Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at 6:37 AM

Natalie Portman ‘Boycotting’ Israel Approximates Paul Newman Boycotting South Africa

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

I stood with fellow students in the early 1980s in calling on corporations and governments to cripple South Africa’s Apartheid regime with boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS). We were trying to force democratic reforms that would grant civil rights to the country’s historically oppressed blacks.

I could not have been prouder. But I knew that rallying cries on a cloistered campus would have about as much impact as fleas fluttering on the backside of an elephant.

This is why I was so encouraged when influential artists and athletes took up this cause as a matter of both personal and professional pride.

The group, led by Harry Belafonte and Arthur Ashe, includes such celebrities as Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Tony Bennett, Tony Randall, Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain. Their goal is to obtain pledges from thousands of their colleagues to join in a boycott of South Africa’s strict policies of racial segregation known as apartheid.

(The Washington Post, September 13, 1983)

The rest is history.

Of course, history has a way of repeating itself. And too often that’s a bad thing; but not so in this case. Because, in many ways, the growing BDS movement against Israel is mirroring the one that prevailed against South Africa.

As it happens, I’ve been standing in solidarity with a diverse group of activists for over a decade in calling on governments and corporations to cripple Israel’s government in similar fashion. We’ve been trying to force Israel to either abide Palestinian statehood or grant Palestinians the same civil rights the BDS movement forced South Africa to grant blacks.

Except that I’m ashamed to admit that the closest I’ve come to a rally for this cause was attending a concert by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. He headlines a growing list of singers now refusing to perform in Israel – many of them succumbing to peer pressure, as Lorde did when she canceled a concert last December.

But a famous proverb says the pen is mightier than the sword. In that spirit, perhaps the supportive commentaries I’ve written over the years compensate for my lack of attendance at BDS rallies.

In fact, I have taken a lot of flak for condemning Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians in too many commentaries to count. They notably include “Wither Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East,” June 29, 2006, “Neverending Story: Territorial (Holy) War Between Israel and Palestinians (in Gaza),” January 3, 2009, “Instead of Peace Israel Settling for Apartheid…?” May 1, 2014, and “Israel Votes to Become more like Apartheid South Africa,” March 18, 2015.

The last of those includes this fateful lament:

I couldn’t care any less who governs Israel. My only concern is that, in voting for Netanyahu, Israelis have consigned their country, for the near term, to international pariah status worthy of South Africa at the height of the Apartheid regime.

[Bibi Netanyahu] declared that there will never be a Palestinian state as long as he’s prime minister.

Regrettably, my weblog commentaries are having no greater impact on Netanyahu’s Israel than my campus cries had on Apartheid South Africa.

This is why I am so encouraged that influential actors and singers are taking up this cause as a matter of both personal and professional pride. Because they could have the same kind of impact the artists who boycotted South Africa had.

Which brings me to Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman. She took a dramatic stand last week when she cited Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians as her reason for refusing to visit Israel to accept a national honor.

The Genesis Prize, which calls itself the ‘Jewish Nobel,’ canceled its annual ceremony after announcing that winner Natalie Portman would not visit Israel due to ‘recent events.’ …

While the foundation did not specify Portman’s reasoning, the announcement comes less than a week after the European Union called for an investigation into the Israeli military’s use of live ammunition in an attack along the Gaza border that left dozens of Palestinians dead and hundreds wounded.

(The New York Daily News, April 19, 2018)

That’s the rather anodyne way the news media initially reported on her cancellation.

Therefore, it’s an indication of her “extreme distress” that Portman felt moved to elaborate. Here in part is how she took to Instagram on Friday to do so:

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. …

[T]he mistreatment of those suffering from today’s atrocities is simply not in line with my Jewish values. Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power.

In other words, Portman finally realized what some of us did many years ago, namely that the way Netanyahu’s Israel treats Palestinians is aping the way Apartheid South Africa treated blacks. Which makes one wonder why this did not give pause to previous “Genesis Prize Laureates” like actor Michael Douglas and politician Michael Bloomberg.

More to the point, though, just as celebrities like Portman buoyed the BDS movement that eventually won civil rights for blacks in South Africa, they are beginning to do the same for Palestinians in the Middle East.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and other Hollywood stars have yet to arrive in Israel for an all-expenses paid luxury trip offered to them last year, in what campaigners describe as victory against the state’s attempt of whitewashing crimes.

None of the 26 Oscars stars offered a free personalized tour, valued at up to $55,000 have visited the controversial state.

(The New Arab, February 23, 2017)

I hope it’s only a matter of time before “I, I, I, ain’t gonna play Tel Aviv” becomes as much of a rallying cry for fighting Netanyahu’s Israel as “I, I, I, ain’t gonna play Sun City” became for fighting Apartheid South Africa.

To be fair, Portman insists

I’m not pro-BDS, I’m anti-Netanyahu.

Except that this makes about as much sense as saying – with respect to North Korea oppressing its people and threatening nuclear war with the United States – I’m not pro-sanctions, I’m anti-Jong-un.

Indeed, it speaks volumes about Portman’s disassociation from her own BDS advocacy that the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel used her “boycott” to make this observation:

Decades of egregious human rights violations against Palestinians have made its brand so toxic that even well-known Israeli-American cultural figures refuse to whitewash Israeli crimes.

(The Jerusalem Post, April 21, 2018)

In any case, just as it was with South Africa, artists and athletes are jumping on a BDS bandwagon students and professors started long ago. Interestingly enough, no less a professor than the late Stephen Hawking paved the road Portman has just taken.

British physicist Professor Stephen Hawking has announced his withdrawal from the upcoming Israeli conference in Jerusalem as part of an academic boycott to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

After initially agreeing to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, the world-renowned scientist has now changed his mind.

(Mic, May 8, 2013)

Meanwhile, Portman’s cancellation has so humiliated Israel that members of Netanyahu’s ruling party are calling for the government to revoke her Israeli citizenship. She has dual American-Israeli citizenship.

But there’s danger in scapegoating Portman. Because Israel risks alienating many of the American Jews who facilitate the US government’s indispensable support for Israel on the world stage.

Jeremy Ben Ami, the president of J Street, expressed support for Portman, stating that ‘Natalie Portman has every right to listen to her conscience and express her concerns when it comes to the current policies and direction of Israel and its government – concerns that are shared by so many American Jews and supporters of Israel around the world.’

(Haaretz, April 22, 2018)

I have commented on Israel’s existential solidarity with American Jews in many commentaries, including “Recognizing Jerusalem: Trump’s America and Netanyahu’s Israel against the World,” December 7, 2017, and “American Jews more Pro-Israel than Jews in Israel,” February 6, 2013, which includes the following excerpt.


It was truly surreal watching Republicans interrogate Chuck Hagel about his support for (or loyalty to) Israel during last week’s Senate hearing on his nomination to serve as defense secretary.

In fact, Israel figured so prominently that I felt moved to title my commentary on the hearing, “Was Hagel Nominated as Defense Secretary for the US or Israel?”…

Israel has become as sacred a cow in American politics as Mom, apple pie … and guns. … [It] has become thus because a) influential Evangelicals (a.k.a. Christian Zionists) consider its security key to their salvation; b) politicians of every stripe consider pandering about its security key to their election; and c) American Jews have inordinate media power and contribute more to political campaigns than any other demographic group … by far.


But nothing betrays how desperate Netanyahu is to fortify Israel against BDS quite like him hailing Trump as a latter-day Emperor Cyrus the Great – complete with minted Temple coins featuring heroic profiles of both.

According to the Bible, Cyrus was an ancient leader of Persia (modern-day Iran) who rescued the Jews from captivity in Babylon (modern-day Iraq). This is not the commentary to elaborate. I just think it’s worth noting the hypocrisy inherent in Netanyahu idolizing Cyrus for helping the Jews reclaim their homeland. After all, Netanyahu is doing to the Palestinians much of what the Babylonians did to the Jews.

Great men like Moses, Cyrus, and Balfour were instrumental in helping Jews settle the “Promised Land” they enjoy today. But Netanyahu is insulting their respective legacies by putting Trump in a pantheon alongside them.

Never mind that Trump is too narcissistic and ignorant to appreciate that this gesture amounts to nothing more than idle flattery. Like Xi of China, Macron of France, and practically every other world leader, Netanyahu knows that flattery goes a long way in getting Trump to do his bidding. He clearly hopes that will include getting Trump to do everything from turning a blind eye to the atrocities Israel perpetrates against the Palestinians to launching preemptive strikes against Iran under the pretext of saving the Jews from the country Cyrus begat.

Frankly, hailing Trump as a Cyrus-like savior of the Jews reeks of even more sycophantic presumptuousness than the Nobel committee awarding Barack Obama the peace prize before he even had a peace plan. As I argued in “Recognizing Jerusalem…,” merely announcing a plan to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem does not make Trump worthy of any honor, let alone this hosanna.

In any event, I stand with progressive Jews – in America and Israel – who think the Israeli government should see Portman’s cancellation as an admonition to be heeded, not a threat to be fought.

What’s more, we are probably more “anti-Netanyahu” than she. For my part, I can cite attestative commentaries like “Obama Adviser Is Right: Netanyahu Is a ‘Chickenshit’ Prime Minister!” November 4, 2014, “Chutzpah: Israeli PM to Address US Congress,” January 23, 2015, “Netanyahu’s a Putz for Branding Obama a Judas Over UN Resolution,” December 29, 2016, and “Netanyahu Deporting Blacks to Preserve White Character of Jewish State,” January 4, 2018.

This is why I am so disappointed that Portman crippled her principled stand with her squaring-the-circle attempt to blame Netanyahu while holding blameless his oppressive government.

Related commentaries:
Wither roadmap
Neverending story
Israel apartheid
Israel votes
Stephen Hawking
Recognizing Jerusalem
American Jews more pro-Israel
Chickenshit PM
Netanyahu’s a putz
White Jewish state

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