FILM In 1981 Deborah Kaufman founded the nation’s first Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco. Thirteen years later, with similar festivals burgeoning in the wake of SFJFF’s success — there are now over a hundred around the globe — she left the festival to make documentaries of her own with life partner and veteran local TV producer Alan Snitow.
Their latest, Between Two Worlds, which opens at the Roxie this Friday while playing festival dates, could hardly be a more personal project for the duo. Both longtime activists in various Jewish, political, and media spheres, Snitow and Kaufman were struck — as were plenty of others — by the rancor that erupted over the SFJFF’s 2009 screening of Simone Bitton’s Rachel. That doc was about Rachel Corrie, a young American International Solidarity Movement member killed in 2003 by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer while standing between it and a Palestinian home on the Gaza Strip.
As different sides argued whether Corrie’s death was accidental or deliberate, she became a lightning rod for ever-escalating tensions between positions within and without the U.S. Jewish populace on Israeli policy, settlements, Palestinian rights, and more — with not a few commentators amplifying the conservative notion that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, even (or especially) when it comes from Jews themselves.
People who hadn’t seen (and boasted they wouldn’t see) the strenuously even-handed Rachel called the documentary an “anti-Israeli hate fest” akin to “Holocaust denial,” its SFJFF inclusion “symptomatic of a demonic strategy” by “anti-Semites on the left.”
Stunned SFJFF executive director Peter Stein (who’s leaving the festival after its current edition) decried Jewish community “thought police” who pressured the institution and those connected to it with defunding and boycotting threats. The festival attempted damage control by inviting a public foe of the screening (Dr. Michael Harris of StandWithUs/Voice for Israel) to speak before it, which only amplified the hostile rhetoric.
Seeing the festival being used by extremists on both sides became a natural starting point for Between Two Worlds, which takes a many-sided, questioning, sometimes humorous look at culture wars in today’s American Jewish population. It touches on everything from divestment debates at UC Berkeley to the disputed site of a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem (atop a 600-year-old Muslim cemetery), from the tradition of progressive liberalism among U.S. Jews to rising ethnic-identity worries spawned by intermarriage and declining birth rates.
The fundamental question here, as Kaufman puts it, is “Who is entitled to speak for the tribe?” For the first time, the filmmakers have made themselves part of the subject matter, exploring their own very different personal and familial experiences to illustrate the diversity of the U.S. Jewish experience. Snitow’s mother had to hide her prior Communist Party membership to remain active in social-justice movements after the 1940s, while Kaufman’s father was a devoted Zionist from his Viennese childhood who had to adjust to offspring like “Tevye’s daughters gone wild,” including one who converted to Islam.
They’re clearly in sympathy with other documentary interviewees insisting that one core of Jewish identity has been, and should remain, a stance against absolutism and injustice towards any peoples. Between their SFJFF screenings the filmmakers chatted with the Guardian.
SFBG Is the Bay Area still a bastion of Jewish liberalism, relatively speaking?
Deborah Kaufman What we saw at the festival during the Rachel uproar was a collapse of the center. It was really a moment when the extremes were at battle and the center simply disappeared. That’s what was and is so disturbing. A kind of apathy where the moderates just throw up their hands and walk away from what’s become a very toxic debate.
Alan Snitow It’s not that the Bay Area is unique to boo a so-called “pro-Israel” speaker [like Harris]. It’s that the Bay Area has maintained an open debate about Israeli policies when other Jewish communities never countenanced such debate from the get-go. Rachel was not shown in other Jewish film festivals around the country because they are already creatures of conservative donors. The aim in this power grab by the right in San Francisco was and is to silence people and institutions like the festival that oppose a McCarthyite crackdown in a remaining bastion of free speech. And this is being mirrored in Israel itself where the Knesset recently passed a law punishing anyone who publicly supports the idea of a boycott of the West Bank settlements.
I think we also have to question this claim of “pro-Israel.” All criticism of Israel’s occupation is now being branded as “anti-Israel.” “Pro-Israel” has come to mean pro the policies of the current, most right-wing government in Israeli history — a government that is now advocating the truly Orwellian position that there is no occupation at all! That’s not what pro-Israel or Zionist ever meant except to some ideologues on the far right.
SFBG Had you already been thinking about somehow addressing political rifts in the Jewish community before the SFJFF fracas?
DK We began the film over a year before the SFJFF fracas. We were focusing more on Jewish identity than politics — looking at intermarriage, hybrid identities, a new generation of American Jews — we wanted to re-tell the Biblical story of Ruth, and we were following a fantastic feminist-queer internet discussion called “Rabbis: Out Of My Uterus!” that we thought would be fun to film. But we kept getting swept into the Israel vortex and realized we had to address the question of dissent and who speaks for the Jewish community at this historical moment for the film to be relevant.
Between Two Worlds opens Fri/5 at the Roxie.