Itongadol.- Actor Michael Douglas and Israeli leader Natan Sharansky addressed threats facing the Jewish people last night, ranging from the Islamic State terrorist group mounting on Israel’s borders to the BDS movement spreading across campuses worldwide.
On tour, Douglas and Sharansky urge ‘a more inclusive’ Jewry
Framed as a “Jewish journeys” dialogue between Douglas and Sharansky, nearly 500 people attended this first installment of three conversations between the men set for US campuses. Last year, Douglas received the second annual Genesis Prize, awarded for dedication to the Jewish people or state of Israel.
As chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and a key factor in selecting Douglas for the award, Sharansky formed a friendship with the prolific actor, based on their mutual desire to expand the parameters of Jewish community, explained Sharansky.
“Those who feel they are not part of this Jewish journey, we have to do everything to welcome them,” said Sharansky, who lauded record immigration to Israel from Europe in recent years.
Like the formerly imprisoned refusnik Sharansky, Douglas came to Judaism later in life, but under vastly difference circumstances. In addition to reflecting on their paths to Israel and Jewish self-identity, the icons spoke about threats to Jewish continuity and Israel’s existence in an imploding Middle East.
Two Jewish journeys
Douglas kicked off the conversation by acknowledging the 30-year anniversary of Sharansky’s 1986 release from prison in the Soviet Union, where he was confined for nine years.
In addition to moving to Israel after his release, Sharansky cited another pivotal, earlier Jewish moment in his life — when Israel beat the odds to win 1967’s Six Day War.
“The war was a huge humiliation for the Soviet Union,” said Sharansky, alluding to Soviet military support for Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Sharansky recalled noticing a new sense of pride among Soviet Jews following the war, as Russians said to him and other Jews, “you see how your soldiers are fighting?” This was start of the movement to liberate Soviet Jewry, said the 68-year old Sharansky, who said he considered himself “an assimilated Jew” before 1967.
Though Douglas has never been imprisoned for his beliefs, his Jewish journey faced a different kind of obstacle — one that lasted for almost half a century.
“I was reminded a lot of times, you’re not Jewish, because your mother is not Jewish,” said the 71-year old Douglas of his early encounters with Jews.
As a boy, Douglas joined his father — the late actor Kirk Douglas — on the set of the latter’s “Cast a Giant Shadow” film in Israel, about the founding of the Jewish state’s army. Though he did not “feel Jewish” growing up, Douglas recalled being awed by this 1964 visit.
“Such an amazing mix of people,” Douglas recalled of his visit, along with memories of the armored cars from the War of Independence lining the road to Jerusalem. Though impressed by Israel and aware of his father’s Jewish background, Douglas said he “went on through life and didn’t think a whole lot about it.”
Almost half a century later, Douglas was brought back to Judaism by his son Dylan, who became fascinated by Jewish rituals conducted at his friends’ homes, said Douglas. Before Douglas and his wife, actress Catherine Zeta Jones, could even say a motzi, Dylan, now 15, was asking for a bar mitzvah and family trip to Israel.
“When I light the candles I feel something,” Douglas recalled his son saying. “Dylan brought a spirituality to our family and a knowledge to our lives, we were really touched,” said the actor.
The next “cathartic moment” of the actor’s Jewish journey occurred last year, he said, when Douglas was awarded the Genesis Prize after having “not felt part of the Jewish faith for a very long time.”
Sharansky also spoke about a recent, healing juncture in his Jewish journey: two and a half years of negotiations to increase access to Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount’s Western Wall, for Jews of all backgrounds.
Referencing the “awful” treatment received by Women of the Wall activists, Sharansky said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tasked him with working to increase access to the site.
“Everyone wants that we will be one people, with one history, with one Wall, and one state,” said Sharansky to applause.
Threats, from BDS to ISI
When it comes to battling the anti-Israel BDS movement, Sharansky does not shy away from confronting detractors face-to-face.
During the first half the event, a group of about three-dozen Students for Justice in Palestine members chanted “Free Palestine” and other slogans from the lobby. Signs against Israeli “apartheid” and “the occupation” were in students’ hands and taped to walls, and boisterous anti-Israel chants echoed lightly in the auditorium.
As one might expect of the legendary activist, Sharansky confronted the protesters on his way into the auditorium.
“The moment you start talking to them about any logic, they struggle,” said Sharansky of his encounter with Brown’s SJP chapter, and of BDS supporters in general.
Though he said BDS does not pose a threat to Israel’s economy, Sharansky warned of the movement’s ability to “discourage so many Jewish students from being connected to their people and to the state of Israel,” he said.
Despite the taunts and accusations of SJP, Sharansky told students that “no one can humiliate you. Only you yourself by your actions can humiliate yourself,” he said.
Addressing the difficult security situation in Israel these days, Sharansky spoke about varying reactions people have to living under terror. Within his own family, Sharansky said, one daughter now carries a weapon, while his wife has taken to studying Arabic because — as she told him — “we really need to talk.”
“We are in the middle of a struggle between those who love death, and those who love life,” said Sharansky, while also adding, “we need to talk to everyone who is not a terrorist.”
From Douglas’s point of view, Israel has become even more remarkable in recent years, following the advent of IS and collapse of so many states in the region. Calling Israel “an island of sanity with all the craziness that’s going on around you,” Douglas focused more on the Jewish people’s demographic challenges outside Israel.
Citing a statistic that 70-percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry outside the faith, Douglas urged Jews “to be more inclusive,” in part so more journeys like his family’s reconnection to Judaism can take place. To advance Jewish inclusivity, Douglas is donating his Genesis Prize winnings to organizations that reach out to members of intermarried families, including Hillel International, co-host of the tour.
Douglas and Sharansky will visit Stanford University on February 2, and the University of California at Santa Barbara on February 3.