It’s happened to all of us.
You’re at a trendy wine bar or dinner party—a nice one that uses cloth napkins and serves appetizers separately from the main course—when the dreaded “I” word comes up. And no, it’s not “isometrics” or “Ireland Baldwin.” It’s Israel.
At your table, the consensus is that Israel is full of whiny and hypocritical racists and bullies. A tight knot forms in your stomach: Do you assert support for the Jewish State, causing everyone to treat you as some kind of hateful right wing reactionary for the rest of the night? Or do you agree without caveat and feel ashamed of yourself?
Either way, you’re coerced into asserting something you don’t totally agree with. So you excuse yourself to the bathroom and hope that when you come back they’ll be talking about The Real Housewives.
Or! You’re in the same situation, but this time with a bunch of Jews (probably your family) who are extremely worried about the plight of their brethren in Paris, where anti-Semitism has become a major concern. Obviously, Jews aren’t safe there! Obviously, they need to emigrate immediately! Obviously, this is 1938 all over again!
You think they might be overreacting just a wee bit, but you just can’t deal with the angry, tearful diatribes you’ll get from your mother/grandfather/extremely self-righteous uncle if you actually say so, so you excuse yourself to the bathroom and hope that when you come back, they’ll all just be talking about how much they hate the new cantor.
If only there were a sort of style guide for dealing with these kinds of situations! If only there were someone who could navigate difficult topics like this with poise and integrity; somebody who never gets pushed into saying anything she doesn’t mean!
Well, now there is: Her Royal Highness Natalie Portman.
In an interview in the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter, Portman, the Queen Esther of our times, crushes every difficult question put to her with the kind of empathetic intelligence and unapologetic principle that is woefully absent from many exchanges about Jewish issues, and Israel in particular. She appears to eschew the careful, publicist-approved ground of the typical celebrity interview.
Beginning with Netanyahu—who scrambled yesterday to form a governing coalition—Portman’s take is unequivocal and flawless:
“I am very, very upset and disappointed that he was re-elected. I find his racist comments horrific,” she said. But she refused, as she put it, to “shit on Israel.”
Furthermore, Portman admits that her adopted city of Paris has become an increasingly uncomfortable place to be visibly Jewish, while getting in the extremely salient point that she’d “feel nervous being a black man in [France].” But that’s not to make false equivalencies or to make light of a genuine threat: “I’m from Israel, you know?”
And Portman provides plenty of other gems: about how Hollywood tends to worship the “false idol” of Oscar; about the John Galliano anti-Semitism controversy (which, you’ll remember, occurred when Portman was the face of Dior (she still is; Galliano, who headed the fashion label, has since been axed). But really, you should read the whole interview—both as a primer for how to answer tough questions, and simply for an example of how to be yourself.
Actors, especially ethnic ones, tend to avoid questions beyond the cursory about their heritage. The reasons for this are mostly practical: in an industry that relies so heavily on typecasting, if you talk too much about your Nonna’s spaghetti sauce in an interview, then you’re stuck playing mob heavies for the rest of your life.
Portman, then, is that rarest of birds (A BLACK SWAN!) who has formed her public persona by leaning into her background rather than away from it. Portman, the most visibly Jewish actress of her generation, and certainly the most actively engaged with her Jewishness, has come away firmly imbued with all the most positive virtues one could associate it with: intelligence, ambition, bravery, strength. Natalie Portman makes you ashamed that you might ever be ashamed. And in this age of Twitter mobs, insta-commentary, and constant surveillance, that’s a radical act.
Besides, it’s nice to have something to say about an actress at a dinner party beyond how much you hated her Oscar dress.
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