Earlier this morning, the organizers of the Genesis Prize—which promotes itself as the Jewish Nobel and awards a million dollars to “extraordinary individuals who serve as an inspiration to the next generation of Jews through their outstanding professional achievement, commitment to Jewish values and to the Jewish people”—was awarded to Natalie Portman.
“We are delighted to celebrate Natalie Portman as the 2018 Genesis Prize
Laureate,” Stan Polovets, co-founder and Chairman of the Genesis Prize
Foundation, said in a statement. “Natalie’s charismatic on-screen presence has touched the hearts of millions. Her talent, her commitment to social causes and her deep connection to her Jewish and Israeli roots are greatly admired. She exemplifies the core traits of the Jewish character and values of the Jewish people – persistence and hard work, pursuit of excellence, intellectual curiosity, and a heartfelt desire to contribute to making the world a better place. Without a doubt, she is a role model for millions of young Jews around the world.”
Ms. Portman is certainly an accomplished actress, and her activism, as well as her pride in her Jewish heritage, are both inspiring. But the selection also raises questions about what precisely might the purpose of the Genesis Prize be. With past honorees including other Hollywood stars like Michael Douglas and celebrated figures like New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg, one wonders if feting the already feted is truly the best use of anyone’s time, money, and energy. The prize’s committee, of course, is free to use its generous endowment to celebrate whomever it wants, but when it makes its next selection, it might want to look to that other Nobel Prize for inspiration: We care about the awards announced in Sweden and Norway each fall in part because they help elevate individuals unknown to us whose essential work the exposure serves to illuminate. And it helps give stellar minds—like, say, the Israeli crystallographer Ada Yonath, who received the prize in chemistry in 2009—the exposure they deserve to garner support and acclaim for their work.
Ms. Portman has no need for further acclaim, which, being a globally admired movie star, she already receives in spades. Her achievements are well-known to anyone who has ever picked up a tabloid or spent a moment on social media. When we’ve so many incredible Jewish educators, activists, rabbis, scientists, poets, journalists, physicians, volunteers and others who embody Jewish values and who have dedicated their lives to the Jewish people, showering a parade of celebrities with awards and money hardly seems like the most inspired path.