PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Neither Michael Douglas nor Natan Sharansky started life with any semblance of a strong Jewish identity, but on Thursday evening, Jan. 28, 2016, they both took to the stage at the Salomon Center for Teaching in the roles of leading spokesmen for “Jewish Journeys” and controversies facing the State of Israel.
To a packed house in the De Ciccio Family Auditorium the film star and the Soviet dissident-turned Israeli politician engaged each other in a far-ranging dialogue that veered from their personal connections to their religion to hot-button political issues that place the State of Israel at the center of debate on the world stage, including the protracted conflict with and occupation of Palestinian territories and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has inspired.
The event is the first of three such dialogues on college campuses. The pair will travel to California to speak at Stanford and The University of California–Santa Barbara early next month.
Identities formed late
Both Sharansky and Douglas came to a sense of active Jewish identity only after childhood. In his Soviet-ruled Ukranian hometown of Donetsk, Sharansky said his childhood was lacking in any knowledge of Jewish ritual and spirituality. The identity was, however, noted by the repressive communist regime.
“We knew very well that we were Jews because that’s what was written on the ID of your parents,” he said. “To be a Jew there was nothing good in it.”
Born in 1948, Sharansky became inspired to learn about and embody his Jewish identity after the six-day war between Israel and several Soviet-supported Arab neighbors in 1967. When he tried to emigrate to Israel in 1973 and was denied a visa, he became an activist. In 1977 he was jailed for speaking out for human rights until he was released 30 years ago next month. Since then he has lived in Israel where he served in government and now leads the Jewish Agency for Israel which has a mission of strengthening ties between global Jewish communities and Israel.
Douglas, the son a Jewish father and Anglican mother, once accompanied his father, Kirk Douglas, on a film shoot in Israel in 1964, he said, but did not formulate a strong desire to connect with Judaism until he became exposed to the emerging spirituality of his son Dylan, who asked to have a Bar Mitzvah.
“Dylan had brought a spirituality to our family,” he said. “We were really touched and it made a difference in our lives.”
In 2015, Douglas received the Genesis Prize given to public figures “who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and the State of Israel.” Sharansky played a key role in Douglas’s selection, which Douglas said he found remarkable because in many Jewish communities, one is only considered a Jew if at least one’s mother is Jewish.
“It was a cathartic moment for me,” Douglas said. “I didn’t realize how much it meant to me to be accepted because I had not been by the Jewish faith for a long time.”
Politics and protest
The evening was not only about the men’s Jewish identities, but also about Israel and the political challenges of Jewish identity. Douglas asked Sharansky questions about anti-Semitism and the political controversies the country faces as both a democracy trying to survive existential threats from terrorist groups and hostile neighboring states, but also as the occupying power of a displaced and deeply suffering population. Both in their dialogue and in some of the audience questions, they confronted several topics, including BDS.
Amid increases in anti-Semitism in Europe, Sharansky said, the flow of Jewish immigrants from Europe to Israel has recently increased markedly. France and his native Ukraine have seen especially notable upticks.
During the evening, about 20 protestors outside in the Salomon lobby occasionally interjected loud chants such as “Free Palestine” and also held signs asserting that BDS is nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory and is not anti-Semitic as it has sometimes been labeled.
But Sharansky said the BDS movement is more menacing than that.
“Behind it is a desire to destroy Israel,” he said. “It’s not about how to make the lives of the Palestinians easier.”
Sharansky said he supports Palestinian statehood but not in a way that would give quarter to terrorist groups like Hezbollah that seek to destroy Israel.
Audience questions ranged from curiosity about Michael Douglas’ acting career (he confessed to slowly building confidence after overcoming serious stage fright) to Sharansky’s experience in prison (“learn to play chess in your head”) to ways to celebrate Jewish identity, to the political controversies.
A Brown sophomore who identified himself as “Sam” embodied some of the complexity of being personally proud of Jewish identity while at the same time being troubled about Israeli policy. He noted Sharansky’s lament that movements like BDS undermine the enthusiasm of some young Jews to affiliate with Israel.
“I love my Jewish community here at Brown, I love Israel, and ... I have no love for the occupation,” Sam said, drawing some applause from the audience. He questioned how certain Israeli programs can inspire Jews like him to feel a stronger connection to Israel if they are perceived as supporting the occupation.
Sharansky responded that he does not relish Israel’s role as an occupying power.
“I feel very strongly that the fact that we are controlling the lives of other people is very bad for us,” he said.
The nation’s problems in that regard, he said, stem from its need to protect itself from many surrounding threats. But as a democracy, Israel welcomes people with a wide diversity of opinions.
“You always can find in Israel people who think exactly like you,” he said.
Inside the room, and just outside, the wide range of experiences inherent in deeply personal identity, and the wide range of opinions and politics that come with it, played out throughout the evening.