Wednesday evening, Michael Douglas and Natan Sharansky concluded their three-night college tour at UCSB, as part of the series “Jewish Journeys.” “This is our last night together, Natan and I; I feel like I’m losing my brother,” Douglas said.
Douglas, the renowned Hollywood actor and alumni of UCSB’s dramatic arts program, was the 2015 Genesis Prize Laureate. Awarded each year by the Prime Minister of Israel, the Genesis Prize honors “individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their engagement and dedication to the Jewish community and the State of Israel,” states The Genesis Prize Foundation webpage.
“I felt I was part of a tribe,” Douglas said of his joy over receiving the prize. “I never knew that it meant so much to be a part of this group — as secular as I am — just a part of that community. The values that they represented meant a tremendous amount to me.”
Nominees for the Genesis Prize Laureate are selected from a variety of institutions and organizations around the world. After candidates are nominated, the winner is picked by the Selection Committee, headed by the Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The current chairman is famed Israeli politician and human rights activist Natan Sharansky. Sharansky was born in the Soviet Union and helped lead the campaign for Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel. Facing 13 years in prison for alleged espionage, Sharansky served nine of those years before his release following intense pressure from an international campaign.
“This is the first time in recent history that a renowned Hollywood celebrity will appear on campus in partnership with a prominent Jewish leader to address issues of critical importance to global Jewry,” stated the Genesis Prize Foundation in a Monday press release.
Douglas and Sharansky teamed up to tell their respective Jewish journeys and to speak about issues such as anti-Semitism and inclusion for interfaith couples. Douglas himself has faced these challenges as a man with interfaith parents and an interfaith marriage to Academy Award-winning actress Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Douglas’s father, 99-year-old former actor Kirk Douglas, is Jewish, while his mother, originally Diana Dill (now Diana Douglas), was an actress who was brought up in the Church of England. The couple met in drama school. “I don’t think religion was the first thing on their minds,” Douglas joked.
“We grew up in a family where religion was not part of it,” Douglas said. His first memory of religion was at a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, where he got appendicitis. Douglas, therefore, did not look back on his first Jewish experience too fondly.
Douglas described how his father found religion later in life, after a helicopter accident in which he survived, but some of the other passengers did not. He started studying the Talmud, which Douglas says, “changed his life” and made him “kinder, gentler, and spiritual.”
Dylan, one of Douglas and Jones’s two children, discovered that he wanted to be Jewish after spending time with Jewish friends on the East Coast during his college years. Douglas said that his son wanted to have a Bar Mitzvah — “he felt strongly about it.” Douglas and Jones supported their son’s decision, and they even took a celebratory trip to Israel.
However, not too long after the trip, Douglas described his son’s first brush with anti-Semitism on a family vacation in Europe. Douglas described his son coming up from the hotel pool in tears over comments a couple had made after seeing his Star of David necklace.
As a human rights activist, Sharansky spoke about anti-Semitism at great length. “I grew up knowing zero about my Jewishness,” Sharansky said. “But we knew very well that we were Jewish, because it was written on the ID of your parents. All the conversations at home were about anti-Semitism, discrimination…the only Jewishness which was in our lives was anti-Semitism, and so it was very bad. It was like to be born with some very bad disease, and you had to learn how to cope with this….”
Sharansky continued on to tackle the idea of new anti-Semitism, a combination of “the oldest hatred,” which he said has no logical explanation, and the newer ideas, which involve “demonizing Israel.” Sharansky touched on new immigration patterns that show the highest-ever rates of immigration from Europe to Israel since the latter’s inception.
Douglas and Sharansky fielded several questions from UCSB students involving religious pluralism in Israel, the media’s effects on anti-Semitism, and advice on how to bring students of all backgrounds together.
A small group of protestors from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) handed out flyers prior to the event. JVP is an organization which “opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression,” and, among other efforts, “seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem,” according to the group’s mission statement.
“This event and others like it around the country are part of a campaign from Israel to communicate the point that things aren’t as bad as they seem over there, and Israel is a thriving democracy — and we’ve got serious questions about that,” group organizer Rand Clark told The Santa Barbara Independent.
The event concluded with remarks from Executive Director of Santa Barbara Hillel Rabbi Evan Goodman, who expressed his gratitude and appreciation for Douglas and Sharansky and their respective work.
An anonymous donor doubled Douglas’s $1-million Genesis Prize, and other contributors donated until the amount totaled $3.5-million. All of the money will be donated back to the community, specifically to organizations that support Jewish inclusion.