Michael Douglas, acclaimed actor and UCSB alumnus, and Natan Sharansky, author, activist and chair of The Jewish Agency, discussed their relationships with Judaism, anti-Semitism, activism and religious pluralism Wednesday in Pollock Theater.
The event was part of a three-part university tour titled “Jewish Journeys,” which began Thursday at Brown University and stopped at Stanford University before arriving at UCSB.
Both Sharansky and Douglas became active in the Jewish community after their childhoods.
“I grew up knowing zero about my Jewish-ness,” Sharansky said of growing up in Soviet-ruled Donetsk, Ukraine. He said he knew his family was Jewish only because it was “written on the I.D. of your parents” and because of “all the conversations about anti-Semitism and discrimination.”
Sharansky said being a Jew at the time was like being “born with some very rare disease,” and the only “medicine” was being the best at your trade.
“Your parents are telling to you, because you are Jewish, everywhere — in school, in university, in kindergarten — you must be number one,” Sharansky said. “In physics or mathematics or in chess or in music or in dance, whatever, it doesn’t matter, you must be the best at your profession. That is the way how we Jews survive.”
Sharansky said many Jewish people felt a sense of community after the Six-Day War of 1967 — when Israel gained the upper hand against the Soviet Union and its Egyptian and Syrian allies —leading to increased activism among Jews.
After the war in 1967, Sharansky said, “Israel entered our lives very powerfully because the victory of Israel over allies of the Soviet Union was a huge humiliation for the Soviet Union.”
Sharansky said, following the Six-Day War, he realized the importance of his connection to the Jewish community.
“Suddenly, you find out, you discover that all the people around you, your friends and your enemies, they all connect you to the Israeli army,” Sharansky said.
Douglas said after his son’s bar mitzvah, his family visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem, after which the Genesis Prize Foundation recognized his commitment to the Jewish community.
“A few pictures were taken; it made the Israeli press,” Douglas said. “The next thing I know, the Genesis group contacts me and presents this incredible prize, this opportunity which I was truly touched because I felt I was part of a tribe.”
Douglas said the Israeli government opened a permanent egalitarian prayer space earlier this week at the Western Wall.
“That is the place where Jews are coming for 3,000 years to talk to God and at the same time; it is the number-one national symbol,” Sharansky said.
Sharansky said years of negotiations have resulted in the understanding that even though some compromises regarding the Wall may be painful, the unity of Jewish people is more important.
“For me, it is very important that we as a Jewish community always will be open and welcoming for those who are invested,” Sharansky said.
Douglas said the Jewish people have reason to be optimistic about their history and the future.
“It is a sense of community, and I have been deeply inspired by my son and by my father,” Douglas said. “So I see and feel a continuity of generations, a sense of immortality. I am hopeful and optimistic.”
During the Q&A segment of the event, April Savage, third-year biology major, asked about interfaith climates on college campuses. Douglas responded by encouraging discussion of controversial subjects.
“People always say, ‘don’t talk about politics or religion and you will always get along.’ I would encourage a dialogue and being able to open up and expose yourself and have the support of Hillel behind you,” Douglas said, referring to the Jewish nonprofit student group.
Rabbi Evan Goodman, executive director of Santa Barbara Hillel, said UCSB has more Jewish undergraduate students than any other UC campus and that 160 students traveled to Israel on birthright trips last year.
Andrew Packer, third-year economics and accounting major, described his experience with Santa Barbara Hillel and his birthright experience.
“For me, Santa Barbara Hillel has enabled me to reconnect with my Jewish roots,” Packer said. “It allows me to continue my cultural exploration of Judaism and opens the dialogue on religion.”