Intense response to documentary on culture wars

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

It’s been an intense year traveling across the United States, Canada, and Israel with our new documentary film, “Between Two Worlds: The American Jewish Culture Wars.”

During production of the movie, my partner and co-director Alan Snitow and I filmed fierce community battles over intermarriage and Jewish continuity, interpretations of the Holocaust, and loyalty to Israel. We told these stories through the lens of our own family histories of deep connection to and involvement in Jewish life. Our hope was that the film would be a tool to promote free speech and respectful dialogue inside the Jewish community, and with our non-Jewish allies.

On our tour, we saw a deep desire for open debate, free from bullying and censorship. Sadly, we also saw the opposite.

From Jewish film festivals in Toronto, to universities in Ann Arbor, to synagogues in Los Angeles, to movie theaters in New York, we have heard audience members use the word “toxic” when referring to debate inside the Jewish community, especially as it relates to Israel.

People are amazed and saddened to hear about the San Francisco federation’s speech-chilling new funding guidelines, imposed in one of the nation’s most vital and innovative Jewish communities.  “How can that be San Francisco?“ some ask. “How can that be Jewish?” ask others, often citing the Talmud as historical proof of our fierce debating DNA!

Young people tell us they are eager to explore Jewish texts and culture, but that adults and community leaders strip them of entitlement and meaningful participation. “Can I say I’m dating someone who isn’t Jewish?” they ask, or,  “I’ve always been afraid to say this out loud, but I’m not sure I’m a Zionist.”  There is much that is not being said, they tell us, both at the family seder table and in community forums.

Although our film shows conflict and provokes emotion, most screenings have taken place in an oasis of calm.

Gershon Baskin (from left), Walid Salem and Hana Seniora wait for their interview at the Mamilla cemetery in Jerusalem in January 2009. photo/courtesy of “between two worlds”

One rewarding experience has been hearing audience members question their own beliefs after viewing the film, which criticizes ideological rigidities on both the right and left.  In New York, one young man on the political left said he would think more critically about boycotts of Israel. At the Jerusalem International Film Festival, a woman on the political right told us she would also reconsider hardened views. And at a screening in Denver, a Holocaust survivor said, “Now I am beginning to understand positions I had always opposed.”

The response from people outside the Jewish community has also been encouraging: Arab students at Columbia University and at Fresno State University said they finally understood that the Jewish community is not a monolith — hostile and unapproachable — but a home for diverse views and potential engagement.

A Palestinian woman in Michigan thanked us, saying, “I am struggling to be heard and not to be intimidated by hard-liners in my own community.” The former Catholic chaplain at Brandeis University praised us for asking questions he is afraid to articulate, “because I might be dismissed as ignorant, or branded an anti-Semite.”

Unfortunately, in many communities, there have been attempts — sometimes successful — to prevent the film from being shown. At U.C. Santa Cruz, the provost was accused of creating a “hate bias” on campus for showing the film. At UCLA, Hillel and the Jewish Studies department pulled both their sponsorship and our reserved theater at the last minute. The film was successfully screened despite this, and the Los Angeles Times gave it its “Critic’s Choice,” saying it was “Fascinating… provocative… candid… and involving.”

We’ve also heard from Jewish film festival programmers — always off the record — about how much pressure they get from conservative donors and hard-liners not to show the film. There are scores of Jewish film festivals; so far, our reject rate is 2 to 1. We may never know for sure whether or not that’s because of Jewish “thought police.”

I sometimes feel the film is a Rorschach test revealing the health of a local Jewish community. It is virtually banned in Boston, where people seem terrified of provoking right-wing attacks. But in Columbus, Ohio, hundreds of people stayed after a Jewish film festival screening for an exciting dialogue that included representatives from the JCC and Hillel, an Orthodox rabbi, and the president of the Wexner Foundation.

One of our happiest findings is that inquiry continues, despite efforts to silence or marginalize those who ask challenging questions. This inquiry is, of course, the foundation for commitment. I’m proud our film has been an important instrument to further this inquiry at a time when we so clearly need it.

Deborah Kaufman is founder and former director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and with Alan Snitow produced and directed “Between Two Worlds: The American Jewish Culture Wars.” For information, visit www.btwthemovie.org.

Deborah Kaufman (Photo/Courtesy)
Deborah Kaufman

Deborah Kaufman was the founding director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. She is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a member of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences.