The problem with Portman's Palestine solidarity

The problem with Portman's Palestine solidarity
Comment: Natalie Portman's recent comments fail to mention Palestinians, and imply she doesn't inherently have a problem with Israel and its occupation, writes Amal Awad.
6 min read
26 Apr, 2018
Portman said she did not want to appear to endorse Benjamin Netanyahu [Getty]
Natalie Portman's recent criticism of Israel has received mixed responses, some praising it as a step forward, others pointing out how little she really said. 

But it is a revealing moment; high-profile figures still tip-toe around Israel - a state obsessed with its image - or wholeheartedly endorse it, even as they advocate for human rights elsewhere.

It wasn't long ago that beloved singer Lorde made the momentous decision to cancel a concert in Tel Aviv. Delivering a measured, and I am sure she hoped, balanced and unbiased appraisal of the situation, the global response swung wildly in two different directions.

On the one side were supporters of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to gather international support to pressure Israel into complying with international law through peaceful means.

BDS supporters were heartened that someone as famous as Lorde's would dare criticise Israel, even if it was indirectly through abstention. On the other side was the predictably incensed H
asbara spokespeople who were distressed that Israel was being perceived so poorly, and even teenage fans who wished to sue the activists who wrote to Lorde for 'emotional damages'.

To her credit, Lorde didn't buckle or change her mind, and the world continued to turn.

But it was a revealing episode in the long-running Hasbara saga. It bared Israel's true vulnerability - not the exposure of their crimes against Palestinians, but rather, the weight of outside perceptions of them as a democratic, liberal state in the otherwise noxious Middle East.

Some celebrities' humanity extends outwards, but stops abruptly at Palestinians

It is not a self-reflective approach that Israel takes; it's a combative, us-against-the-world one that does not allow for any form of criticism, because they are eternally a state with special security concerns.

Holding up a mirror to Israel is what upsets them so much. It hurts when it comes from an outsider because support from some non-Israelis holds great value (how many celebrities have enjoyed free trips to the Promised Land?).

As Yousef Munayyer astutely observes in Forward, "…what they believe is the world's perception of their policies have become the real problem. If only they could get the world to understand that it is somehow acceptable to endlessly deny basic rights to millions of people, they seem to believe everything would be fine."

It is important to think about this as we observe Natalie Portman's recent criticism of Israel, a light lashing that involved her turning down an appearance to receive the Genesis Prize.

"Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel," read the statement. "She cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony."

It's an enigmatic statement; there is no mention of the violent events in Gaza specifically, but what made it interesting was that it came from a Hollywood darling, a Zionist who loves Israel and all of its cultural aspects.

When this raised the question of whether Portman was engaging in BDS, she clarified her position on Instagram:

"My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterised 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."

Interestingly, neither of Portman's statements even acknowledge Palestinians, nor does she show any great concern for the occupation and systematic abuse they face on a daily basis.

Oscar-winning Portman is well-known for her social conscience. She is famously vegan, and she received Twitter approval for her witty observation that there were no female nominees in the Best Director category at the Golden Globes this year, gaining her feminist props.

Similarly, outspoken Zionist actress Mayim Bialik presents herself as a feminist force with principles, and a talented brainiac type. Gal Gadot, the former IDF soldier who won the iconic role of Wonder Woman, has been lauded as a real-life wonder woman, her beatific smile belying her support for an oppressive military that punishes the people it occupies.

Scarlett Johansson was a radiant Oxfam ambassador until her role as the face of Sodastream, an Israeli company, conflicted with Oxfam's mission. She chose Sodastream, relinquishing the role of ambassador with wan indifference.

Read more: Seinfeld, the stone and the Uzi

In all of these cases, the celebrities' humanity extends outwards, but stops abruptly at Palestinians. Indeed, while Bialik is more blatant in voicing her support for Israel and disinterest in the lives of the occupied, Portman simply doesn't acknowledge them at all. Her concerns are insular, as so often the worlds of famous people are.  

Portman doesn't inherently have a problem with Israel or its treatment of Palestinians. None of these outspoken feminist warriors do. 

Portman simply doesn't acknowledge Palestinians at all

Even now, Palestine continues to unearth racism. It's not a cause easy to support, like natural, blameless disasters, and while all conflicts involve sides, no one is more silenced than the advocate for Palestine.

Palestinians are the awkward anomaly in stories of the powerful being called to account. Even Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian, had no qualms advertising his attendance with his children at an Israeli military fantasy camp.

Arguably, the exception seems to be Sarah Silverman, a Jewish American comedian who has previously demonstrated support for Israel. Recently she tweeted about the incarceration of Ahed Tamimi, calling for the teenager's release 

This might have seemed refreshing but it was also overdue.

Children have been incarcerated for a long time now, and Ahed is just a high profile one. And that she has gained prominence is a signal of hope that increased awareness will cause people to think more carefully about Israel's actions and treatment of Palestinians and their complete abuse of international law.

It might seem pointless to covet the views of celebrities, but their silence, or criticism, is a barometer of awareness

There is understandable irritation when the focus of a cause becomes a celebrity voice or experience, so far removed from the lives of the ordinary folk of the world.

Do we give celebrities too much importance in determining what we care about? In the case of Israel, celebrities are an important cog in the
hasbara machine, which relies not only an excavated history but the very vocal support of a relatively new state.

Israel woos celebrities with fancy trips, encouraging them to promote their journey and validate the occupation.

even attracted talk show host Conan O'Brien to deliver a one-hour infomercial on how modern, exciting and caring Israel is; O'Brien met with Syrian patients in a hospital, who are recovering in Israel's care, conveniently forgetting that Israel is an occupying, highly militarised force inflicting genuine hardship and violence on Palestinians.

While Portman's sentiments may be inadequate, her previously unwavering endorsement of Israel and its Zionist idealism has clearly been disrupted.

Gideon Levy writes in Haaretz, Portman's dissension is a "tremendous shot in the arm" as a supporter of Israel. Her doubt, as vague as it seems, is a chink in the shiny Israeli armour.

It might seem pointless to covet the views of celebrities, but their silence, or criticism, is a barometer of awareness.

No matter how polished the propaganda is, the discomforting reality of occupation is increasingly difficult to ignore.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.