S.F. Jewish Film Festival panel tackles fiery issues minus the Rachel hysteria

In their new documentary, “Between Two Worlds,” local filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman take on the question of who gets to speak on behalf of Jews — especially when it comes to topics as tense and complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Such dialogue often gets heated and even unruly, but at a panel discussion following the film’s West Coast premiere July 28 at the Castro Theatre, as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the tone was tame and reasoned.

Audience members clapped enthusiastically as the film’s credits rolled, after which the Berkeley filmmakers were joined onstage for a 45-minute panel discussion led by KQED Radio’s Michael Krasny.

The 1,500-seat theater was packed for the film, and most in the audience stayed on to listen to the panelists, who discussed Jewish identity and the problem of polarization when discussing Israel.

“I’m not concerned that there are drastically differing viewpoints [about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict],” said one of the panelists, Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the New York–based National Center for Learning and Leadership.

“I think polarization is embedded in Jewish culture, as well as in American culture. But I want to make the conversation more interesting, if it’s going to be polarized. What we’re seeing now is a very low-level, knee-jerk, reactionary conversation … I want to raise the bar.”


Panelists discussing “Between Two Worlds” are (from left) filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow; Rabbi Irwin Kula, Michael Krasny, Riv-Ellen Prell and Len Saxe. photo/emma silvers

The casual, upbeat mood was a far cry from the tone at the theater two years ago, when a screening of “Rachel” — about 23-year-old American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting in the Gaza Strip — was met with boos, hisses and walkouts. That Corrie’s mother, Cindy Corrie, was invited by festival organizers to speak after the film only further inflamed the situation.


Many viewed the film as anti-Israel propaganda, and the outrage from within the Jewish community had a ripple effect: Various Jewish groups in San Francisco accused the festival of being anti-Israel; one of the festival’s board members stepped down amid the controversy.

The reaction exposed a deep rift within the Bay Area’s Jewish community regarding Israel — and inspired Snitow and Kaufman to explore the passions driving Jews across the spectrum.

“When we showed this film in Jerusalem, someone said, ‘So, “Between Two Worlds,” that’s American Jews and Israeli Jews, right?’ ” said Kaufman, a co-founder of the SFJFF who served as its director for 13 years. “And we had to explain that, no, there are these drastic differences of opinion among American Jews. That was something we hadn’t thought of.”

Krasny said disagreement is an inherent part of being a Jew, recounting an old joke about the Jewish man who gets stranded on a desert island and builds two synagogues — so there’s one he can refuse to attend.

Panel members were in agreement on one idea: that those who shout the loudest when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often not representative of the majority of Jews.

“When you look across at the side that you don’t agree with, you have to be willing to turn that critique back on yourself,” Kula said. “Does their best argument on their side stand up to the worst parts of yours? When you compare your best with their worst, you’re always going to come out on top.”

Panelist Riv-Ellen Prell, a scholar on gender, class and Jewish identity, voiced concern that the tone of the ongoing debate actually is turning some Jews away from Judaism.

“There’s a tendency, when you hear the people whose extreme views you don’t share — whether that’s on the right or left — to say ‘These are not my people,’ ” said Prell, chair of American studies at the University of Minnesota. “That does worry me. I want to be able to talk about this in a way that brings people back into the fold, not away from it.”

“At the same time,” Snitow added, “We can’t be afraid to use the word ‘occupation,’ which is something I see happening.”

Not sharing identical opinions is fine, Prell said. “There’s no way we’re going to, quote, all get it together, any more than the African American community is going to all agree all the time,” she said. “Being a minority puts a lot of pressure on ‘you people’ to all agree.”

But two years after the “Rachel” dust-up, the panel helped emphasize that Jews in the Bay Area might agree on more issues than they’re willing to admit.

For example, at one point during the evening, Krasny happily derailed the discussion to announce that San Francisco’s proposed circumcision ban was officially off the ballot. The audience erupted into cheers.

“What we’re all arguing for here,” Kula said, “is challenging ourselves, is talking about this more intelligently, is dynamism.” 

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.