Daughters of infamous lawyer assess his legacy in Kunstler

Late in their revelatory and inspiring documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” Emily and Sarah Kunstler include a clip of their iconic father delivering a pithy self-assessment.

“I’m not a self-hating Jew,” the tall, outspoken defense attorney asserts with a sly smile. “Anyone who knows me knows I love myself.”

It’s a great line, but one made necessary by the outcry over his decision to represent El Sayiid Nosair, the Islamic fundamentalist who murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990.

Attorney William Kunstler gives a power-to-the-people salute at a Chicago Seven rally in 1970. photo/david fenton

“The reason he got such negative attention from a lot of people in the Jewish community wasn’t because he took certain cases,” Emily Kunstler said in an interview. “It was because he was a Jew who took certain cases. Even if he wasn’t making choices out of some sense of Jewish tradition, other people were judging him based on that.”

From his defense of civil rights activists through the Chicago Seven (including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin), Kunstler was a hero to Jews on the left and to his young daughters. But his subsequent choice of clients, from Nosair to Mafia bosses to one of the youths indicted in the notorious “wilding” attack on a Central Park jogger, cost him much of that respect.

The New Yorker willingly accepted the heat, but also risked endangering his family. Sarah and Emily were teenagers when their father died in 1995, and the film is in part an attempt to understand and reconcile his principles with their childhood wounds.

“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opens theatrically

Nov. 20 ahead of next summer’s national PBS broadcast.

“He became a lawyer at a time when a young Jewish lawyer couldn’t join the big firms,” Sarah relates in a July interview before their San Francisco Jewish Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. “Maybe that’s part of the reason why young Jewish lawyers ended up being at the forefront of the civil rights movement — because they could not be mainstream if they wanted to. They had to forge their own path.”

Kunstler’s ethnicity was both a source of pride for young Jews and a red flag for racists and anti-Semites. Sarah, a filmmaker and criminal defense attorney practicing in New York, cited the famous photograph of white supremacist David Duke running for office in Louisiana.

“He was out there with some Nazi youth and a sign protesting my father saying ‘Kunstler’s a Commie Jew,’ or something. It was certainly the way people liked to frame him and his work. But it was more of our mother’s experience than his,” Sarah said.

Kunstler’s second wife — Sarah and Emily’s mother — was a red-diaper baby several years his junior. His first marriage was to a German Jewish refugee who came over before the war and was taken in by Kunstler’s family.

Emily and Sarah are typical assimilated big-city Jews, and the invitation to screen “Disturbing the Universe” at the SFJFF represented an opportunity to consider the ramifications of their father’s — and their own — Jewishness more deeply.

“It’s a film about legacy,” Emily mused, “and what we take from our father’s experience and what pieces of that we reject and what pieces we incorporate into ourselves, and what we put into the world. Being Jewish is a part of it, and coming here and thinking about this as our film is about to go out into the world in a larger sense is a valuable thing for us to be doing.”

Added Sarah: “It’s nice to feel like our father’s voice has a more welcome home in the Jewish community now through this film. It’s almost as if people are making an effort to try and understand him differently, and that he’s being seen as Jewish again, which I think he would have loved.

“He would have loved to have been able to share himself with the Jewish community, because at the end of his life there was this divide.”

“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe”
opens Nov. 20 at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.