Complete interview: “Between Two Worlds” directors Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow

Pub date August 3, 2011
SectionPixel Vision

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 Fri/5 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.” KGO radio’s John Rothmann opined on air that the festival had “crossed the line” and “sympathized with those who participate in terror.”

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? Watching your movie I wondered how many other places there are where a Jewish film festival audience would boo and heckle a conservative pro-Israeli speaker like Dr. Michael Harris.

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. 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.” Theodore Bikel — a lifelong Zionist activist who went to jail with my mother at the Soviet consulate in Washington DC — was recently called an “anti-Zionist” because he supported an actors’ boycott of performing in the settlements. J Street — an explicitly and consistently pro-Israel voice that is critical of Israeli policies — is regularly attacked as not really pro-Israel for that very reason. “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.

DK: The Bay Area has had a history of passionate political commitment — to both the Zionist and anti-Zionist causes. But today the right wing is certainly louder and aside from what we saw at the theater that day, there has been a significant silencing of voices critical of Israel’s occupation policies.

SFBG: Conversely, have you perceived the local Jewish community as growing more conservative in recent years? In particular, more inclined to treat criticism of Israeli government policies as inherently anti-Semitic, even when voiced by fellow Jews?

DK: We were interested in the notion of excommunication — going back to Spinoza — and to the accusation “self-hating Jew” that some people used to attack Hannah Arendt when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem. Today, right-wing Jews are leveling charges of treason against Jewish academics, rabbis, and community members whose positions on israel aren’t as rabidly right wing as theirs. We didn’t have to look very far to find dramatic stories for our film on these themes. Censorship and the stifling of dissent are happening right in our home town.

AS: There’s conservative and there’s conservative. The Jewish community hasn’t become more conservative in terms of voting patterns or support for civil rights or the welfare state, but the establishment has become more and more dependent on an ever smaller number of big conservative donors who have bought out these institutions and compromised their independence and legitimacy as representing the whole Jewish community. This is a major reason for the crisis. More and more young Jews are finding the community’s institutions do not reflect their liberal beliefs and upbringing, particularly when it comes to Israel. The result is that many young people are not identifying with Israel because its actions are not consistent with their ideals as American Jews.

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 JFF 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.

SFBG: The festival had shown other movies relating to different aspects of the Palestinian conflict before, and Rachel does make an effort to represent all the different sides of its story. What do you think particularly ticked people off about that film?

DK: Over the years the festival had shown many films that were more controversial than Rachel. In fact, that same summer the festival showed a film called Defamation that we felt was far more critical of the Jewish establishment, but it went right under everybody’s radar. It was the Tea Party summer — almost anything could have been the spark that ignited a controversy. But the tragic death of Rachel Corrie had already made her an internationally famous symbol of opposition to Israel’s occupation, so the anger was focused on the program with her name.

AS: Rachel was just a pretext. In the months before the film festival, think tanks in Israel had declared the Bay Area a node of “delegitimization” of Israel (along with Toronto and London). The right was looking for a test case to make an example of Jewish institutions that step out of line. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was founded as a transgression right from the start — a place where unpopular and counter-cultural and diverse views could engage. It was a perfect target to attack.

One other item: when the festival allowed [Harris] on the podium to attack one of its own films and filmmakers it was a bad precedent, and the right smelled blood in the water. The festival’s good faith effort was viewed as a sign of weakness and the attacks only intensified. The people who wrote the attacking emails are people who think that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. They are not to be appeased by any symbolic action. They want control and silence.

SFBG: Deborah, since you left the festival it’s seen several well-regarded executive and programming directors depart, seemingly burnt out. Do you think the effort it takes to represent and placate the festival audience has gotten harder?

DK: I’m not sure things have changed so much. There has always been pressure on festival directors to do what major donors demand. I got a lot of that during my tenure but resisted the pressure. The difference is the political atmosphere which is more polarized and shrill, especially since the new, ultra-right government in Israel has come to power. It’s hard to withstand the bullying and accusations of treason and self-hate.

AS: I think it’s also important to add that Deborah and Janis [Plotkin] — who was director for many years — also had a lot of fun with the festival. This is a very hard job, but it’s a creative and fascinating one, and these attacks may come with the territory, but they don’t dominate it.

DK: In terms of the audience it’s always been a diverse group. I have fond memories of the midnight screening of the silent version of The Golem (1920) we did at the Roxie in our second year — where people in the audience were literally screaming at each other and at the projectionist during the whole screening about whether we should turn the volume up or down on the rock music sound track we had commissioned.

SFBG: You’ve shown Between Two Worlds to a variety of Jewish audiences so far, in Toronto, New York, and Jerusalem as well as SF. What have been some of the responses?

DK: The response has been great and sometimes surprising — we’ve had people from the left and right of the political spectrum both say the film has made them reconsider their own stridency. Non-Jews have said it mirrors what they felt they could not say out loud. Young people have told us it’s affirming of their perceptions and reveals a history they didn’t know existed. In Jerusalem one person felt the film was overly optimistic because it didn’t examine the support of right-wing Christian fundamentalists for the settlements!

AS: I think the personal stories we tell of our own families ring true to many people. Most Jews know deep down that if you look at the family histories of American Jews, you will find intense long term debates between those people at the Passover seder table who were Communists, Socialists, and Zionists. Often, the only way to sit down together was to maintain silence, but we wanted to bring those utopian hopes and ideals back into focus, and people across the political spectrum seem to take that as an opportunity to think about and question their own families and their own positions.

SFBG: How did the decision come about to put yourselves in the film? As filmmakers, was it awkward to become subjects?

DK: We’ve never been in our own films so it was something of a challenge for us. We don’t feel relaxed in front of the camera, but early in the production we realized we had to be in the film so that people would know where we were coming from, and also because our family histories shed a lot of light on debates inside the Jewish community today. We watched a lot of work by other documentary filmmakers who put themselves in their films like Marlon Riggs, Alan Berliner, and Ross McElwee, and decided we’d give it a try. We also felt this film was really about the intersection of the personal and the political, so the structure that moves back and forth between the two made sense to us.

AS: My daughter, Tania, is an actor, and I kept thinking that we needed to consult with her about being on camera. It’s not just something that you do. You have to work at it and learn how to do it. After we did it a couple of times, we realized that we weren’t dressing right, that the hair was wrong, that I was scratching my head, that we should have shot ourselves from above and not below. Rather than being an on camera ego-trip, it was a humbling experience.

Between Two Worlds opens Fri/5 at the Roxie.