So famed Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman won’t travel to Israel to accept the “Genesis Prize.” She apparently found recent events in Gaza “distressing” and didn’t wish her presence at the awards ceremony to be seen as an endorsement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was set to speak at the event.
Naturally, no one would have interpreted her presence as an endorsement of anyone, and her “distress” over the deaths of vicious anti-Semites reveals a strange sense of morality.
But let’s leave these issues aside for the moment. Let’s also leave aside the question of whether the Genesis Prize should have been tendered to Portman, who married a non-Jew. Let’s focus instead on a rather striking sentence in the statement she posted on Instagram Friday night in defense of her decision.
It reads: “Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust.” Portman may believe this, but as a matter of historical fact, it simply isn’t true. Israel was not created as a haven for Holocaust refugees. It was created in fulfillment of the dream of countless Jews over 70 (arguably 2,000) years to return to their homeland.
Holocaust refugees did not move Rav Yehudah Alkalai and Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer to propose a national return to Palestine in the 1850s and 1860s. Holocaust refugees did not inspire Hovevei Zion’s founding in 1881. Holocaust refugees did not motivate Theodor Herzl to write The Jewish State in 1896. Holocaust refugees did not undergird the efforts of Max Nordau, Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion to found a Jewish state in the 1910s, ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.
The claim that Israel grew out of the Holocaust comes right out of the Arabs’ playbook. It’s central to their propaganda efforts. “Why should we Arabs suffer because Hitler murdered you in the 1940s?” they ask. Why, indeed? They’re right. If the land of Israel is not truly ours, then no amount of suffering – or European guilt – justifies founding a Jewish country in the middle of Arabia. If the only reason Israel exists is the Holocaust, we should leave immediately. We have no right to be there.
But of course, that’s not why we’re there. We’re there because G-d promised the land to our ancestor Abraham nearly 4,000 years ago. We’re there because it’s our homeland. Yes, some Arabs may have lived in Eretz Yisrael for generations before we returned, but they were living there as squatters, as trespassers. The land was ours from the moment G-d promised it to us, and always will be ours.
Unfortunately, Israel’s government is partially responsible for Portman’s ignorance. How often do Israel’s leaders talk about G-d and the Bible? How often, in contrast, do they speak about the Holocaust? And where do Israeli prime ministers take all foreign dignitaries? To the Kotel? Me’aras Hamachpelah? Kever Yosef? Or do they take them, first and foremost, to Yad Vashem?
“Look at what we Jews went through,” the walls of Yad Vashem shout. “You owe us this state.” But this argument doesn’t stand up to logic. Past injustice is no excuse for current injustice. What matters is not what happened in the 1940s but what is happening today. Only one question is relevant: Does Israel belong to the Arabs or to the Jews?
Taking people to Yad Vashem doesn’t answer that question in our favor. If anything it’s a tacit admission that we have no current justification for living in the land beyond the Holocaust. And it also misleads people like Portman who wonder why the “suffering” Palestinians shouldn’t be treated as we wish our innocent ancestors had been in World War II.