donation by Israeli philanthropist Morris Kahn.
The prize was established by Mikhail Fridman and other wealthy Russian-Jewish businessmen and operates in partnership with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
In 2009, Portman joined other Hollywood stars in protesting calls for a boycott against the Toronto International Film Festival for its staging of a Tel Aviv-themed event. She also directed and starred in a Hebrew-language adaptation of Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” In a statement following the Genesis Prize announcement in November, Portman said she was “proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage.”
In 2015, following the reelection of Netanyahu, she said she was “very, very upset and disappointed.”
“I find his racist comments horrific,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “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 are 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.”
JTA contributed to this report.