Scratching the Surface: Between Two Worlds [Literary & Arts]
By Josh Fattal
Between Two Worlds
Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman
It was bound to happen. The usually amicable atmosphere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, established in 1980 to generate artistic exploration of the many facets of world Jewry, shattered in 2009. The screening that year of Rachel, which tells the story of the untimely death of a young American killed by an Israeli bulldozer while preventing the destruction of Palestinian homes, hit a nerve in the always-sensitive American Jewish community.
Without even seeing it, incensed Jewish community members erupted over this “anti-Israel” film, and police barriers, protests, and hate mail threatened the communitarian environment the festival had strived to create. The firestorm that Rachel setoff at the film festival spurred Award-winning filmmakers Deborah Kaufman—a founder of the festival—and Alan Snitow to embark on a journey attempting to expose the many conflicts ripping at the seams of the American Jewish community. The result can be seen in their recently released documentary, Between Two Worlds. The finished product suffers from overextension and superficial analysis, as well as a predilection to treat the Jewish left with more sympathy than the right. However, it also exposes the many issues facing the Jewish community today and loudly calls for their open analysis and discussion. In the end, despite its failures, Between Two Worlds serves as a good first step of many that the Jewish community needs to take as it debates the important and often fraught problems it faces today.
Between Two Worlds opens at the film festival, where it introduces viewers to fractured positions that the American Jewish community takes towards Israel. It expands to highlight other critical issues in the community today, some of the most interesting relating to the founding of J Street, a UC Berkeley Senate debate on divestment, and the filmmakers’ family histories. Using interviews and taped footage to guide their story, the filmmakers often clumsily transition from one segment to the next, but are still able to convey the obduracy that defines much of the Jewish community’s dialogue on Israel today.
“We are tired of films that seem to have all the answers in a prescriptive way,” Snitow and Kaufman told The Current. And after the whirlwind of events and crises the film depicts in its short running time, the film accordingly offers no answers or consolation. Between Two Worlds purports not to express any one view as its own. Indeed, the film does not intimate one path to conflict resolution between the differing groups it presents. It does, however, noticeably include many more dovish groups in its interviews than hawkish ones, leaving the film’s “discussion” a bit anemic. The film acts like a commercial for a longer feature—it seems, though, that this was Snitow and Kaufman’s mission.
One noticeable gap manifests in the film’s treatment of the original Rachel controversy that generated Snitow and Kaufman’s project. It features an interview with Daniel Sokatch, a leader in San Francisco’s Jewish community, who critiques the “neo-McCarthyism” on display at the film festival. Yet instead of exploring where this neo-McCarthyism comes from, the film does little more than shock us with such a characterization. The term might seem validated as the camera evocatively shows noxious comments sent to the director of the festival, which make comparisons to Hitler, a “demonic strategy,” and the Iranian regime. But, Between Two Worlds fails to explore the motivations behind the extreme viewpoints that it presents. Sure, it is useful and necessary to expose “neo-McCarthyism,” but it might be more useful for the Jewish community’s internal conversation to delve deeper into the origins of such a harsh reaction.
It is telling that Between Two Worlds is at its best when it turns its focus on one of the filmmakers herself. Diving into her family archives, and slowing the film’s pace, Kaufman reveals her history to be fraught with the complexities of Jewish identity in the modern era. Her father, a staunch Zionist, clashed with one of his daughters (not Kaufman the filmmaker) who converted to Islam when she left home. One of the film’s most touching scenes features Kaufman’s father—now at an old, less stubborn age—singing happily with all his daughters, including the newly Islamic one. Moving away from political controversy to familial relations does well for the film. These scenes feel fresh, and emphasize Between Two World’s desire to reach beyond political conflict to a higher ideal. Unfortunately, this message becomes muddled as the film moves onto bigger, more politicized issues.
One such “big” controversy that the film trains its cameras on is the case of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s planned Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. The museum is to be built on top of a historic Muslim cemetery. Here, the film takes a side, coming down hard against the museum’s placement. It fails to note that the museum’s founder has less controversially declared that the museum is to be built on the adjacent car park. Between Two World’s message is simple—Jews in power must act and think justly—but as its depiction of the controversy swirling around the museum illustrates, it is difficult to expose such conflicts without taking a side.
In its powerful final stretch, the film shows footage of students arguing passionately for and against divestment from Israel at a UC Berkeley senate debate. A student supporting divestment declares that she seeks not to destroy Israel, but to “send a message to a government that yes, you too are accountable for your violations.” Yet students calling for responsibility on the part of peoples and governments are too often intimidated—threatened with exclusion and censorship—into staying silent. There is much to be said, but no open environment in which to say it. Between Two Worlds concludes with the calm that has now returned to the San Francisco Jewish film festival, and leaves viewers with the uncomfortable knowledge that open dialogue is something that Jewish community has yet to achieve.
The filmmakers’ journey amounts to a forceful call to audiences to abandon ideological rigidity and enter into a newly constructive discourse. Between Two Worlds depicts disconcerting events, and, as Snitow and Kaufman told The Current, “Discomfort can be the beginning of a cognitive dissonance that makes us think, change, discuss, revise, and invent.”
The danger, of course, is the potential to get lost in the ensuing revision. In the desire for change, the value of continuity is sometimes misplaced. By sacrificing nuance for narrative satisfaction as it so often does, Between Two Worlds risks equating a tolerant identity for a liberal one. In Snitow and Kaufman’s “tolerant” world there is little room for conservatives. While the filmmakers say they seek to abandon the language of right and left for the language of what “works,” it must not be forgotten that people disagree on what works, and they do so for good reason. The film does not do enough in exploring those reasons. For a film that is all about “conversation,” Between Two Worlds is conspicuously tight on conservative voices—leaving it with an interesting, compelling, but, in the end, sometimes anemic roundtable.
Despite this imbalance, Snitow and Kaufman’s mission to explore and defeat intolerance is a noble one. Between Two Worlds succeeds in beckoning us to open our minds, and for its commitment to discourse and transparency alone, it deserves attention and consideration. Without attempting solutions, it teaches an invaluable lesson: to question is to make the world a better place.
JOSH FATTAL is a first year in Columbia College and is a staff writer for The Current. He can be reached at [email protected]