WARSAW, Poland — I am in Warsaw for the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, having just left the inspirational festivities commemorating Israel’s 70th anniversary in Jerusalem.
Standing here honoring the legacy of the great Mordechai Anielewicz, who together with 700 fighters held off the Nazis for an astonishing three weeks, I was disheartened to see a world-famous Israeli-born actress give aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies by boycotting the Jewish state.
On Friday, before the Sabbath, as I stood at the Gaza border witnessing brave Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers repel the demonstrators of the Hamas genocidal terror organization, who seek to breach the border fence that keeps Israelis alive, I heard the news that Natalie Portman decided not to attend the ceremony where she was to be given the Genesis Prize.
Portman is a wonderful actress who has on rare occasions defended the country of her birth. I applaud her earlier solidarity with her people. But her cowardly decision to abandon Israel as it is fighting a war with terrorists trying to overrun its border, is shocking and hypocritical. It provides aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies, however unwittingly.
She is within her rights to criticize government policies. That’s what a democracy is all about. But the way she has chosen to do so – by boycotting Israel – has shown a disdain for democracy and a thoughtless disregard for the welfare of her people.
When the Genesis Foundation decided to bestow its prestigious prize on the Oscar winner, Portman originally responded to the prize enthusiastically: “I am deeply touched and humbled by this honor. I am proud of my Israeli roots and Jewish heritage; they are crucial parts of who I am.”
Now, just weeks before the Foundation was about to present her with the award at a gala, Portman announced she would not attend. When the news broke, it was immediately reported as a boycott of Israel and seized on by the antisemitic “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) movement as evidence that even famous Israelis view their country as uniquely deserving of demonization.
One thing celebrities seemingly care about more than anything is bad publicity. Perhaps she was worried going to Israel in the midst of tensions in Gaza would allow Israel’s detractors to paint her in a bad light. Nearly every artist who goes to Israel is pressured to boycott — and the cowardly ones, such as Lorde, cave into the antisemites.
After widespread criticism — and, perhaps realizing the gift she gave to Israel-haters around the world — Portman tried to explain she was not boycotting Israel. “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 on Instagram. “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.”
Portman’s words were too little, too late, and her behavior inexcusable.
Initially, it was reported she was upset by “recent events,” presumably meaning the protests in Gaza. Well, Natalie, unlike you, I was standing on the outskirts of Gaza, watching Hamas terrorists advancing on the border with the intent of crossing into Israel and murdering Jews. I watched the restraint used by Israeli troops, who used riot-control measures practiced around the world to disperse the protestors.
What would you have Israel do, Natalie? Do you believe Israelis have the right to defend themselves against a terror mob armed with knives, guns and bombs? Did you watch the “peaceful protestors” placing improvised explosive devices along the fence, or the kites flown across the border with incendiary devices to set the agricultural fields on fire?
Did you speak out against the Hamas terrorists’ explicit call for the destruction of your homeland, or their charter, which calls for the murder of Jews around the globe?
If Portman wants to criticize Israeli policies, no one is stopping her. But for her to use the Israeli Prime Minister as an excuse for not attending a gala in her honor reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel, a disdain for democracy, and disrespect for Israel’s leader. Portman neither has to like nor agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but she should understand that he was democratically elected by the people of Israel — not once, not twice, but four times.
As an Israeli citizen she is entitled to vote and to campaign in Israel against him if she disagrees. But to use her platform as an actress in America to delegitimize the views of the Israeli people is unforgivable.
I wonder if she has given any thought to the fact that if she wanted to criticize the leader of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority in front of them, she would be jailed – or worse. If Portman were really concerned about Palestinian rights, she would be denouncing their leaders for denying them freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press. She should be speaking out against the widespread practice of honor killings by Palestinians against innocent women for simply having boyfriends — something unthinkable in Israel.
Portman also shows tremendous insensitivity to Israeli soldiers protecting their country when she, unlike most Israeli citizens – including two of my children, who as Americans did not have to serve – chose not to serve in the Israeli Army.
I do not judge her for doing so, but it would be pleasant to see her show some appreciation for the young heroes who don the olive green uniform and protect Israel from the genocidal plans of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and ISIS. Natalie was happy to carry a gun and play a soldier defending the world in her latest movie. But life is not fiction, and she should be magnanimous in praising those young Israelis who put themselves in harm’s way so that Israeli buses and kindergartens are not blown to smithereens.
With great fame comes great responsibility. Portman should reverse course, accept the prize, and give any speech she deems fit, including one that might publicly challenge government policy. That’s all in keeping with democratic discourse.
But to boycott Israel is to trash her own country, undermine its democracy, and abet its implacable enemies.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent work, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.