Conversation between Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky during Thursday night’s “Jewish Journeys” lecture in Salomon 101 took place amid a protest led by Students for Justice in Palestine.
The lecture, organized by the Brown/RISD Hillel and sponsored by the Genesis Prize Foundation, Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel, aimed to discuss the roles “faith, religious pluralism and human rights have played” in the “personal journeys” of the two speakers: Douglas, an “award-winning actor” and Sharansky, an “historic politician and activist,” according to the event’s description.
Sharansky is currently a chairman at the Jewish Agency for Israel, which connects “Jews with Israel, with one another (and) with their heritage,” according to its website. The agency is one of the largest nonprofits in Israel and played a significant role in immigration to Israel and the absorption of immigrants upon the foundation of the state.
The event was intended to focus on the personal stories of the two speakers, though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became part of the talk, said Marshall Einhorn, executive director for Hillel, and Benjamin Gladstone ’18, vice president of Brown Students for Israel. Gladstone said his statements to The Herald are his own and are not representative of Brown Students for Israel.
A group of 30 protesters gathered outside Salomon before the talk, which drew a full audience.
When the group of demonstrators moved toward the door of Salomon, a security guard told them to “get away from the entrance.” In reply, an SJP member shouted back, “Don’t get away from the entrance!”
Because they had booked a room in Salomon, the protesters were able to enter the building’s lobby, where they remained for the bulk of the lecture. As attendees filed into the auditorium, students shouted from the lobby, “Not another nickel, not another dime! No more money for Israel’s crimes!”
The protesters proceeded up the stairs in an attempt to hang their posters and Palestinian flags from the bannisters, shouting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!”
Security guards rushed ahead of the demonstrators and shut down their efforts. They returned to the lobby, where many of them taped up posters and left by 8 p.m. — more than half an hour before the lecture had finished.
Throughout the demonstration, Ashley Ferranti, assistant dean of student support services, reminded students of the University’s guidelines for staging protests. She also offered to provide further support for students who had missed class to be involved in activism or who were upset by the evening’s events.
The members of SJP cited their reasons for protesting the event in a Herald opinion piece published the day of the event. They wrote that the lecture was propaganda funded by the Israeli government and called the presence of such propaganda an “affront to academic freedom” that should not be presented to Brown students.
The individual speakers were also key reasons for SJP’s protest of the lecture. In the column, SJP claimed that Sharansky has been cited for “anti-Palestinian, anti-African racism” and that Douglas is involved in the Brand Israel campaign, which SJP defined as “a campaign designed to put the spotlight upon Israel’s cultural capital, rather than on its violent, repressive policies.”
Inside the auditorium, Douglas posed questions to Sharansky. Douglas addressed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, asking if Sharansky thinks of it as an anti-Semitic movement. Sharansky said he fears those involved in the movement “are discouraging so many young Jews from being connected” and that he has had difficulty speaking with the members of the movement.
Sharansky said future Jewish leaders should remember their identities and where they come from, adding, “No one can humiliate you; you can only humiliate yourself,” which garnered applause from the audience.
Several students directly addressed the occupation of Palestine during the question and answer session following the lecture. Sharansky criticized the occupation of Palestine in one of his responses, agreeing that the territories should eventually become a free state.
Several other Providence community members appeared alongside the members of SJP to offer an alternative voice to those featured in the event.
“We are here as a presence inviting people to keep in mind human rights and rights for those in Palestine,” said Lee Clasper-Torch, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.
By handing out leaflets and speaking with those entering the event, Clasper-Torch said he hoped to advocate “sustainable peace based on justice” and encourage Israeli officials to “abide by human rights international law, which they currently are not doing.”
“Brown has a history of giving microphones to people who have power,” said Martha Yager, a member of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice group. “If Brown is going to let folks come and give them this space, as a responsible educator, (Brown needs) to make sure all voices are heard,” she added.
Some of the funders of the event made “a concerted effort” to shut down the BDS movement and “professors who are asking questions,” Yager said.
Gladstone, echoing Einhorn, said he was eager to hear the personal stories of the two lecturers and was disappointed that politics became the focus of the event for many students.
Einhorn told The Herald he enjoyed the lecture from Douglas and Sharansky, saying it presented students with the opportunity to hear the stories of others in the Jewish community.
Einhorn’s favorite part of the night was the question and answer period, which allowed students to speak directly with the lecturers, asking both political questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and questions about Douglas’ career as an actor.
As for the SJP protesters, Einhorn said he was glad the students were able to speak their views freely. “We do our best to create a wide tent for students of all different perspectives to engage with one another … and hear from others in a safe way,” he said.
Several members of SJP declined to comment for this story.
Correction: A previous version of this article referred to the author of a column in Thursday's Herald as Huriat Al-Sharq '17. In fact, the column was written by the members of Students for Justice in Palestine. The Herald regrets the error.