Michael Douglas will receive a $1-million prize from a group founded by Russian billionaires seeking to strengthen Jewish culture at a time when the Jewish population is shrinking worldwide and Israel is eager for support from international figures, including Hollywood celebrities, in its decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.
The Genesis Prize Foundation was set to announce Wednesday night in New York City that Douglas was the recipient of its second annual award to celebrate “the richness and diversity of Jewish culture.” The two-time Academy Award winner will be honored by the Israeli prime minister during a ceremony in Jerusalem in June. The 70-year-old actor was selected by a committee that included Nobel literature laureate Elie Wiesel.
Douglas is an intriguing choice; his selection may be criticized by ultraconservative Jews. His father, Kirk Douglas, who was born Issur Danielovitch, is the son of Jewish immigrants from what is now Belarus. Michael Douglas’ mother, Diana Dill, is not Jewish, and he was not raised in the faith. Douglas embraced his Jewish identity later in life and last year traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate the bar mitzvah of his son Dylan.
In a phone interview from New York, Douglas, who won an Academy Award for lead actor for his 1987 portrayal of Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street,” and as producer of 1975 best picture winner “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest,” acknowledged that his selection would likely “not go without controversy or debate.” He added that as a Reform Jew who was in an interfaith marriage with Catherine Zeta-Jones, he has often been made to feel estranged from his faith by Orthodox Jews.
But he noted that he was inspired by his son Dylan’s devoutness and his father’s reaffirmation of his Jewish lineage and his second bar mitzvah when he was 83. Douglas said that he hoped the award would “encourage a new generation and remind them what their roots are and that they are welcome” in the fold.
“It is an unconventional choice,” said Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the foundation, who added that the actor was chosen for “his professional achievements and for his passion for his Jewish heritage and the Jewish state.”
“The Douglas family’s experience of connecting with its heritage and embracing it on their own terms embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds,” Polovets added.
The foundation is part of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, started in 2007 by Russian businessmen to foster Jewish identity among about 3 million Russian-speaking Jews, many of whom immigrated to Israel and other countries after the fall of the Soviet Union. The aim of the Genesis Prize is to recognize personalities who may inspire Jews about their history and to bolster wider support for Israel, which has drawn international condemnation for its treatment of Palestinians, notably after last year’s war in the Gaza Strip.
The selection last year of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the first Genesis prize ruffled some in certain Jewish quarters. Bloomberg is not devout, and some Israelis thought he had not done enough with his fortune or political influence to promote the Jewish state. The billionaire donated his $1-million prize to fund innovative projects by young adults to improve global and community problems.
Bloomberg appeared “no more Jewish than the cop on the street who eats a bagel for lunch and picked up some Yiddish from a stint in Brooklyn,” Jane Eisner, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, wrote last year. “What are these Jewish values that we so vaguely admire? Is Michael Bloomberg the best person to answer that question before an increasingly skeptical younger generation?”
The Genesis Philanthropy Group, which has endowed the prize foundation with $100 million, was founded by businessmen Polovets, Alexander Knaster, German Khan, Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs who has reported ties to President Vladimir Putin. The men made their fortunes in banking, oil, telecommunications and other businesses. The philanthropy is close to the Israeli government and spends $15 million to $20 million a year on a number of projects, including sending about 3,000 Russian-speaking Jews to Israel every year to learn about their culture.
Polovets, head of the AAR Consortium, which manages Russian energy assets, said part of the focus of the Genesis group was to promote diversity in the Jewish community in hope of encouraging a younger, less religious generation to embrace its heritage.
“Israel is facing external threats, as do Jews in many European countries,” said Polovets, who graduated from Stanford University and lives in New York. “We have to be as inclusive and tolerant as possible, and stop askingwhich of your grandmothers was Jewish and which one was not. Otherwise, our numbers will continue to diminish at an alarming rate.”
The worldwide Jewish population has declined from 18 million in 1988 to 13.8 million in 2013, according to the World Almanac. The drop is partly attributed to aging, mixed marriages and a lack of religious devotion.
The honoring of Douglas, who as a U.N. messenger of peace has lobbied for human rights and anti-nuclear proliferation, indicates that Israel is seeking support from Hollywood after many in the film industry did not publicly back the country during its war with the Palestinian group Hamas last year.
“There is always a way to support and strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish state by identifying, expressing and working for Jewish solidarity,” said Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who headed the award committee. “Michael Douglas did precisely this in his own inimitable and very impressive way.”
Douglas said he was exploring how to donate his $1-million prize but noted that part of it would likely go to groups that work with interfaith marriage and other tolerance issues.