Actor Michael Douglas and Activist Natan Sharansky Talk Jewish Identity


Actor Michael Douglas and Jewish activist Natan Sharansky held a conversation titled “Jewish Journeys” on Tuesday night in CEMEX Auditorium. The talk focused on the changing face of Jewish individuality and the two men’s shared goal of supporting college-aged students in identity issues.

Douglas, known for producing “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and starring in “Wall Street,” among other films, was awarded the 2015 Genesis Prize, dubbed the “Jewish Nobel Prize” by Time Magazine, along with $1 million. Douglas donated his award money, which was doubled to $2 million by an anonymous donor, to Avenues to Jewish Engagement for Intermarried Couples and their Families.

Sharansky was a former political prisoner of the Soviet Union for nine years, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is the current Chairman of the Executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel.

As a member of the Genesis Prize selection committee, Sharansky said the organization looked for “people who appreciate their Jewish heritage and tradition and can explain to the young generation about the connection between universal values within Israel and Jewish values.”

Douglas became the candidate for the prize as his own reconnection with Judaism reflected the changing definition of Jewish identity today. His reconnection occurred when his son Dylan began delving deeper into the faith and asked for a bar mitzvah, a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish boys. Douglas’s story showcased that supporting adolescent exploration of identity was something important for his family.

Both Douglas’s and Dylan’s recognition as Jews despite their paternal link also highlighted a shift occurring in Jewish culture. There is a reform movement to be more inclusive in the designation of Jews. Douglas’s father was Jewish but his mother was not. According to traditional Jewish law, only the children of Jewish mothers can be considered Jewish. Because of this, Douglas claimed he thought of Judaism as “not necessarily an open, embracing and welcoming faith.”

However, he considered the Genesis Prize an opportunity to renew his spirituality and a way to broadcast the impact of marriage between Jews and non-Jews.

“This incredible catharsis came over me,” Douglas said. “I’m recognizing the fact that inclusion and interfaith marriage must be more important than I had ever realized.”

According to The Jerusalem Post, the overall rate of Jewish intermarriage in the U.S. is 58 percent, with a high of 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews.

Just as Douglas’s reception of the Genesis Prize represented the shifting trends in identifying Jews, Sharansky echoed the need for a more inclusive definition.

“What a great lesson or reminder to our community that we have to be all as welcoming and that it’s never too late for anyone to be part of our mutual exodus,” Sharansky said.

He also suggested that people, especially the younger generation, fortify their values and beliefs in order to assume responsibility for their own identities. “You can define your identity by strengthening your life as part of your community, by learning more and trying to see what are the values [of your identity],” Sharansky said. “If you really want to change the globe, start by strengthening your identity.”

Today, Israel is experiencing the largest influx of Western European immigrants since the modern state of Israel was created in 1948, according to CNN. The increasing number of migrants also contributes to the question of what defines an Israeli. But for Sharansky, immigration is not an obstacle for Israeli identity but merely another part of it.

“Israel has experience at integration like no other state,” Sharansky said. “Seventy-five percent of the population immigrated. Society is very open to more and more people from very different backgrounds.”

Legislation also reflects the changing face of Jewish religion in Israel. This past weekend, the Israeli government agreed to open up prayer space at the Western Wall – considered the most important Jewish site, according to Sharansky – for non-Orthodox Jews. They will also now allow men and women to share the same site.

“Interdependence between Jews of the globe and Israel is as big as never before,” Sharansky said.

The talk was partly sponsored by Hillel at Stanford in celebration of its 50th anniversary. For Douglas and Sharansky, it was the second in a three-part series. The two also held similar conversations at Brown University and University of California, Santa Barbara, Douglas’s alma mater.

The Stanford Daily