Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

{Written by Vivian Bercovici and originally posted to the Commentary Magazine website}

Local gossip among the chattering classes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem has it that the Israel Genesis Prize is a response of Russian-Israeli oligarchs who resented feeling sidelined in the fishbowl of Jewish power, which tends to be dominated by Americans. So, they pooled their considerable resources to create what some refer to as the “Jewish Nobel Prize.”


The Prize is awarded annually at a lavish ceremony in Jerusalem attended by the A-list of the Jewish world, including the Israeli Prime Minister and other public figures. Past prize recipients have tended to be bankable celebrities with American reach and “liberal” pedigree: Michael Bloomberg, Michael Douglas, Yitzhak Perlman. Along with the accolades comes $1 million in prize money ,which the recipient may allocate to pet charities and causes. As with many such awards, the public buzz around the recipient is clearly calculated to draw positive attention to the benefactor, in this case, wealthy, well-intentioned men working together with the State of Israel.

Announced in November as this year’s recipient, Natalie Portman was to receive a hefty $2 million to bestow on her preferred social justice causes. At the time, Ms. Portman—the daughter of an Israeli geneticist who recently wrote, directed, and starred in a Hebrew-language movie based on an Amos Oz memoir—seemed free from any symptoms of remorse or moral disquietude. Quite the opposite.

And then, something happened.

Last week at some point, Ms. Portman’s staff advised the Genesis Prize Committee that the actress would not attend the gala ceremony as “recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and that she do not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel….and that she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.”

It was all very abrupt and vague, requiring the public to engage in clairvoyance to understand Ms. Portman’s anguish. There was a rush to denounce her for having joined the “BDS” movement,” which promotes international isolation of Israel through boycotts, divestment strategies, and sanctions.

A day or so after the publication of her refusal to attend the ceremony, which sparked sharp criticism, Ms. Portman dropped this bombshell:

My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has 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. By the same token, I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it. 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. 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.


Most people, myself included, assumed that Ms. Portman’s comment about “atrocities” was a somewhat oblique reference to the recent riots along the Gaza-Israel border during the last few weeks in which more than 20 Palestinians have been killed so far. But, who knows? Initially, she objected to recent “distressing” events which were, apparently, so triggering that she felt unable participate in any public events in Israel.

Then, upon reflection, Portman made it clear that she could not bring herself to attend the ceremony because of the mere presence of PM Netanyahu. Her loathing of him is so extreme, it seems, that she cannot be in the same room and appear to “endorse” him.

So. What is it? Bibi? Gaza? Something else?

(On a side-note, it is heartening to know that Ms. Portman still “treasures” her Israeli friends, family, food, books, and arts. However, it is difficult to reconcile how such a morally wayward nation could support such a rich cultural life.)

Whether or not Ms. Portman is a good actress is utterly irrelevant. More relevant is the fact that her analytical prowess is less than impressive, as is her appreciation of a complex society and democracy.

And whereas her opinion is no more important than the next person’s, we live in an era when fame is revered. Regrettably, Ms. Portman appears to confuse her ability to generate headlines with the importance and sagacity of her views.

Ms. Portman may be surprised to learn that not everyone in Israel is a knuckle-dragging simpleton. Many Israelis and Jews (and others) are “distressed” by all manner of events  here and abroad. But we do not stomp our feet and storm out of the room because things are not going our way. We do what we have always done: we stubbornly carry on and work to effect change.

Among the members of the various Genesis Prize committees are more than a few internationally renowned champions of all manner of liberal causes who have found a dignified, constructive way to express their strong disagreement with events in Israel and elsewhere. In fact, this year’s recipient of the Inaugural Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award—United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—is a poster-girl of Ms. Portman’s crowd.

There were many more responsible and mature options available to Ms. Portman short of toddler-esque petulance to express her views. She could have crafted a clever speech to deliver at the ceremony but chose not to. She could have written a thoughtful opinion piece for any number of publications but chose not to. She could have conveyed her sensitivities to the Genesis organizers and a reasonable solution would likely have been conceived.

The silver lining in all this is the possibility that the Genesis Prize directors and others may use this opportunity to re-calibrate their approach. Rather than pandering to bankable stars who draw glitter and gold, perhaps they will refocus on the many exceptionally deserving individuals beavering away in obscurity and bereft of the obnoxious hubris with which Natalie Portman is afflicted.

(The author served as Canada’s ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016 and lives there now)

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