Natalie Portman and the Crisis of Liberal Zionism

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Natalie Portman with former Israeli president Shimon Peres in 2015. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images

This month, Israeli snipers shot hundreds of Palestinian protesters — including one journalist wearing a vest marked “PRESS” — who posed no life-threatening danger to them, or to the people they’re meant to protect. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman then justified these shootings on the grounds that “there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip,” suggesting that the area’s 1.8 million Palestinian men, women, and children are all legitimate targets of state violence. Meanwhile, Israel reneged on an agreement with the United Nations to grant legal status to 40,000 African asylum-seekers (whom the Netanyahu government had previously intended to jail en masse or deport), leaving those long-suffering refugees in a state of limbo.

And then, Natalie Portman did something controversial.

Last Friday, the Israeli-American actress abruptly canceled plans to accept a prestigious award in Jerusalem. Initially, this decision appeared to be an endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement; the organization behind the Genesis Prize said that Portman had declined their honor because “she does not feel comfortable participating in any public events in Israel.” But the actress promptly denied that claim, and detailed her true rationale in an Instagram post:

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. I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance. Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust. But the 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.

Portman’s statement is a model of liberal Zionist dissent. It focuses its fire on Israel’s elected leadership, while evincing love for its people; insists that one need not choose between the Jewish value of empathy for the marginalized, and support for the Jewish state; and frames her criticism of Israeli policy as a defense of Israel’s own best interests — all while explicitly disavowing the BDS movement.

For decades, progressive Jews have been assured that such sentiments are kosher. The notion that there is a fundamental distinction between the righteousness of Israeli policy and Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state has enabled countless American Jews to reconcile their liberal values with unconditional support for the latter premise. Radicals might have insisted that illiberalism and state Zionism were inextricable; that the maintenance of a majority-Jewish nation in a predominantly Muslim region would inevitably require discriminatory policies. But liberal Jews knew better; they could support both the Israelis and Palestinians — one day, there would be two states for two peoples, Zionism and democracy, from the river to the sea.

In the wake of Portman’s protest, the Israeli government rushed to assure such Jews that they were wrong.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Portman’s actions bordered on anti-Semitism; security minister Gilad Erdan argued that she had “turned to the Dark Side” (just like Anakin Skywalker before her); and an ally of Netanyahu in the Israeli parliament called for stripping the Jerusalem-born actress of her citizenship. The overriding implication of all these statements was the same: One cannot claim to be “pro-Israel” and publicly criticize its “atrocities.”

This response was indicative of the Netanyahu government’s broader disinterest in keeping up the pretenses that sustain liberal Zionism. No longer content with maintaining de facto apartheid rule in the occupied West Bank, Israeli lawmakers are moving to establish the de jure variety. As Israeli civil rights lawyer Michael Sfard recently explained in The New York Review of Books:

Temporariness is one of the qualities that distinguishes the regretful, yet legal, reality of occupation from the illegal act of annexation by force. The policies that evolved over decades—a creeping process of de facto annexation—stopped short of a wholesale application of Israel’s sovereignty over the Occupied Territories; the legal and political distinctions between the West Bank and Israel were preserved.


Now, this crucial legal-political status is being dismantled.


… [T]he ruling parliamentary coalition has put its lawyers to work drafting numerous annexationist bills. Their latest accomplishments include a law, enacted last year, which instructs the army to confiscate private Palestinian land and assign it to the intruding Israelis who have put up settlements there. This law is not only a naked sanction of land theft; it is also an unprecedented imposition of Knesset legislation on Palestinians who have no parliamentary representation.


… Justices in the Supreme Court, housed in a hilltop building that faces the Knesset, have set precedents of their own: last November, three judges ruled that the settlers constitute a “local population” in the West Bank, and that therefore, under certain conditions, private Palestinian land can be “temporarily” allocated to serve their needs. Their judgment overturned a principle, upheld for over forty years, that barred the use of private Palestinian land for settlement expansion. Within days of the ruling, the attorney general authorized the army to consider the expropriation of private land owned by Palestinian farmers to pave a settlement road.

Liberal Zionists have long argued that failure to make peace with the Palestinians would eventually force Israel to choose between its Jewish and democratic character. But the Netanyahu regime is perfectly comfortable dispensing with the latter. Israel’s deputy defense minister, MK Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, recently called for the formal annexation of the West Bank “as soon as possible.”

“They want to scare us, that maybe soon we will not be a majority and therefore we have to abandon Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. This is a grave mistake,” Ben-Dahan told the far-right Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva. “Even if we apply Israeli law in Judea and Samaria, full civil rights are not just given, and certainly not on the first day. We will have to wait several years as is customary in every country.”

Natalie Portman is a no radical anti-Zionist. Just a few years ago, she served as a research assistant on a book defending the Jewish state against its left-wing critics. But like most American Jews, she does subscribe to the concept of universal human rights. Her decision to decline the Genesis Award — and the vituperative reaction to that act of dissent — reflects the reality that the Israeli government is no longer interested in indulging the diaspora’s effete concern for the Palestinians’ welfare. And all signs suggest this will remain the case for the foreseeable future. The Israeli left is in tatters, while the steady growth of Israel’s settler and ultra-Orthodox populations appear destined to fortify the state’s commitment to annexationist policies in the years to come.

Thus, to remain conventionally “pro-Israel,” American Jews are going to need to evermore tightly quarantine their liberalism to domestic politics — even as developments in domestic politics exacerbate the difficulty of that task.

There have always been tensions between liberal universalism and Jewish nationalism. But the rise of the Trumpist right has heightened such contradictions. To remain true to both AIPAC and progressivism, a liberal Zionist must now lament border walls in Texas but defend them in the West Bank; condemn Republicans who suggest that nonwhite babies pose a threat to American civilization as proto-Nazis and endorse Israel’s right to defend itself against the “demographic threat” that is Palestinian children; decry Donald Trump’s ban on Syrian refugees and apologize for Israel’s imprisonment of African ones; abhor the president’s indifference to civilian casualties and ignore that Israel’s defense minister believes every man, woman, and child in the Gaza Strip is an enemy combatant.

And they must do all this while Netanyahu and his allies all but encourage American Jews to draw analogies between Trumpism and (actually existing) Zionism, by publicly aligning themselves against Barack Obama and with Donald Trump.

Even before Israel’s rightward shift accelerated over the past year, younger American Jews were growing more estranged from the Jewish state. Pew data from 2013 found that only a third of Jews under 49 believed that Israel’s government was making a sincere attempt at peace with the Palestinians, while a quarter of those between 18 and 29 felt that the U.S. government was “too supportive of Israel” — among Jews between the ages of 30 and 49, that figure was only 12 percent; among those above 65, it was just 5. In all likelihood, the political developments of the last five years have further dampened enthusiasm for Israel among the rising generation of American Jews.

The prospect that young American Jews would lose interest in Zionism had long been a source of anxiety for Israeli policymakers. And many interpreted the Israeli government’s hysterical response to Portman as a testament to that fear. But the opposite interpretation seems just as plausible — that the Israeli Establishment is no longer afraid of losing the affections of the Natalie Portmans of the world.

And why should they be? Between America’s Christian right and growing population of deeply conservative Orthodox Jews, there is a strong base of support in the United States for an unapologetically illiberal and undemocratic Greater Israel. And for now, the vast majority of liberal Jews remain reflexively supportive of the Jewish state, while most who aren’t decline to translate their qualms into political action. Thus, while senior officials in the Israeli government were explicitly endorsing the annexation of the West Bank over the past year, the leadership of the Democratic Party didn’t merely keep silent — they pushed legislation that would make boycotting Israeli goods in protest of annexation (or anything else) a federal crime.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates have ostensibly decided that it is better to have Israel as an ally in the fight against Iran, than to have the Palestinian cause as a domestic political distraction. And as an authoritarian China rises, and right-wing populism spreads through the West, it seems plausible that Israel’s occupation might outlive the liberal order that was supposed to (eventually) render it illegitimate.

Liberal Zionists have traditionally leavened their moral objections to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank (and blockade of Gaza) with an appeal to pragmatism: Making painful concessions for peace wasn’t just the right thing for Israel to do, but one necessary for ensuring its long-term survival. For the moment, the Israeli right has reason to view that sentiment as a bluff it wisely called.

It is still possible that liberal Zionists’ warning will prove prescient, that Israel will eventually be forced to either abandon its illiberalism or forfeit its existence. But it’s hard to see how that will happen, unless American Jews are willing to put their liberalism above their Zionism — and to work to force that choice.

Natalie Portman and the Crisis of Liberal Zionism