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Film Chronicles American Jews Caught Between Two Worlds

(Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen / Flickr)

“Between Two Worlds”
Produced and directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman
Edited by Kenji Yamamoto

People often look surprised when I tell them that my first exposure to progressive ideas came from Congregation B'Nai Israel, a reform temple in Bridgeport, Connecticut. I remember the shul's packed auditorium the night Gloria Steinem spoke, and I can still call up the I-want-to-be-like-her feelings that her eloquence aroused. Under the tutelage of Rabbi Arnold Sher, our youth group studied apartheid and wrote letters in solidarity with African National Congress (ANC) freedom fighters. We also marched against hunger and celebrated civil and human rights victories.

But we never criticized Israel. Instead, I was taught that the Jewish state was a land without people for a people without land, and I obediently contributed my babysitting money to plant trees so that the desert might bloom.

Years later, when I learned about the Nakba, the truth stung. Worse, when I tried to discuss Palestinian rights, I was derided for being a self-hating Jew.

Sadly, the silencing of dissent over Israeli politics has a long and sordid history. Casualties abound: Professor Norman Finkelstein, author of “The Holocaust Industry,” was denied tenure by DePaul University in 2007 following a vitriolic campaign lambasting his scholarship. Adjunct professor Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), came under fire in 2010 for “spurious scholarship,” a charge his supporters believe was a direct outgrowth of his outspoken criticism of Israel's occupation of Gaza. And this spring, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner was deemed ineligible for an honorary degree from New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice after trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld accused Kushner of being disloyal to Israel. Kushner's offense? Suggesting that Israel discriminated against Palestinians.

Kushner won this skirmish – ultimately receiving the degree thanks to an international outcry – as did Petersen-Overton, but the Israel: Love It or Be Silent Movement continues to lash out at critics of Zion.

Indeed, on June 15, 2011, FrontPage Magazine – an unabashedly right-wing publication – published a list of “Jewish enemies of Israel.” On the roster were more than a dozen people, including Joel Beinin, Jeremy Ben-Ami, Noam Chomsky, Neve Gordon, Michael Lerner, Amos Oz, Eyal Sivan, Steven Spielberg and, of course, Tony Kushner.

“Between Two Worlds,” Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman's provocative film about Jewish-American identity in the 21st century, opens with another searing example of the quashing of dissent. The scene is the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, an annual event that, since 1981, had drawn more than 35,000 filmgoers a year. The festival's executive director Peter Stein, who plans to leave his post later this year, opened the event by asking the audience to consider what makes a particular piece of celluloid “a Jewish film.” Before he finished his speech, the heckling began: a vocal group of audience members was dismayed that a laudatory film about Rachel Corrie, a young American who died in 2003 while protesting the Israeli bulldozing of Palestinian homes, was being screened.

“I did not expect it to blow up into the firestorm that it did,” Stein admits to the filmmakers. What's more, he did not expect the barrage of hate mail that he received. The film zooms in on his computer screen and highlights several particularly hateful phrases: anti-Semite; fool; demon; and tool of forces that wish to undermine Israel, among them.

The film further interrogates several additional recipients of community ire. Daniel Sokatch, former CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, a funder of the festival, describes being told that contributions to the federation would cease unless he denounced the movie. He calls it “neo-McCarthyism” and notes the chilling effect such threats have had on community discussions.

Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, knows that BDS is contentious. At the same time, she argues that the fight for justice is at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. For Surasky, the Talmudic injunction to repair the world is not idle talk, and she states that even if members of the Jewish community disagree with the BDS strategy, the concept of equality, and what it means for Palestinian and Jewish coexistence, needs to be vigorously examined.

Snitow and Kaufman agree, and “Between Two Worlds” is at its best when articulating questions that are central to the lives of contemporary American Jews. Who gets to decide what being Jewish is or isn't? they ask. Who determines what can be debated and what topics are off limits?

Unfortunately, the film never fully answers these questions, opting instead to address a vast array of personal and political themes, from the community's anxieties over assimilation, to intermarriage, to post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. This focus makes “Between Two Worlds” more episodic than conclusive. In fact, the film scratches the surface of multiple subjects rather than homing in on anything definitive.

That said, I found several scenes particularly compelling – albeit disturbing. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles is the firebrand behind the planned construction of a $250 million Holocaust memorial and Museum of Tolerance in West Jerusalem. His passionate defense of the center's decision to raze an 800-year-old Muslim cemetery to erect the Frank Gehry-designed building is shockingly blasé.

Others interviewed by Kaufman and Snitow are appalled by Hier's cavalier attitude. “Allowing this construction destroys the hope that Jerusalem can be a city of peace,” says journalist Gershon Baskin.

Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership champions ongoing efforts to educate young people about the Nazi Holocaust. Nonetheless, he cautions that there is a downside to the continual focus on atrocities. “The dangerous thing about the Holocaust, about being abused, is that you go insular and tribal and look at everyone through the prism of, 'They are my enemy,'” he warns.

It's a sobering assessment. A subsequent scene moves viewers to the campus of the University of California-Berkeley, where students were at loggerheads over a proposal to divest from Israel. Although the bid was defeated in the spring of 2010, the polarization between Israel's largely Jewish supporters and largely Muslim detractors is gut-churning, and one can't help but wonder what it will take to get these parties to hear one another.

There are clearly no easy solutions.

“Judaism does not have a specific politics,” Rabbi Kula concludes. “Its job is to undermine any politics that becomes too absolute.”

Perhaps that's the best we can hope for, that an anti-authoritarian ethos will keep the morally rigid at bay, so that the voice of dissent can continue to prod the uncritical. Call me an idealist, but I hope we can do better than this and forge a community that values human beings regardless of class, race, ethnic heritage or religious beliefs. Yes, I know that this is most likely a pipe dream …

A few days ago, a cartoon landed in my inbox. It depicted a man holding an ax and wearing a T-shirt with an Israeli flag on it. The man was approaching a firebox. The tag line: “In case of criticism of Israel, scream anti-Semite.”

I laughed, because in the end, there's nothing to be gained by crying.

“Between Two Worlds” will be shown from August 5-11 at The Roxie in San Francisco. For more information, email [email protected] or visit The film is also on Facebook,