Natan Sharansky, Michael Douglas make for an odd couple in talk at Stanford

A Hollywood star and a refusenik turned Israeli political leader sat down last week at Stanford University to discuss anti-Semitism, a rising hostility toward Israel on college campuses and the role identity has played in each man’s Jewish journey.

Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky — speaking at Stanford on Feb. 2 as part of a three-campus tour — might seem like an unusual pairing.

But, according to Douglas, the two first bonded when he received Israel’s Genesis Prize in 2015, sparking the idea for the lecture series. Sharansky is chair of the selection committee for the award, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel Prize” by Time magazine.

The tour, which started at Brown University and ended at Douglas’ alma mater, U.C. Santa Barbara, was well-timed, as Feb. 11 marked the 30th anniversary of Sharansky’s release from Soviet detention after serving nine years in various prisons and labor camps.

Natan Sharansky (left) and Michael Douglas in conversation at Cemex Auditorium at Stanford University on Feb. 2 photo/courtesy robert reeves

The talk at Stanford was a kind of homecoming for Sharansky, who became a cause célèbre and the subject of persistent campus demonstrations on behalf of Soviet Jewry at Stanford and beyond throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

At least one demonstrator from those days was on hand to welcome him: Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, executive director of Hillel at Stanford, who delivered the closing remarks.

“I was there to greet you when you landed at [Israel’s] Ben Gurion Airport,” she told the former prisoner of Zion and, since 2009, the chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Last week’s talk occurred shortly after Israel agreed to expand non-Orthodox Jews’ access to the Western Wall — the culmination of a four-year effort by Sharansky, a former Knesset minister.

Who is or is not a Jew “is secondary,” Sharansky told an audience of about 600 who had gathered for the free talk at Stanford. Instead, he continued, what we must ask ourselves is: “What kind of Jewish community do we want to have?”

The Western Wall deal may prove to be a boon for Douglas as well. The actor-producer is using his Genesis Prize platform to promote inclusivity in the Jewish community, particularly for interfaith families like his own that have not traditionally found the warmest welcome.

“We must lift the tent flaps of Abraham,” he said, referring to the biblical patriarch’s legendary hospitality.

The son of a Jewish father and a mother who belonged to the Church of England, Douglas said he was pleasantly surprised to discover that someone of Sharansky’s stature saw him as a fellow Jew.

“You mean you consider me Jewish?” he recalled saying to Sharansky when they first met.

“We grew up with no religious background at all,” Douglas said of his childhood in New Jersey. “My first experience with spirituality was in the ’60s with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.”

Like a lot of young American Jews at the time, he lived on a commune after graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara in 1968 with a degree in dramatic art. “We worked hard at the eradication of glaucoma,” he said to knowing giggles.

While Jewish tradition could not have been further from his mind at that time, he said, he later learned that it had always been important to his father, actor Kirk Douglas. With an appearance that allowed the elder Douglas to “pass” as non-Jewish, he said, his father was exposed to prejudiced comments made in his presence by people who didn’t realize he was Jewish.

“The older I got, the more I began to realize that his rage came out of the anti-Semitism he saw,” Douglas said of his father’s onscreen intensity.

Sharansky grew up in Donetsk, Ukraine. It wasn’t until the Six-Day War in 1967, he told the audience, that Jews in the Soviet Union became aware of belonging to a larger, global Jewish community.

Having endured and documented human rights abuses as a refusenik and “enemy of the state”  in the Soviet Union, Sharansky is critical of groups like Breaking the Silence, former Israeli soldiers who often tour the United States and speak in opposition to Israel’s presence in the West Bank. He said he believes these groups wear the mantle of human rights while abusing freedom of speech to promote anti-Israel sentiment. He also criticized Students for Justice in Palestine, whose members picketed his appearance with Douglas at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, on Feb. 28.

“I am not against criticism of Israel, [but the protesters] have nothing to say. They are only shouting,” he said, describing an encounter with a female protester at Brown who told him, “‘We didn’t come here to talk to you.”

Meanwhile the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, he claimed, has not hurt the Israeli economy one bit.

During a Q&A session after the talk, several Stanford undergrads appealed for guidance in dealing with anti-Israel rhetoric on campus.

Sharansky was unambiguous: “Remember from where you came.”

We should not “try to convince our enemies that we are not as bad as they think we are,” he said, but rather make room for Jews to take pride in their heritage.

“If you really want to change the globe,” he suggested, “start by strengthening your own identity.”

The talk at Stanford, titled “Jewish Journeys,” was co-sponsored by the Genesis Prize Foundation, Hillel International, the Jewish Agency for Israel and Hillel at Stanford.