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.”
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 stateagainst 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.
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.