The Genesis Prize, according to its website, “honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.” The prize, first given in 2014 and often called the “Jewish Nobel,” is awarded by the Genesis Prize Foundation and comes with a $1 million check. Winners have included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, actor Michael Douglas, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and sculptor Anish Kapoor. This year’s laureate is – or was – actress Natalie Portman, who won an Oscar for Black Swan and more recently played Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the movie Jackie. On its website, the Foundation also noted her humanitarian work with FINCA, a microfinancing program, and WE, a charity that “empowers youth.”
The award was to be presented to Portman in June. But on April 19 came news that the prize ceremony was off. Portman had announced that she would not attend the event – because she refuses to set foot in Israel. This is particularly interesting news, given that Portman was born in Jerusalem and is a joint American and Israeli citizen. Her explanation: “Recent events in Israel have been extremely distressing to her and she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.” Therefore “she cannot in good conscience move forward with the ceremony.” According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Portman did not specify which events caused her distress, although the United Nations and the European Union recently called for investigations into the use of live ammunition by Israel’s military following clashes along the border with Gaza that have left dozens of Palestinians dead and hundreds wounded.”
Portman’s action seemed unusual, given her record. In 2009, she stood up agains anti-Israeli calls for a boycott of the Toronto Film Festival. She wrote, directed, and starred in a 2015 Hebrew-language film adaptation of Amos Oz’s memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness, which deals in large part with the founding of Israel. After it was announced that she would be receiving the Genesis Prize, she expressed gratitude and pride in her “Israeli roots and Jewish heritage.” She has nothing but contempt, however, for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he has called a “racist.”
After Portman’s turndown, Israel’s cultural minister, Miri Regev, stated what seemed to be obvious: Portman, she said, has “fallen like a ripe fruit into the hands of the BDS movement supporters.” In a reference to the title of Portman’s film version of Oz’s memoir, Regev lamented that Portman was “joining those who treat the story of the success and the miracle of Israel’s revival as a tale of darkness and darkness.” In response, Portman claimed that her refusal to go to Israel had nothing to do with the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement; she maintained, rather, that she didn’t want to share a platform with Netanyahu, who was scheduled to speak at the award ceremony. And then what happened? Tune in on Thursday.