Berkeley filmmakers take on Jewish identity, controversial issues in new documentary

Bay Area filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman had planned to make a nice little documentary about Jewish American identity when, as Kaufman put it, “Life happened.”

In their case, “life” happened at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which stirred up a hornet’s nest when it booked the documentary “Rachel” and invited Cindy Corrie, the mother of Rachel Corrie, the pro-Palestinian activist killed in Gaza while standing in front of an Israeli bulldozer, to speak.

 

“Between Two Worlds” includes footage of protests at U.C. Berkeley surrounding an Israel divesment proposal.

With the screening and after-discussion, a bulldozer of a different sort hit the Bay Area Jewish community. A heated, often acrimonious debate over the limits of anti-Israel speech ensued, with many supporters of Israel feeling the festival had crossed a line.

 

Suddenly Snitow and Kaufman, who live in Berkeley, saw a new hook for their emerging film. It would use the controversy as a jumping-off point to examine shifting Jewish identity, especially regarding Israel.

The resulting documentary, “Between Two Worlds,” makes its West Coast premiere at the Jewish Film Festival on July 28. A panel, moderated by Michael Krasny and featuring the filmmakers, Rabbi Irwin Kula and others, follows the July 28 screening.

“We’re in a huge moment of transition in the Jewish community,” Snitow said by phone from Jerusalem, where the couple attended screenings of their film. “There’s the fear for our continuity and of assimilation, but really what’s happening now is quite exciting. There’s a chance for young people to find a new Jewish identity.”

For the 2011 festival to book a film that is, in part, about the festival itself may seem self-referential, but the questions the filmmakers raise go far beyond the Bay Area. They traverse the Jewish world, from San Francisco to New York to Jerusalem.

“It wasn’t a fluke what happened at the film festival,” said Kaufman, who co-founded the SFJFF 31 years ago and who created the films “Blacks and Jews” and “Secrets of Silicon Valley” with Snitow. “Things are coming to some kind of crisis moment with [Israel’s] inability to find a solution to the tensions with the Palestinians. That has really come home to the United States.”

Their film examines several flashpoints, including a look at the left-leaning Israel lobby J Street, an Israel divestment proposal passed and later vetoed by the U.C. Berkeley Student Senate last year, and a controversial proposed Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, set to be constructed on the site of a former Muslim cemetery.

But the heart of the film is more personal. Snitow and Kaufman examine their own pasts, specifically his mother’s Communist Party membership and her father’s passionate lifelong Zionism, as pathways to better understand their own Jewish identity.

“Our family stories were really important to the construction of the film,” Kaufman said. “We had to start at what happened at the festival to ask the question: Who has the right to speak for the Jewish community?”

To illustrate the point, the filmmakers take on a few sacred cows, including the Birthright program, which offers young Jews a free 10-day trip to Israel. The film paints Birthright as a kind of indoctrination camp to spur Jewish breeding, noting that some people call it “Birthrate.”

Another core piece of the narrative centers on that proposed museum in Jerusalem, a project that has inflamed Muslim sensibilities since it is to be built on the site of a former Muslim cemetery.

Snitow and Kaufman interviewed Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Los Angeles–based Museum of Tolerance, who defends his project, noting that the Israeli Supreme Court signed off on it.

Opponents, such as Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, say it amounts to cemetery desecration, something Jews have suffered countless times over the centuries.

The film does not mention that the site constitutes a small parcel of the abandoned cemetery, that it had been used as a parking lot for 40 years (during which time no Muslim officials objected) and that twice in the last century, Muslim leaders planned to build large-scale commercial projects there.

Still, the couple maintains many in Jerusalem do not want this project to go forward. “This museum is a really bad idea, a uniquely American idea that has no place in Jerusalem,” Kaufman said.

Snitow and Kaufman’s cameras capture the emotional final debate and the ultimate defeat of the U.C. Berkeley divestment bill in 2010. The sequence offers a largely sympathetic portrait of pro-divestment student activists and Jewish Voice for Peace, whose spokesperson, Cecilie Surasky, enthusiastically supports BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel).

Yet in her voiceover, Kaufman warns against moral absolutes. Was she speaking of those that would boycott Israel or of those who look for loyalty oaths to the Jewish state?

“What we’re trying to do in that scene is make things more nuanced and complicated,” she said. “Nothing is pure, nothing is simple. We want the film to make people think twice before [they] think they know the truth.”

The film ends where it begins, at San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival, the 2010 edition, which was largely controversy-free. That doesn’t mean the fallout from 2009 has ended.

Snitow and Kaufman believe a resulting litmus test for acceptable Israel speech has impacted the Jewish arts community here and elsewhere.

“People who get funding are worried about saying the wrong things,” Kaufman noted. “JCCs are worried about inviting the wrong people. Jewish film festivals are completely paranoid about inviting the wrong film. It’s denial to say [guidelines] don’t have a chilling effect.”

Nevertheless, “Between Two Worlds” is a go for the SFJFF. The filmmakers hope their documentary will spark further conversation about the difficult issues it raises.

But as for the film’s fundamental question — Who speaks for the Jews? — Snitow and Kaufman know there is no good answer.

Recalled Kaufman of a recent Jerusalem screening of their film, “Someone in the audience, an Israeli, asked us if this is about American Jews or just Bay Area Jews. Alan said ‘It’s just about two Jews.’ This is a personal essay film about our experience.”

“Between Two Worlds” screens 5:30 p.m. July 28 at the Castro Theater in S.F. and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit www.sfjff.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.