USCPR Executive Director Yousef Munayyer pens an open letter to actress Natalie Portman in The Forward about her decision to not attend the Genesis Prize ceremony in Israel.
Dear Natalie (If I may),
In recent days, I have followed closely your decision not to appear at a prize ceremony in Israel and your statement about it. Your decision was important to me not only because I am Palestinian, but because I realized we have some things in common, you and I.
I was born in Israel, just 50 kilometers from Jerusalem, where you were born; in Lydda, my family’s ancestral town (my family didn’t come to Israel, Israel came to us). You and I are also very close to the same age, though we surely experienced our Israeli citizenship in very different ways. For myself, a Palestinian, it meant being labeled and treated as a “demographic threat,” whereas you have spoken highly of Israel, and proudly of being an Israeli citizen.
We both left Israel and came to the U.S. at a young age along with our families. Who knows, we may have even been on the same flight over the Atlantic, though I’m pretty sure your experience at airport security was very different than mine (though we probably both clapped when the pilot landed the plane safely). But once in the U.S., if your experience was like mine, this meant you were never fully comfortable here or there, with one foot in each place, and a heart perpetually longing for home
And that’s where our life paths diverged. You went on to an acting career and to win an Academy Award. My acting career culminated in a 7th grade production of the Wizard of Oz — I was the lion, and laid Bert Lahr’s accent on pretty thick. I think I did a decent job, but my passion took me down a different road, which is why I am writing to you now.
The reason you gave for not accepting the Genesis Prize was that you did not want to share a platform with Netanyahu or appear to be endorsing him in anyway.
I think I’m on safe footing when I surmise that your issue with Netanyahu is not personal. It is not about his choice of hair dye or persistent use of lame gimmicks and sound bites during his speeches, but about the politics and policies he embodies — policies which violate international law and the basic rights of Palestinians, executed by the Israeli state every day. And in refusing to condone these policies and their champion, you are signaling that you recognize that the Israeli state doesn’t believe that their policies are a problem.
Instead, what they believe is the world’s perception of their policies have become the real problem. If only they could get the world to understand that it is somehow acceptable to endlessly deny basic rights to millions of people, they seem to believe everything would be fine. Israel’s efforts to get the world to accept this dispossession include bringing celebrities such as yourself to stand on Israeli stages, sending the message to their fans that what Israel is doing is okay. This is a particularly important PR strategy for Israel precisely because it is aimed at a younger demographic that is turning away from the Israeli state.
What you’ve done is send a message to Israel that their policies, which violate human and civil rights, are unconscionable. That is why it was so important that you decided not to participate in this ceremony.
I know you may not see it that way. In your statement you wrote, “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,” you wrote. “I treasure my Israeli friends and family, Israeli food, books, art, cinema, and dance.”
As an Israeli citizen, the practice of boycott may seem complicated. You and I both have family in Israel, people we love and can’t imagine not seeing again. Israeli people, like all people, have a lot to offer the world. So I understand your hesitation to “boycott the entire nation.” But this is not what BDS is. Individuals are not the target of boycott efforts — the state is. These things can and should be separated.
The truth is that BDS isn’t even a movement. Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions are a set of non-violent tactics which are used in many movements but which Palestinian civil society institutions have asked the international community to adopt as part of a nonviolent movement for Palestinian rights, to send Israel a message that it must stop denying them. And the state of Israel for its part, petrified about the wide scale adoption of these tactics, has tried to smear activists and drive a wedge between Palestinians and internationals who want to support their rights, in an effort to intimidate people from using these non-violent tactics.
Ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians will have to come to an agreement about the political rules that will govern their coexistence. But that cannot happen until the Israeli state realizes the status quo is unacceptable, immoral and costly. The important thing is that this message is sent. Israel needs to hear it.
But exactly how one chooses to send the Israeli state the message is up to each individual person. There are certainly ways to make ethical visits that don’t lend legitimacy or support to the Israeli state and its policies. I favor non-violent economic action aimed at the Israeli state and institutions or corporations entangled with the state that either profit from its abusive policies or work to whitewash them. That doesn’t mean I can’t buy hummus from my cousin’s makolet if I am visiting family.
And it looks like you found your own way to participate — by boycotting the Genesis Prize.
There is one final difference between us I’d like to point out. Perhaps you have considered returning from the United States to live in Israel one day with your family. Your partner, Benjamin, a French-born choreographer, could become an Israeli resident and then a citizen because you are an Israeli citizen.
But my partner and I cannot go back together because she, a professor of chemistry, is a Palestinian from the West Bank, land Israel occupies. This means that even though I am an Israeli citizen, the state prevents me and others who have married Palestinians from residing with them in Israel. That’s because, as Benjamin Netanyahu explained, this would lead to “demographic spillover.” The difference, you see, is that the state is threatened by the thought of our unborn children, but not yours.
You contributed in your own way this week to ending this perverse situation, putting yourself on the line to end these kinds of inequalities. I hope you and others who might be inspired by your decision will continue to do so in ways that raise the volume until the message can no longer be ignored.