Should we care when a Jewish actress tells us that we are placing too much emphasis on Holocaust education? Hollywood interviews aren’t the place to find serious commentary on such issues, but when Natalie Portman told Britain’s Independent that it is “subverted to fear-mongering” and making Jews “paranoid” it was more than just a celebrity gaffe. Born in Jerusalem and the product of Jewish day schools, she is someone who has long been identified with support for Israel and Jewish causes. Throw in the fact that she once played Anne Frank on Broadway and is now in the middle of promoting a film she has produced, directed, written and acted in an adaptation of Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness, that gives the Oscar-winner a certain standing to speak on Jewish issues. Portman’s comments seem to reflect her liberal political beliefs and especially her much-publicized antipathy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and support for President Obama. Indeed, it is hard not to see them as being a function of the debate over the Iran nuclear deal more than an in-depth analysis of the role of the Holocaust in history. But Portman’s comments shouldn’t be entirely dismissed because she’s half right.
Portman’s comments came in the context of an interview with the British paper as part of her promotion tour for A Tale of Love and Darkness. The film is an adaptation of a memoir of Oz’s early life in Jerusalem and on Kibbutz Hulda, and most particularly the suicide of his mother, whom Portman portrays in the film. But the interview gives us more than a behind-the-scenes look at her work on the movie.
After detailing her Jewish background and education, the Independent article pivots away from the film to politics:
Yet she now thinks that she was slightly hoodwinked into not questioning the actions of the Israeli state. As the government has become more right-wing, she has started to be a critical voice. She sees some of her previous opinions as being the result of her education, which she believes put too exclusive an emphasis on the Holocaust.
“I think a really big question the Jewish community needs to ask itself, is how much at the forefront we put Holocaust education. Which is, of course, an important question to remember and to respect, but not over other things… We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times and reminds us to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also. Not used as a paranoid way of thinking that we are victims.”
She continues: “Sometimes it can be subverted to fear-mongering and like ‘Another Holocaust is going to happen’. We need to, of course, be aware that hatred exists, anti-Semitism exists against all sorts of people, not in the same way. I don’t mean to make false equivalences, we need it to serve as something that makes us empathetic to people rather than paranoid.”
Portman publicly opposed the re-election of Netanyahu and his “right-wing” government, so it isn’t difficult to connect the dots between this statement and her equally public support for President Obama. Since Netanyahu and other critics of the president’s Iran nuclear deal have invoked the genocidal threats made by Iran against Israel’s existence, apparently any mention of the Holocaust these days must be accompanied by a disclaimer of some sorts if a public figure wishes to retain their status as a liberal in good standing.
However, her assumption that Holocaust education is prompting Jews to not care about the suffering of others or to overhype threats to themselves is deeply troubling. Later in the article, Portman claims to have been surprised to learn that genocide was going on in Rwanda at the same time she was studying the Holocaust as a youngster. It’s hard to believe an intelligent person, let alone a Harvard grad was unaware of a news event that was portrayed in graphic detail on the front pages of American newspapers at the time it was happening. It’s especially hard to believe since the vast majority of American Jewish schools, especially the non-Orthodox ones such as those Portman attended, tend to emphasize efforts to universalize the lessons of the Holocaust. If anything, most of the American Jewish world long ago took her advice about emphasizing empathy to heart a long time ago. Indeed, go to any community Holocaust commemoration in the United States in the last decade and the odds are you’d have been more likely to hear concerns about Rwanda or Darfur than a call to arms about the Iranian nuclear threat.
Perhaps some readers will be inclined to give her a pass on concern about Iran because of President Obama’s assurances that it’s anti-Semitic Supreme Leader who vows to eliminate Israel is “just a politician.” But it is particularly egregious for Portman to pooh-pooh threats to Jewish life at a time when a rising tide of anti-Semitism is growing in Europe. A better question to pose to her is that if she thinks Jews are “fear-mongering” about Jew hatred, is she willing to have her son Aleph walk around Paris, where she lives with her husband and child, wearing jewelry or a kipah that would openly identify him as a Jew? Or are the rules for celebrities different from those for other Jews who fear to do so in the City of Light?
Love him or hate him, Netanyahu’s responsibility is to protect the citizens of a Jewish state that remain under threat not only from the intentions of Iran but of its terrorist allies Hamas and Hezbollah. I don’t know where Portman spent her summer last year, but most Israelis spent much of it in bomb shelters as Hamas rockets rained down on their cities and terrorists sought to use tunnels to kidnap and murder Jews. It isn’t 1938, and Israel is a strong nation whose leaders won’t let their people be pushed into the ovens by enemies or those claiming to be its friends. Holocaust analogies are often inappropriate. But the fact remains that the one Jewish state remains the one nation in the world that is targeted for elimination by most of its neighbors with many in the supposedly enlightened West ready to cheer such a result. This is not a product of criticism of Netanyahu but anti-Semitism.
But even as we take her to task for mixing up the Holocaust with her antipathy for Netanyahu and sympathy for Obama, a discussion about the emphasis on Holocaust education in the U.S. is probably a good thing.
For the post-World War Two generation in this country, Jewish identity centered on support for Israel and the memory of the Holocaust. That helped produce the generation of activists that created the Soviet Jewry movement as well as the people who helped build the U.S.-Israel alliance. But historical memory and political activism are no substitutes for either faith or a sense of peoplehood. Those values are good in and of themselves, but they are not necessarily transmissible. And for those, like Portman, who were born long after the events of the 1940s, the memory of the Holocaust or of a world without a State of Israel is as remote as that of the Roman Empire. While she, the daughter of an Israeli and an active American Jew, has not lost her connection with Jewish life, many in her generation have.
The results of the 2013 Pew Survey on Jewish Americans painted a portrait of a community that had little sense of the richness of Jewish civilization that transcends the Holocaust or even cheerleading for Israeli survival. Jewish identity cannot be built on sorrow over the past or living vicariously through the achievements of Israel as so many postwar Jews tended to do. The toll of assimilation that has created the distressing statistics that herald the demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry should have taught us that if nothing else.
A Holocaust-centric education cheats Jews of the richness of their history, their faith and contemporary Jewish life including Israel. So Portman isn’t entirely wrong to question how the subject can distort the perception of Jewish existence.
But in 2015, with anti-Semitism emerging from the shadows in the Europe where she lives and with Jew-haters hiding behind the thin veil of the boycott Israel movement elsewhere, this isn’t the moment to accuse Jews of paranoia. Even more to the point, with an Iranian regime committed to the destruction of her homeland about to become, with the help of the president she supports, a nuclear threshold state, it is unacceptable for her to be claiming that Jews are fear-mongering.