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Natalie Portman Called this Israeli Law ‘Racist’ — Here’s Why That’s Important

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In an interview promoting her upcoming film, Vox Lux, Natalie Portman was asked about a Israel’s newish nation-state law, which the actress called “racist” and a “mistake”.

As an Israeli living abroad — and a hardcore Natalie fan — I’m heartened by her criticism.

Let me explain. Israel’s nation-state law, which passed in July, defines Israel as a Jewish nation-state — specifically, that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, with Hebrew as the country’s only official language. While the law is mostly symbolic — for example, street signs will continue to be in Hebrew, Arabic, and English — it’s nonetheless a painful precedent for Israeli Arabs and other non-Jewish minorities.

The law was met with sharp criticism, especially from diaspora Jews — including Portman, who was born in Jerusalem but moved to the U.S. at age 3.

“This [law] is a mistake and I do not agree with it,” Portman reportedly said in an interview that was translated to Arabic and published in the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi. “I hope we can love our neighbors and work together with our neighbors for change.”

To put her her seemingly harsh criticism into context, Portman added: “It’s like your family: You love them the most but you’re also the most critical.”

What’s interesting to me is that Portman could’ve easily just said, “no comment.” But instead, she decided to speak her mind, out of love for a country with which she feels an enduring connection.

Portman, whose given name is Neta-Lee Hershlag, often talks about her Judaism and her country of origin. Her directorial debut was a Hebrew-language film based on an Amos Oz novel. She gave both of her children Hebrew names. She even wants you to learn Hebrew slang words!

So you can’t say that she doesn’t cherish her Israeli identity. And hence, her criticisms. In addition to the comment on the nation-state law, she recently backed out of accepting the Genesis Award, known as the “Jewish Nobel,” in protest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies. Her reasoning back then was similar:

“Because I care about Israel, I must stand up against violence, corruption, inequality, and abuse of power,” Portman wrote at the time.

As an Israeli living in the U.S., I often hear this pernicious notion that I don’t have the right to speak about the politics of the country I no longer live in. That by leaving my country, I have relinquished my right to have an opinion about it — especially if it fits the stereotype of Israeli expats being out-of-touch leftists.

But by continuing to speak her mind about Israel, Portman is asserting that we, Israeli expats, have the right and even the prerogative to speak out about the country, even if it is in criticism. It’s because we care that we say what we say. You can disagree with us, sure. But we belong in this conversation.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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