World News

Natalie Portman Backs Out of Israeli Award Ceremony

Posted April 20, 2018 6:32 p.m. EDT

JERUSALEM — Natalie Portman, the Oscar-winning actress, has backed out of a major award ceremony meant to honor her in Jerusalem, with her representatives citing her distress over “recent events” in Israel.

Neither Portman nor the Genesis Prize Foundation, the organization behind the ceremony, have specified the reason for her withdrawal. Many have pointed to the deadly Friday protests along Israel’s border with Gaza in which about three dozen Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire over the past four weeks.

“The Genesis Prize Foundation (GPF) was notified by a representative of Ms. Portman that ‘recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel’ and that ‘she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony,'” the foundation said in a statement. It was notified of Portman’s decision on Thursday.

Genesis officials said they would not elaborate beyond their statement. Representatives for Portman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The ceremony, which had been scheduled for June 28, has been canceled.

It was not immediately clear if Portman would still receive the $1 million prize money, which the organization said she had committed to donate to philanthropic programs focused on advancing women’s equality and empowerment. But in the statement, the organization said that it “remains committed to this most important work and is enthusiastic about launching this year’s ‘re-gifting’ program to advance the cause of women’s equality.”

Portman, who is Jewish and was born in Israel, has starred in such hits as “Black Swan” and the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. She directed a 2015 feature, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” an adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Israeli author Amos Oz and shot in Jerusalem.

Israel has drawn international censure for using live fire against mostly unarmed protesters along the fence dividing Gaza from Israel.

The protest, which began as a grass-roots campaign but was quickly adopted by Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, is meant to draw international attention to the 11-year blockade of the isolated, impoverished coastal territory, which Israel and Egypt impose, citing security grounds, and to Palestinian demands for the return to lands in what is now Israel.

Israel’s military says it is acting to prevent any mass crossing of the fence and to prevent attacks against Israeli soldiers and nearby communities under cover of the protests.

Portman has been critical of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, saying she was “very, very upset and disappointed” over his re-election in 2015. “I find his racist comments horrific,” she said.

The Genesis Prize was founded in 2013 to celebrate Jewish achievement and contribution to humanity, in the words of the organizers. Its founding partners are listed on the prize website as the Israeli prime minister’s office, the Genesis Philanthropy Group and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental organization that deals with Jewish immigration and the wider Jewish diaspora. Previous laureates include Michael R. Bloomberg (2014), Michael Douglas (2015), Itzhak Perlman (2016), and Anish Kapoor (2017).

Portman has never signed onto the so-called BDS movement, a pro-Palestinian campaign that calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. But the movement’s supporters seized upon her decision to pull out of the prize ceremony as evidence of a growing swell of cultural figures protesting Israel’s policies, even as the numbers of protesters in Gaza is waning. Four were reported killed there Friday. “This latest rebuff to Israeli cultural events and accolades, coming from an Israeli-American superstar, is arguably one of the strongest indicators yet of how toxic the Israel Brand has become, even in some liberal circles in Hollywood,” Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, said in an email. “I can sense our South Africa moment coming closer.”

The timing of Portman’s decision was particularly stinging for many Israelis, coming as Israel was celebrating the 70th anniversary of its founding.

Miri Regev, Israel’s minister of culture and sport, an often abrasive and provocative politician, said in a statement to Israeli news media, “I was saddened to hear that Natalie Portman has fallen as a ripe fruit in the hands of BDS supporters,” adding, “Natalie, a Jewish actress who was born in Israel, now joins those who refer to the success and wonder of the rebirth of Israel as ‘a tale of darkness and darkness.'”

Oren Hazan, another provocative politician from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party, suggested that Portman, a dual national who also holds American citizenship, should be stripped of her Israeli citizenship. He called on Israelis to boycott her future movies.

But Rachel Azaria, a legislator from a centrist party that sits in Netanyahu’s coalition, wrote on Twitter that Portman’s cancellation should serve as “a warning light.”

“She is totally one of us, identifies with her Judaism and her Israeliness,” Azaria wrote.

Referring to what many view as the increasing alienation of young, liberal American Jews from Israel, or at least from its right-wing government, she said that Portman was “now speaking for many Jews in the United States, and essentially the young generation.”

“This is a community that was always a significant anchor for the state of Israel,” she said. “We could pay too high a price for losing them.”