Natalie Portman’s Complex Ties to Israel

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Right now lots of celebs are speaking out over recent events in the Gaza Strip as violence escalates between Israel and Palestine. But the Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman first took a stance against the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu years ago. At the time, Portman’s political position surprised fans considering she is one of the most famous American Jews and was born in Jerusalem.


The Birthplace of Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman‘s parents have what Portman has described as “a classic Jewish meeting story.” They crossed paths for the first time in the U.S. while attending Ohio State University. Portman’s mother Shelley (née Stevens) was completing her undergrad there while Avner Hershlag, an Israeli international student, was enrolled in graduate medical classes. They were introduced at the Jewish students club, Hillel House. Shelley eventually followed Avner back to Israel, where Portman was born in Jerusalem in 1989. (Her birth name? Natalie Hershlag. Portman is a stage name!)

This unique location is reflected on Portman’s passport, which lists her birthplace as the city of Jerusalem — not the country Israel. Since Jerusalem is not recognized internationally as part of Israel, Portman thinks “it’s very special, like an international city… of course, Israel claims it as an Israeli city.” Portman opened up about her personal history with the place on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast earlier this year.

The Hershlag family then moved to America a few years later… and the rest is Hollywood history. Portman made a name for herself as a child, starring in the Star Wars prequels, Léon: The Professional, Beautiful Girls, and more. In 2010, as an adult, Portman starred in the dark ballet thriller Black Swan — and fell in love with the film’s choreographer Benjamin Millepied. The married couple now has two children and split their time between Los Angeles, California and Millepied’s native France.

Portman’s Jewish Identity

Throughout her life, Portman has embraced her Judaism and Israeli heritage. She speaks fluent Hebrew. While she was an undergrad at Harvard University, Portman contributed research to the controversial lawyer Alan Dershowitz’s bestselling book The Case for Israel which ardently defends the existence of the Jewish state. And in 2015, she not only starred in but wrote and directed the Hebrew-language adaptation of Israeli author Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. (The actress is fluent in Hebrew.)

The Genesis Prize Controversy

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Natalie Portman was awarded the Genesis Prize in 2018, often referred to as the “Jewish Nobel,” for “her commitment to social causes and deep connection to her Jewish and Israeli roots.” But when Portman heard that Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be speaking at the award ceremony, the American Jewish star declined to appear before the Genesis Prize Foundation. When Portman’s decision made headlines, she took to social media to explain her thought process, writing on Instagram:

“My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. Let me speak for myself. 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.My decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony has been mischaracterized by others. Let me speak for myself. 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.”

In her message, Portman noted that she does not support BDS, or Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the Palestinian-led movement which promotes international boycotts against Israel. But members of the Israeli government condemned her anyways, with the culture minister claiming she’d been manipulated by “anti-Israel activists.” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz even said her snub had “elements of anti-Semitism,” according to Vox.

As for the prize money that came with the award, $2 million, Portman was barred from donating to a charity of her choice; the Genesis Prize Foundation retained control over the philanthropic funds.

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