Natalie Portman Says Jewish Community Focuses Too Much On Holocaust

"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."
VALERY HACHE via Getty Images

Natalie Portman revealed in a recent interview that she believes her childhood Jewish education placed too much emphasis on the Holocaust, arguing that the Jewish community must focus more on other injustices being perpetrated around the globe.

“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," Portman told The Independent.

"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.”

The 34-year-old actress was born and raised in Israel until the age of 4, when her family moved to the U.S. She has expressed criticism of Israel's government, but chose an adaptation of a beloved Israeli novel for her directorial debut. In May, Tablet magazine called her "the most visibly Jewish actress of her generation."

Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, told The Jewish Week he objected to elements of the actress' Holocaust comments but agreed with "much of the substance."

“Because of its enormous scope and its systematic, all-embracing nature, the Shoah is the epitome of genocides,” Rosensaft said. Portman erred in comparing it to other genocides, he argued.

But Rosensaft added: “Far too often we teach about the Holocaust and do not sensitize our kids to other atrocities, other genocides that are occurring in their lifetime.”

Later in the Independent interview, the actress clarified her comments, saying she didn't intend to "make false equivalences" between the genocide of 6 million Jews to other mass killings. But, she added, "We need it to serve as something that makes us empathetic to people rather than paranoid.”

Portman said she arrived at this conclusion during a trip to Rwanda in 2007, during which she visited a museum dedicated to the 1994 genocide of the minority Tutsi community. The actress, who was 13 in 1994, said her education at the time did not touch on the massacre.

"I was shocked that [the Rwandan genocide] was going on while I was in school. We were learning only about the Holocaust and it was never mentioned and it was happening while I was in school," Portman said.

B'nai B'rith International, a leading Jewish organization, said it was "disappointed" by Portman's comments. The group wrote on its website that although Jews shouldn't "turn a blind eye" to other tragedies, Holocaust education is an "extremely important" element of Jewish identity.

The memory of the Shoah must continue to be perpetuated, especially as the number of survivors continues to diminish. The focus does not come at the expense of learning about other tragedies, such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia. [...] However, questioning the prominence of Holocaust education within a Jewish education is not the way to increase overall awareness of these heinous crimes.

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