That so many Jews care so deeply about what an actress has to say about the State of Israel and its prime minister tells us a lot about Jewish insecurity in 2018. But while this isn’t the earth-shattering event some on both ends of the political spectrum are claiming it to be, the issue is still worth discussing. When it comes down to it, it’s not as much about the intrinsic importance of one Jewish celebrity’s opinion as it is about the way the reputation of Israel’s prime minister is becoming more of a hindrance than a help to the Jewish state.
Natalie Portman’s decision to boycott the ceremony during which she was to be bestowed this year’s Genesis Prize—and $2 million to distribute to worthy Jewish causes—set off a wave of commentary. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political opponents, as well as advocates of the BDS movement, cheered her statements while his supporters and others angered by anything that can be perceived as contributing to the Jewish state’s isolation responded with criticism that ran the gamut—from mild disappointment to accusations of anti-Semitism.
Whether you think Portman is a self-involved celebrity more interested in virtue-signaling than doing anything of value for Israel or a great artist sending an important message, the notion that whether she was willing to receive a meaningless honor that organizers call, without a trace of irony, the “Jewish Nobel Prize,” is a matter of transcendent importance is patently absurd.
Nor should Netanyahu’s camp be treating the 36-year-old sabra as a threat to Israel. As she explained, her snub of the ceremony had to do with the presence of the prime minister. Since she detests Netanyahu, she refused to be a prop in what she considered an event that would, as is always the case with appearances by political leaders of any political stripe, be exploited by the government.
Far from hurting Netanyahu, in one sense Portman actually played right into his hands. The perceived insult to him is the sort of thing that will rile up Israelis who bitterly resent liberal elites, without doing a thing to help his opponents. The talk from some Likudniks about revoking her citizenship is nonsense, however—in the same way that the animus towards President Donald Trump from liberal celebrities in the United States reinforces his base’s resentment toward his critics—it’s just one more excuse for the Israeli right to rally around a man who has become a polarizing figure.
Nor, despite their wishful thinking, has Portman done much to help the BDS movement. As someone who has been clear about her love for Israel and who actually has made a film there, the notion that she is boycotting the country doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. She made that clear in a follow-up statement, even if a number of Israel’s foes are disingenuously treating her stand as a form of BDS.
Portman has already called Netanyahu a racist and clearly identifies with the Israeli left. Like many others in the Diaspora, she doesn’t think much of the premier’s policies. Unfortunately, her statement, which denounced the current government’s “violence, corruption, inequality and abuse of power” as being not in line with her “Jewish values,” could also be interpreted as a criticism of the Israeli army’s use of force to prevent violent demonstrators organized by Hamas marching for the “right of return”—i.e., the destruction of the Jewish state—from breaching the border with Gaza.
That’s the only part of this kerfuffle that matters because it shows that Netanyahu’s toxic reputation abroad is helping to blur the lines between fair comment about his leadership concerning corruption charges and other issues that seem to undermine the country’s right of self-defense. As such, it illustrates a dismaying fact about the prime minister. One of his greatest strengths—the ability to eloquently make the case for the justice of Israel’s cause in flawless English—has been undermined by the steep decline in his image abroad.
Yet the problem here is not just that Portman is wrong about Gaza. It’s that the prime minister has become so weighed down by controversy that his very presence at a glorified photo opportunity is enough to serve as a rationalization for controversy.
Netanyahu’s defenders will insist that this is not his fault. The left has never lacked for excuses to demonize its opponents, and long before he became the subject of corruption investigations, his opponents were eager to try to paint him as an extremist who deserved to be boycotted. The profoundly dishonest attempt by the Labor Party to accuse him of inciting the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is an example of this effort.
However, Netanyahu’s supporters can’t pretend that his once-impressive ability to sway U.S. public opinion with American-accented English speeches is not a thing of the past. Many of the comparisons between the embattled Israeli leader and Trump are both inaccurate and unfair. But it is true that, like Trump, Netanyahu now seems disinterested in appealing to anyone but his base, and that is taking a toll on American Jewish support for Israel.
After more than a dozen years in power, including the last nine consecutive years, Netanyahu may still be the only plausible candidate for prime minister in terms of his experience and ability, and polls of Israeli voters reflect that. Israelis can dismiss the substance of Portman’s critiques and probably be right or ignore the Diaspora altogether. But if popular figures like Portman think treating Netanyahu as if he were radioactive won’t hurt their image, it’s no use ignoring the fact that the prime minister’s sagging image doesn’t come at a cost for his country.