Natalie Portman’s snub ‘borders on anti-Semitism,’ says minister

Yuval Steinitz says boycotting Netanyahu ‘is boycotting Israel,’ star actress ‘played into the hands of Israel-haters’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Actress Natalie Portman attends the 4th annual festival kick-off fundraising soiree during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto, Canada, September 9, 2015. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images/AFP)
Actress Natalie Portman attends the 4th annual festival kick-off fundraising soiree during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto, Canada, September 9, 2015. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images/AFP)

A Likud minister on Sunday morning said that Israel-born Hollywood actress Natalie Portman’s refusal to visit her country of birth to accept a prestigious prize because she did not want to be seen as endorsing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “bordered on anti-Semitism.”

Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that Portman owed an apology to Israel and Israelis for “boycotting” the country.

Had she come to Israel, attended the ceremony, and then criticized the government or the prime minister in an interview, that would have been legitimate, he said.

“Natalie Portman’s actions border on anti-Semitism” and “played into the hands of the haters of Israel and those who aspire to destroy the State of Israel,” he railed.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attends the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90)

Claiming that the star would not boycott China or India if they were to award her a prize, even if she disagreed with their policies, he said, “Criticizing Israel is not always anti-Semitic. Boycotting Israel has elements of anti-Semitism, because other countries that are criticized are not boycotted with such ease.”

Steinitz went on, “Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel, whether you agree with him or not. To boycott a ceremony in the State of Israel because the prime minister is supposed to take part — is boycotting Israel.

“If Natalie Portman had come to Israel and not boycotted the state or the ceremony, and had given an interview in which she criticized the government, the state, the prime minister, [that would have been] legitimate,” he said.

“If she had come and said she is in favor of peace, and a Palestinian state would be the most friendly and would never threaten us with missiles or terror, that’s her right. I would argue with her. Then, Barghouti would not exploit it. But the fact that the greatest haters of Israel jumped for joy over her announcement that she’s not coming — and it’s something that could have been foreseen — the fact that either she doesn’t care or she didn’t take it into account deserves full condemnation.”

BDS activist Omar Barghouti at a pro-boycott rally in Ramallah, February 2016. (YouTube screen capture)

He was referring to Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the Palestinian-led global movement Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement, who said in an email to The New York Times: “This latest rebuff to Israeli cultural events and accolades, coming from an Israeli-American superstar, is arguably one of the strongest indicators yet of how toxic the Israel Brand has become, even in some liberal circles in Hollywood.

“I can sense our South Africa moment coming closer.”

The Jerusalem-born Portman was to have received the Genesis Award — worth $2 million this year —  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. “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 followed 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.”

Philanthropist Morris Kahn, left, Genesis Prize Laureate Natalie Portman, center, and Stan Polovets, co-founder and Chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation. (Genesis Foundation)

On Saturday, after her clarification, the Likud party released a statement saying Portman “speaks about democracy but she supported the V15 organization that tried, through foreign government funding, to disrupt democratic elections in Israel,” referring to an effort aided by a US-funded group that ostensibly tried to unseat Netanyahu in the 2015 national elections.

Portman reportedly made a video for V15 — in response to a video Chuck Norris made for the Likud party — but it was never released. The state comptroller has cleared the V15 organization of inappropriate political meddling during the 2015 election, which it was accused of by Likud.

“Portman speaks about human rights but takes part in festivals in countries that censor films and whose human rights record is far beneath that of Israel,” the Likud statement added, without going into specifics.

“No excuse can help. Portman simply refuses to accept the choice of the people of Israel,” Likud said.

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 then-$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.

Natalie Portman in her directorial debut, ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness.’ (Cannes Film Festival)

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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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.”

Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.

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