The real danger of Natalie Portman

Israeli leaders are relentlessly hammering home the idea that the kind of political dissent displayed by Natalie Portman is foreign. And dissenters, by definition, are not real Israelis.

Natalie Portman at the premiere of “The Seventh Fire,” Haus der Berliner Festspiele, February 7, 2015. (Siebbi/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Natalie Portman at the premiere of “The Seventh Fire,” Haus der Berliner Festspiele, February 7, 2015. (Siebbi/CC BY-SA 3.0)

When Natalie Portman announced that she would not attend the lucrative Genesis Prize ceremony because she opposes Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was to present the prize to her, reactions in Israel were smoke-out-the-ears hysterical.

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan wrote her an impassioned open letter with gimmicky Star Wars references, to help Portman, who starred in the film, understand her mistakes. Jews in Israel and abroad bemoaned her fall into the clutches of BDS, sounding a lot like the anti-miscegenation group Lehava. Others informed the Harvard-educated Portman that she had failed to “do her homework.”

But one of the lesser-noticed responses says much more disturbing things about Israel today. Shortly after her announcement, lawmaker Oren Hazan, who is currently suspended from Knesset, demanded that the interior minister revoke Portman’s Israeli citizenship.

It is easy to write Hazan off as a playboy-provocateur, just a fool who mugs for selfies with Trump and reportedly ran drugs and brothels in Bulgaria. Why consider him representative? Hazan was elected in 2015 to the Knesset as a member of Likud, Netanyahu’s ruling party. According to all polls, Likud would still win if elections were held today. He was suspended for six months for bullying, but presumably will be back in August.

Nor was Hazan’s stunt an isolated event. When Hagai El-Ad, director of Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, testified to the UN Security Council about the ills of occupation, then-coalition chair David Bitan demanded he, too, be stripped of his citizenship. There was no censure against him; Bitan left the Knesset of his own accord to deal with his corruption investigations.

MK Oren Hazan is removed from the Knesset chambers during a speech by Palestinian MK Haneen Zoabi, December 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
MK Oren Hazan is removed from the Knesset chambers during a speech by Palestinian MK Haneen Zoabi, December 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has proposed a grandiose plan for collectively stripping some 300,000 Israelis of their citizenship. His proposal for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves simply shearing off the densely populated Arab area of Israel known as “The Triangle,” making it part of Palestine instead. These citizens are not being judged for treason or any other crime, not even rejecting a prize or testifying at the UN. They are guilty only of aspiring to live as equal citizens in the country of their birth.

The rush to formally excommunicate citizens even sheds new light on the latest attack on the New Israel Fund (NIF), an Israeli-American foundation that makes grants to progressive social and political non-governmental organizations in Israel.

In late March, Netanyahu went on a frenzied rhetorical rampage against the NIF, calling it a “foreign organization that receives money from foreign governments.” In a remarkable coincidence, just two days later the hate group Ad Kan – imagine an Israeli alt-right organization – circulated a video portraying the NIF and its board chairwoman, Talia Sasson, as foreign agents that fight IDF soldiers on behalf of terrorists. It did not need to actually say the word traitor; the sneering, sarcastic text about the NIF as a “foreign political organization that just pretends to be Israeli” is almost identical to Netanyahu’s rhetoric.

The attack in Israel portraying civil society opposition as foreign interference echoes that in Egypt, Russia, and Hungary, countries whose political systems are almost or outright authoritarian.

Watching the pattern in those countries, it becomes clear that a crucial tactic of the authoritarian is to delegitimize one’s opposition instead of engaging with the substance of their critique. And “foreignness” is the perfect poison to kill the messengers, rather than argue with their points.

Why is the accusation of “foreignness” such a popular and powerful weapon?

The more frequently Israeli authorities call their critics “foreign,” the more they drive home that a “real” Israeli is one who supports the government’s idea of the Israeli consensus, in this case: heavy military force in Gaza, deporting all African refugees, or slavish support for the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a rally with his supporters and for the Jewish holiday of Passover in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a rally with his supporters and for the Jewish holiday of Passover in Tel Aviv, March 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The idea that being Israeli demands loyalty to a megalomaniac leader is reaching particularly shrill notes, emerging from people themselves, not only politicians. Last week, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein dared to publicly clash with Netanyahu, who wanted to break protocol by giving a speech at the national Memorial Day ceremony, traditionally a non-partisan event. They eventually reached a compromise and Netanyahu got his way. By Sunday, pictures of Edelstein as a mocked-up Hitler meme circulated the internet, the caption reading “Hitlerstein.”

In sum, if we can be convinced that it is foreigners who are implanting criticism of policy into Israel, it only follows that those who disagree with those policies — or with the leader — are not true Israelis.

Why is that so important? Perhaps the next leap is that not-real Israelis need not enjoy the rights of full members of society. Like Arabs, they need not be protected from discrimination, or guaranteed freedom of speech. Israel’s anti-NGO laws, anti-boycott and Nakba laws are tailored to left-wing and Arab communities, respectively.

In the final count, “foreign” Israelis shouldn’t even depend on their citizenship. Talk about stripping citizenship isn’t coming from radical fanatics on the margins. Or perhaps they are radical fanatics — but they are no longer on the margins.