Representatives of actress Natalie Portman, when initially writing to the Genesis Prize Foundation to indicate she would not come to Israel to accept the prize, explicitly stated concerns about violence in Gaza and the Israeli government’s activities, but made no mention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a TV report said Monday, quoting excerpts from what it said were the exchanges.
The Jerusalem-born Portman subsequently confirmed that she was refusing to attend the ceremony, but said her reasons had been “mischaracterized by others,” and that she had chosen not to attend because she did not want to be seen to be endorsing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a scheduled speaker at the awards ceremony.
“We have followed the recent news from Gaza with growing worry, and we are concerned that it is not appropriate to hold a ceremony given the government’s actions and the latest escalation,” said an excerpt of the note from Portman’s representatives, dated April 2, that was quoted in a Hebrew translation Monday by Hadashot news, which did not provide the original English text.
The foundation, in a response also quoted by Hadashot TV and also dated April 2, said it was not prepared to consider canceling the event: “We have no plans to discuss this. The events in Gaza are the result of a planned action by Hamas designed to sacrifice civilians for political gain,” it said, again, according to the TV channel’s Hebrew translation. “Canceling the award ceremony of the most prestigious Jewish prize in the world would play into the hands of Hamas and would be a slap in the face of the people of Israel.”
It was only more than two weeks later, on April 18, that the Genesis Foundation made public what it said was Portman’s position, stating that a representative of the actress notified it that “[r]ecent 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.”
Amid major public debate over the rights and wrongs of her position in Israel and the Diaspora, and with Israeli ministers accusing her of playing into the hands of the BDS movement, Portman the next day specified her position in an Instagram post that did not mention Gaza. She insisted she was not boycotting Israel, and claimed her stance had been misrepresented: “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.
The TV report intimated that Portman was being disingenuous in her Instagram post, and its reporter said he had seen the full initial communications, and that there had been no mention of the prime minister. However, since her representatives’ initial email had reportedly taken issue with Israeli government actions in Gaza, and Netanyahu heads that government, this did not appear to be a major contradiction.
Portman added that she was skipping the event because, “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.”
“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.”
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,” and she would be announcing which ones soon.
She also asked people to “not take any words that do not come directly from me as my own.”
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.
News of Portman’s decision to skip the event triggered an angry backlash from some in the Israeli political establishment.
An Israeli minister wrote to Portman on Friday, telling the Hollywood star she had been hoodwinked by Hamas propaganda and inviting her to come and see the truth.
“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. The IDF said later that the teen had been trying to breach the border fence.
“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.”
Culture Minister Miri Regev lambasted Portman, saying she had “fallen into the hands” of the BDS campaign.
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.”
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Sunday said boycotting Netanyahu amounted to boycotting Israel, and that Portman’s stance “bordered on anti-Semitism.”
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, 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.”
JTA contributed to this report.