The decision of the 2018 Genesis Prize laureate Natalie Portman to cancel her visit to Israel to participate in the Genesis Prize ceremony has caused a major uproar in Israel, across the Jewish world, and well beyond. A substantive, thoughtful and, at times, highly emotional debate ensued.
This debate reflects an obvious fact, which is staring the Jewish community in the face: the growing divide between large segments of Israeli society and Jews in the Diaspora. This divide is getting deeper and wider each year, posing grave risks for both.
Naturally, the controversy surrounding Ms. Portman’s decision required The Genesis Prize Foundation (GPF) to carefully reflect on the situation, ask ourselves some difficult questions, and decide how best to respond to Ms. Portman’s decision.
Some of these questions included:
- Did the Selection and Prize Committees err in selecting Natalie Portman as the 2018 Genesis Prize laureate?
We do not believe that the Selection and Prize Committees were wrong to select Ms. Portman.
Key criteria for being selected as the Genesis Prize laureate include outstanding professional achievement, contributions to society through social activism and/or philanthropy, global name recognition, commitment to core Jewish values, and willingness to engage in joint programs with GPF aimed at instilling a sense of pride in the next generation of Jews.
Global name recognition is important because each year, in addition to honoring a prominent Jewish role model, GPF tries to shine the light on an important philanthropic area that is underserved or underfunded in Israel and/or in the Jewish Diaspora. In today’s world, global name recognition – or what some refer to as “celebrity status” – helps attract attention to the philanthropic cause selected by our foundation and the Prize laureate each year and enables GPF’s grantees to raise additional funding from third parties. This was certainly the case with prior Genesis Prize laureates Mike Bloomberg, Michael Douglas, Itzhak Perlman, and Sir Anish Kapoor.
In the opinion of the members of the Selection and Prize committees, which convened last October, Natalie Portman met all of the above criteria. Ms. Portman, a dual citizen of Israel and the United States who was born in Jerusalem, is a highly accomplished actress who has spoken frequently and passionately about her love for Israel and her pride in being Jewish. She has been actively involved in a number of humanitarian initiatives and dedicated herself to a variety of social justice causes, both of which Ms. Portman has attributed to a strong Jewish upbringing and a personal commitment to Jewish values. In the opinion of Selection and Prize Committee members, all of these qualities undoubtedly make Ms. Portman a role model for the next generation of Jews and an excellent candidate for the 2018 Genesis Prize.
In discussions with our foundation prior to being selected as the laureate, Ms. Portman expressed her eagerness to come to Israel, to participate in the award ceremony on June 28, and to partner with GPF in advancing this year’s philanthropic theme – advocating for women’s equality and empowerment.
Participation in the ceremony in Jerusalem, at which the Prime Minister of Israel, the Speaker of the Knesset and the Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel present the Genesis Prize, is an obligation which every laureate must commit to before being selected. Ms. Portman was aware of this obligation and made this commitment prior to being announced as the 2018 Genesis Prize laureate last November.
- What is our assessment of Ms. Portman’s decision to cancel her visit to Israel?
GPF publicly expressed its deep regret concerning Ms. Portman’s decision to cancel her visit to Israel when that decision was announced on April 19.
This announcement was made almost six months after Ms. Portman confirmed her attendance at the Genesis Prize ceremony. Prior to accepting the Genesis Prize, Ms. Portman was made aware that the Genesis Prize is a partnership between our foundation, the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, and The Jewish Agency for Israel. Moreover, we informed Ms. Portman that the Prime Minister of Israel presents the Genesis Prize and also delivers a keynote address at the award ceremony. Indeed, this information, along with photographs and videos of entire ceremonies from prior years, is available on GPF’s website, YouTube and our various social media platforms.
Ms. Portman’s decision to decline to attend the award ceremony deprived Israelis and Jews all over the world of the chance to join together in honoring her – a distinguished daughter of the Jewish people, who is now one of the leaders of the critically important movement to empower women and remove barriers to their advancement. Ms. Portman’s decision deeply offended numerous women’s rights organizations whose work was going to be highlighted at the ceremony.
But Natalie Portman did much more than disappoint those who wanted to honor her and join her in the important work to advance women’s equality. The statements made by Ms. Portman and her representatives explaining the reasons behind the cancelation of her visit to Jerusalem inadvertently have given ammunition to a variety of groups that promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel. Some even interpreted Ms. Portman’s statement as undermining the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. The following language in Ms. Portman’s Instagram post – “Israel was created exactly 70 years ago as a haven for refugees from the Holocaust” – was especially divisive.
We know that Ms. Portman did not intend to endorse the BDS movement, nor did she want to undermine Israel’s legitimacy by seeming to dismiss the historical claim of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, which has nothing to do with the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, this was not how many perceived her statement and her actions.
Israel is one of the most vibrant democracies in the world, with free elections, free press, and a healthy tension between the three branches of government. Refusing to appear in the same ceremony with the Prime Minister of Israel, regardless of one’s attitude towards the individual who holds the office at any given moment, is a sign of disrespect to the people of Israel, and their right to elect those who govern the Jewish State.
All of us are entitled to publicly criticize and challenge the policies of the government of Israel, or any other government for that matter. GPF does not subscribe to the view that just because one does not reside in Israel, he or she is not entitled to express critical views of the government of Israel or certain of its policies. In fact, our foundation proposed to Ms. Portman that she speak out and express her disagreements with any policy of the Israeli government during her acceptance speech.
GPF and our Israeli partners also offered Ms. Portman an opportunity to hold a press conference, meet with top Israeli officials, including the President and Speaker of the Knesset, and give interviews, events that would have allowed her to share her views with the Israeli audience. Ms. Portman declined these offers, thus preventing the Israeli public and senior policymakers from hearing the point of view of one of the most visible and admired American Jews, whose positions on a number of issues reflect those of many other Jews living in the Diaspora.
- Should Natalie Portman’s Genesis Prize be rescinded?
Natalie Portman’s Genesis Prize should not be rescinded.
Ms. Portman’s decision and her statement inadvertently positioned the Genesis Prize as an instrument of approval or disapproval of the actions of the government of Israel. This was not, and is not, the intent or mission of The Genesis Prize Foundation.
The Genesis Prize was created as an apolitical project with the goal of inspiring young Jews by highlighting the contributions of the Jewish people to humanity, honoring role models for the next generation of Jews, and emphasizing the need for unity in the Jewish world.
Because the concept of Jewish unity is a vital component of the mission of the Genesis Prize; because GPF refuses to further politicize the foundation’s philanthropic initiative and exacerbate the tensions currently experienced by the global Jewish community; and because Natalie Portman met all of the criteria for the Genesis Prize when she was selected by the two Committees last October, Ms. Portman’s 2018 Genesis Prize will not be rescinded.
Our position regarding this matter is best characterized by a quote from Mr. Gunnar Stalsett, a Norwegian theologian, ex-politician and former member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is responsible for selecting the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates: “The principle we follow is the [Committee’s] decision is not a declaration of a saint. When the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee.”
- How should the “re-gifting” of the $2 million Genesis Prize award be handled?
The Genesis Prize traditionally comes with a $1 million financial award. In 2018, our partner, Morris Kahn, a prominent Israeli philanthropist, increased the amount of the award to $2 million to ensure that sufficient funding was available to support organizations doing critical work in advancing women’s equality, particularly in Israel.
Following the tradition established by our previous laureates, Ms. Portman waived her financial award upon receiving the Prize. In a December 15 letter to GPF, Ms. Portman emphasized how honored she was to have been selected as the 2018 Genesis Prize laureate and indicated that she did not wish to receive the monetary award that accompanies the Prize. Ms. Portman confirmed her intent not to exercise control over the monetary award “in any manner,” thus granting GPF the right to distribute the funds to those organizations, which are deemed most effective in promoting women’s equality and advancement.
As with previous laureates, we welcomed the recommendations Ms. Portman made to GPF earlier this year regarding potential grantees, and we will give proper consideration to those who meet our granting criteria and whom we consider worthy of Genesis Prize grants. However, the final decision will belong to GPF.
With these parameters in mind, GPF will issue a request for proposals by May 31 to leading Israeli women’s rights organizations. Proposals will be reviewed in June-July, and GPF, together with our partner Morris Kahn, will announce the recipients of $1 million in grants in August-September.
In North America, GPF will conduct a matching grants initiative and will issue a call for proposals by June 30. Proposals will be reviewed during the course of the summer and grants totaling $1 million – $2 million will be announced in the fall of 2018. The exact total of the grants in North America will depend on the amount of matching funds which applicant organizations will be able to attract as part of this initiative.
When the requests for proposals are issued, GPF will specify the areas of focus for grant applicants, as well as detailed criteria for grant selection.
- Should the controversy with Natalie Portman lead to changes in the process of selecting Genesis Prize laureates in the future?
We do not believe it should.
The process of nominating and selecting Genesis Prize laureates is spelled out in a 2012 agreement between The Genesis Prize Foundation, the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel, and The Jewish Agency. Genesis Prize laureates are selected through a comprehensive and transparent six-month nomination and selection process. This process starts with a request for nominations, which our foundation sends to approximately 1,000 prominent individuals inside and outside the Jewish community each spring.
From about 200 unique nominations received at the close of the nominations cycle in the summer, the Selection Committee, chaired by the head of The Jewish Agency, develops a short list of five potential laureates. This is followed by deliberations of the Prize Committee, chaired by the Speaker of the Knesset, which selects the laureate. Each candidate is briefed in detail on the obligations of the Genesis Prize laureate and must accept these obligations before being considered by the Selection Committee.
While our foundation is represented by only one individual out of eight members of the Selection Committee and by one individual on the five-member Prize Committee, we do not expect that the process of selecting the ultimate Genesis Prize laureate will undergo any significant changes in the future. The Committees will continue to make their choices based on the criteria outlined in response to Question 1 above and will not be guided by the politics of the day.
To be clear, views of potential laureates regarding the current government of Israel or the country’s Prime Minister will not be a consideration for the Genesis Prize. This is exactly how the Committees functioned since the Genesis Prize was first established, as can be seen from prior decisions by the committees. Starting with our first laureate in 2014, the committees chose laureates of centrist or liberal political leanings with absolutely no interference or pressure from the government of Israel, including from two committee members who hold senior positions in the Office of the Prime Minister.
The success of the Jewish people depends on our ability to listen respectfully to – and even provoke – different opinions. It depends on our willingness to search for answers to common challenges through free and open discussion instead of going into our separate corners, boycotting each other, taking out ads attacking each other, and threatening to revoke Israeli citizenship from those whose actions or statements reflect a different perspective.
The intensity of media coverage and the public reaction over the past few weeks to Ms. Portman’s decision to decline to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony is a dramatic indication that some kind of a formal structure is urgently needed where leaders of the Jewish Diaspora, including representatives of the younger generation, and political elites in Israel can conduct a frank and honest conversation before the Israel-Diaspora relationship suffers irreparable damage.
The sooner such a structure is created and this conversation begins, the better.