I once interviewed a normally outspoken media analyst who suddenly went off the record when speaking about people’s reactions to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, because who needed the angry emails?
In my 15 years covering news online, I have learned that even a carefully neutral story related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can draw howls of protest from adherents on both sides of the issue.
The increasingly incendiary debate is the subject of Between Two Worlds, a documentary by Berkeley filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, shown at the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last week. The film moves to Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre on Wednesday, Aug 3; the Roxie in San Francisco, Aug 5 – 11; and the Blue Light in Cupertino, Aug 16.
“Who speaks for Jews today?” the documentary’s festival blurb begins. “In this personal essay, Snitow and Kaufman embark on an intimate, far-ranging exploration of the ideological fissures running through contemporary Jewish life. They turn their camera on recent flashpoints in American Jewish identity, including campus debates over divestment from Israel and the 2009 controversy (pdf) stemming from SFJFF’s screening of (the documentary) Rachel. The filmmakers ask how each generation reshapes, reclaims or rejects its parents’ definition of community values.”
Before the film festival screening, KQED’s Cy Musiker interviewed Snitow and Kaufman about their work and the issues they hope it will raise. An edited transcript follows each audio clip below.
The film is inspired by this intense and divisive protest over the showing of the film Rachel at the jewish film festival in 2009. But I’m guessing these are concerns that have been percolating with you for some years. When did these crystallize into the idea for a film?
Alan Snitow We were working on the film several years before the Jewish Film Festival explosion, dealing with a variety of other issues, and then suddenly this whole brouhaha over whether or not you could say certain things or meet with certain people publicly inside the Jewish community boiled to the surface.
We had had no plans of filming there, but it just so quickly exploded in front of Peter Stein, the festival director, that we thought we’d better address the issue.
It was like a case study in this question. Can you explain this debate over American Jewish values and who defines them?
Alan Snitow The whole film was aimed at dealing with the question of who has the right to speak for the Jewish community and what is permissible debate inside the community. This has been a battleground for many years, but it really hit a new high around 2009, when the sense was that we really have to crack down on this debate particularly as it affects Israel.
And we felt that we should address this because in fact this kind of crackdown has happened inside a a number of ethnic communities in the past and is happening not just on the issue of Israel inside the Jewish community.
On the origins of the film
Deborah Kaufman The film originally was going to be called Discontinuity because it was really about addressing questions of change when there’s a lot of intermarriage, when we’re revisiting historical questions about the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel, all these things that are hot buttons within the Jewish community.
And particularly within our own families, where we came from backgrounds that were very engaged. My father was very involved as a Zionist, Alan’s mother was a Communist. These are the secular faiths of American Jews that we wanted to explore.
But what happened was everything kept being drawn back toward arguments about Israel and the relationship of the American Jewish community to Israel. And as we got into our production, every argument kind of circled back to that. We wanted to explore that in a way that was respectful but at the same time critical.
And underlying everything was the fact that there was a real hostility to open debate both from the right and the left, and that was very visible at the film festival.
Alan Snitow Both sides got together, the extremes, sort of silencing debate in the middle, at the Jewish film festival, and this has happened throughout.
One of the things we found out: Many, many people inside the Jewish community feel that they’re not entitled to speak, that they’re not legitimate, that they’re not authentic enough , that they don’t know Hebrew. All these kinds of things that undermine people’s thinking, ‘why don’t I have a real right to say something or what I think or ask questions?’
And we also found that’s a feeling outside the Jewish community. There are a lot of people who don’t want to get involved in this debate because it’s too toxic or they don’t want to be called an anti-Semite. Or they’d be showing their ignorance.
So we thought the purpose of the film had to be to raise these issues in a public way and say, look, the only way of making any kind of progress or dealing with change is to have them out in the open and really debate them.
I think people are somewhat justifiably afraid, because of the long history of victimization, of people attacking the existence of the state of Israel, of a minority community always sort of circling the wagons. There are long traditions of that sort. Recently this has, I think, expanded exponentially because now you have a very conservative government in Israel that is cracking down on debate inside Israel itself.
So how do American Jews, primarily a liberal community, deal with supporting Israel at the time when Israel is violating both internally with its down debate and in the occupied territories with the Palestinians many of the liberal values that American Jews have grown up with?
Deborah Kaufman The Jewish community has long been a community of debate. So the fact that it has become so vicious -– it’s an argument, not a debate; people are screaming at each other –- I think is significant because it shows that something’s really changed internally.
You can say in part it’s due to the Tea Party summer that happened in 2009 and the kind of general aura of bullying and vituperation that exists in the media and in our communities, but I think this question about the direction of Israel, particularly since the most right-wing government it’s ever had, is challenging the American community to face its values and make some hard choices. And I think that’s triggering a lot of the amplification of the argument and it’s also triggering a kind of walking away by the younger generation that doesn’t want to get involved with these toxic arguments anymore. That’s also why we wanted to make this movie, to draw people back into the debate that we think should be happening in a more civil way.
One of the questions you ask is how does the Holocaust both inform and warp the dialogue about Jewish values. Can you explain how you deal with that in the film?
Alan Snitow The Holocaust has become central to Jewish identity, really around the world but particularly in the United States.
What’s happened is there’s been a kind of trend toward competing victimizations among all ethnic groups in the U.S., and the Holocaust is a major claim of primacy about how our victimization is so severe. Using the claim of our victimization can lead to sort of strange hypocrisies every once in awhile. One of the leading organizations dealing with the history of the Holocaust, teaching lessons of the Holocaust, teaching tolerance around the Holocaust, can suddenly also find itself doing something like building a Holocaust museum on top of a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem.
So in that case, there was a claim by the Museum of Tolerance that they were so legitimate because of the past victimization of the Jewish people that they could do something like this that is on the holy ground of another people. We think that this is something that is not just about Jews. All groups who base their identity on victimization rather than who they are and the positive sides of their histories will get into that kind of frame.
Deborah Kaufman The Holocaust has become kind of a dominant form of identification for Jewish life in the United States. There’s been millions of dollars poured into Holocaust memorials and museums; we’re building them not just in the United States but abroad.
I think in this film we’re trying to ask an important question: How is all this memorialization being used politically? What are the outcomes of this kind of effort to not just educate the next generation about what happened during WW II, but to make a statement about the primacy of our own victimization? Is it healthy? Where does it lead? And what we’re finding is that it’s kind of a tribal effort that’s not about building alliances, but rather about facing the future alone.
The effort of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, we found, was not greeted with a lot of warmth by all the residents in Jerusalem that we talked to. They were thinking that this was a very strange American effort that had no place there.
Your dad, Deborah, was a Zionist and smuggled munitions to Palestine, and your mom, Alan, was a socialist and a member of the Communist Party, working on civil rights issues with the American Jewish Congress. How do those stories tie in with these bigger themes?
Deborah Kaufman We wanted to explore our family histories because we felt our parents’ ideologies were a kind of secular faith. The Jewish community is not just a religious community but one that has a lot of idealism and spirit and one that’s had a lot of impact on the 20th century and our own generation. We wanted to look at our parents in order to anchor the conflicts of today in something of the past.
It turns out that my father was very active on the right wing and Alan’s father on the left wing. Together they create a kind of whole of the picture of the diversity of the secular faiths of the Jewish community in America.
Alan Snitow There’s always been this debate going on around the Passover or the dinner table. We feel as if a lot of that debate has now become silenced, that people have become afraid of it. We wanted to bring back what these debates were about between Communists and socialists and Bundists and so forth, who would debate what was the future of the Jewish people.
For us, this was an exciting possibility because a lot of people, especially the young, have no idea about these debates. They’ve heard just little bits. But most of it has been hidden under the covers. We wanted to bring it out and say if you scratch people who are Jewish, you’re going to find their parents of all these different faiths — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, atheist, Communist, Socialist. You’re going to find that kind of crazy diversity.
Every group in the Jewish community has these different histories but most people are not talking about them so we wanted to revivify them and bring it into consciousness. A lot of young people have responded by saying now they see what was going they we didn’t really know the details of these silenced discussions at the dinner table or the seder table.
Deborah Kaufman There was one other aspect of this in regard to Jewish Communists. People who were members or thought to be members of the Communist Party were kicked out of Jewish institutions during the McCarthy era. We wanted to put that in to show there’s an effort going on right now to marginalize people who are critical of the occupation, that there’s a new McCarthyism. So people can see that people lost their jobs, were silenced, and that the problems we’re facing today with the excommunication of certain ideas have a history.
What do you want audiences take away from this film?
Deborah Kaufman We’re hoping that people will first of all be able to speak about things they were afraid to speak about. That people shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions about Israel or what Israel is doing or afraid to ask questions about the past or how we remember and memorialize the past. And we hope that people ask these questions of each other in a civil and respectful way, even as they’re critical.
I think we’re hoping the film will be a catalyst for discussions, that people will realize that there’s a new spirit out in the land, not just in the Jewish community, but also about the possibility of recreating the liberal and progressive alliances, as in the civil rights movement or the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Not going back exactly to those kinds of things, but that it is possible to have a progressive politics in the U.S., not just on questions of Israel, but on issues in the U.S. about identity and victimization. How do you create coalitions that will work? For a long time this kind of discussion has been silenced, people were afraid to talk about it for fear of breaking ranks within the group. We want to say it’s not about breaking ranks; you can make coalitions, you can change politics, you have the possibility of reviving politics in this country by making alliances and by bringing the debate to the fore.
- ‘Between Two Worlds': Jewish identity turf wars (SF Chronicle)
- Oye-Vey! ‘Between Two Worlds’ Tackles Jewish Infighting (New York Press)