A film by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman (left) journeys the U.S. and to Israel, digging into family history and speaking to prominent figures as a means of entering a polarized dialogue.

'Between Two Worlds' Places Politics of Speech in Spotlight

B. Ruby Rich August 5, 2011

Filmmakers take personal approach to Jewish cultural debates.

Between Two Worlds is a film with a backstory. How could it not be? The documentary by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman opens with footage of an incident two years ago at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, an institution that Kaufman herself founded 30 years previous. It was the festival’s screening of Rachel (2009), a documentary on the life and death of Rachel Corrie, the young woman who was crushed to death by an Israeli army bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian houses. The event was not, it turns out, a routine screening—though documentaries about young people in the crosshairs of global politics are certainly not a rarity at film festivals worldwide. This San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening was unique because this tragedy occurred in Israel. And Israel, as Snitow and Kaufman demonstrate with this film, is a subject that pits American Jew against American Jew in a battle over unconditional support vs. closely argued critique.

Too long an insider game, Between Two Worlds makes the debate public, as Snitow and Kaufman put themselves on the line to open up discussion. Never ones to flinch from controversy (see a previous work of theirs, Blacks and Jews), the two hit all the pressure points here. They even give all sides—please, not both sides—time on screen to argue their points. What’s the documentary’s position? That’s not the point. The filmmakers come bearing questions, not answers. For that, they may well be stoned from all directions. I hope not: This film is essential viewing, opening up a space in which conversations that urgently need to take place can occur. It deserves to travel to every college campus, Hillel student center, synagogue, repertory house and television set. Here’s hoping.

Snitow and Kaufman center their camera and our gaze on a core of serious issues. The first is cultural. It was the rancor at that 2009 Rachel screening, say Kaufman and Snitow in the film, that moved them to action. Really, I asked in our telephone conversation, you just got the idea then and there? Well, no, they admitted. “We’d already been hard at work on this for a year,” said Kaufman. But Snitow, who almost missed the screening and had to cancel another meeting at the last minute to grab a camera and go, explained he was there that night and it was mightily upsetting: pickets against inviting the mother of a murdered girl, shouting outside the theater, then catcalls inside at a representative for the group Stand With Us, who spoke before the film.

Lost to some was the fact that the film was made by Simone Bitton, an extraordinarily astute documentarian who is a Moroccan Jew, raised in Israel, now living in Paris, with threefold citizenship. Her prior meditation on Israeli policy, The Wall (2005) had its U.S. debut at Sundance. Instead, the film Rachel often seemed beside the point, its important lessons and evidence lost on those who preferred that nobody see it.

Between Two Worlds focuses on a core of serious issues that arise within the very short window of its production: the backlash against the SF Jewish Film Festival and then-director Peter Stein; the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s construction of a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem on the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery; the Birthright Israel movement (recently profiled in The Nation) with its free vacations for hundreds of thousands of American Jews of prime childbearing age; and finally, a real-time roll call of testimonials by UC Berkeley students at a student-senate vote on whether to urge the university to divest from Israel. These are all powerful events, positions, and debates, yet Snitow and Kaufman remain calm narrators who prod the audience to consider the question, over and over: Who gets to speak for “the” Jewish people, in America?

Early on, the two make clear that the struggle over Israel, Judaism, and censorship in the U.S. is intense, urgently in need of new language and redefinition—and deeply personal. Both come from families in which Israel and Jewishness were central, not incidental, facts of life. In the service of the documentary, they bravely return to their familial archives—Kaufman, via home-movie footage and scrapbooks; Snitow, via a family storage room and boxes of files—to uncover the lives and histories of their parents, to understand the context that has led to this present moment.

What evidence they find. As one panelist said at the Castro after the SFJFF screening this past month: “These are the secrets that nobody reveals at the Seder.” Sure enough, even Snitow is surprised. He discovers that his mother, the head of the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress, had been a Communist who, disillusioned by the Hitler-Stalin pact, hid her past in order to participate in more mainstream policy and politics. Kaufman’s father, meanwhile, was a fervent Zionist who had traveled to Palestine as a young Viennese Boy Scout, then returned to Europe with the U.S. Army division that liberated Buchenwald. This elderly man ends up struggling to accept one daughter’s conversion to Islam, but he clearly adores the granddaughters in head scarves who surround him lovingly in family gatherings. His identification with Israel couldn’t be deeper, yet he values family above tribe, kin above ideology. It’s “this tribal imperative” that the filmmakers want to oppose. They see it and the censorship that’s accompanying it and escalating, as an attempt “to deny this hybrid nature of our Jewish American society, coming out of civil rights, alliances, coalitions.”

The filmmakers frame their autobiographical passages by calling their documentary an “essay” film, but it isn’t really. Rather, it’s a documentary on hot-button issues that wisely follows the only path that ever brings American audiences into history: the autobiographical story, the individual tale of redemption. Their families are important; as Snitow says, “The family stories are a way of reframing and recapturing history and identity from the way it’s being stifled and boiled down, by the reductionism in the American Jewish community.” The film moves well beyond the family, though, pursuing many directions at once in an effort that’s equal parts bravery and folly: to cover imperative stories without weighing down the film with too much explanation. It’s probably an impossible task for any one film. Between Two Worlds is as messy as the subject it’s covering. (Really, this should be a six-part series on PBS…Kaufman and Snitow found it nearly impossible to raise production funds and still are searching for donations for distribution. And, as Snitow ponders PBS, he questions why it would “want to get involved with this Jewish mishigas.”)

It’s an important film not because it explains everything, not because it marks its position clearly, but precisely because it inundates the audience with the urgency and passions of what’s happening, sketching battle lines, communicating the stakes. The most chilling events followed the Rachel screening: first, Daniel Sokatch’s departure from the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation, and then, with Sokatch gone, the JCF issued a new set of rules, its Guidelines on Potentially Controversial Israel-Related Programming (yes, real name) to make sure that nothing like Rachel would happen on its watch again. Sokatch appears on camera, he’s now the CEO of the New Israel Fund, speaking out against the “neo-McCarthyism” in the American Jewish community. And the Jewish Film Festival lost funding it never won back.

Repeatedly Between Two Worlds exposes the limits of tolerance in today’s Jewish communities, as it travels the U.S. and journeys to Israel to hear from a powerful cast of spokespeople. Naomi Chazan, the president of the New Israel Fund, is especially sympathetic as we witness the vituperative attacks on her within Israel. Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, offers a moderate but more open position on American Judaism and Israel, while stopping short of measures that others fervently support: divestment, for instance. Two radically different rabbis are captured on screen: Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance, cites the legacy of the Holocaust in defense of Israeli policies; Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, repudiates the idea that the Holocaust dictates today’s policies, seeing it instead as a psychological mechanism used to justify the occupation.

There hasn’t been a documentary this full of talk since … well, since Inside Job, or Manufacturing Consent, or any of the myriad documentaries that have put their faith in words, talking heads, persuasive figures, to throw a spotlight onto hidden machinations. More than most, Kaufman and Snitow know well the price of speech: the catcalls of “self-hating Jew” that usually follow, or “anti-semitic” for anyone not a Jew. More than a year ago, in the midst of making this film, they wrote an opinion piece for The Forward (April 23, 2010) to object to the chilling effect of the JCF’s new guidelines. Unambiguously alarmed, they argued that such a censored environment, with a squashing of public speech, is “not the kind of Jewish community to which we should aspire.”

I think of Between Two Worlds as part two of their article: a demonstration of another kind of community, one in which people speak their minds and search for a way back to engaged critique. The young people at Berkeley who speak on screen, with tears or raised voices, deserve better than silence, I thought: They deserve a new dialogue to reconsider values and recalibrate direction. Instead, the Israeli Knesset has just passed new laws criminalizing any speech that supports a boycott of Israel or opposes its settlements or occupation (see “Israel Struggles with Free-Speech Rights” in the LA Times of July 31). This is a battle that has been waged under the radar, with most Americans and a lot of American Jews unaware of its scope. I’ve noticed the ratcheting up of rhetoric and attack since the election of Obama. Kaufman and Snitow trace it equally to the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rightward drift in Israel. Whatever the exact conjunction of fear and hatred that is pouring the gasoline onto this conflagration, Kaufman and Snitow’s documentary debuts this week (at the Roxie, its first theatrical engagement) in an environment even uglier than the one in which they started shooting, two years ago. And with a film that's therefore more relevant now than ever.

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