Behind Between Two Worlds: An Exclusive Interview with Kaufman-Snitow Productions

By Shani Chabansky

It’s easy to tell when you’re about to really click with someone; they say just what you’re thinking, they wear what you might wear yourself, everything seems to shout “new friend!” Such was my experience with Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, the two filmmakers responsible for the hot, new documentary everyone in the Jewish community is talking about: Between Two Worlds. As Kaufman brewed a pot of peppermint tea, I felt as though we had already shared several groundbreaking conversations, the kinds that feel as if you have collectively shifted multiple paradigms. And as we exchanged an obligatory formal handshake, one glance into Snitow’s brow-line glasses was all I needed to feel right at home in the office.

It’s no small wonder then, that the stories in their “personal essay film” instantly transported me back to my family’s Shabbat dinner table. During our interview, Kaufman told me that the personal quality was intentional. “It’s the first time we’ve been really transparent in a film. Everyone thinks that documentaries are supposed to be a balance, but people who do documentary all know that every documentary has a point of view. Everything, even the way you edit to the images you show, is all a point of view. So it was to drive home that point, that we have a point of view, and to let people know where it’s coming from.” Documenting the fiercely contested identity crisis of the Jewish- American community, it is the element of intense intimacy that makes Between Two Worlds so powerful.

New Anti-Semitism: A Public Debate in the Jewish-American Community

Marking their second journey into Jewish subject matter1, Between Two Worlds documents the debate over Jewish identity in the United States, particularly in relation to Israeli politics. One of the more volatile narratives in the film is an exploration of a phenomenon known as “new anti-Semitism,” the suggestion that to question Israel’s policies or its existence is anti-Semitic. Kaufman and Snitow describe one of the earliest signs of new anti-Semitism in the beginning of the film: Two years ago, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, founded by Kaufman herself, screened a documentary film about Rachel Corrie, an American activist who was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer while she was protesting the settlements in the occupied territories. According to Kaufman and Snitow, audience members from the political right and left began to argue over whether it was appropriate for a Jewish film festival to show a film critical of Israel. Among other things, the incident demonstrated that American Jews do not agree in their feelings towards Israel, a disagreement that is now a major source of tension within the Jewish-American community.

Gracefully waltzing into what has become a very sticky subject, Kaufman and Snitow make a noble effort at presenting the debate over supporting Israel in an open platform. As Gershom Gorenberg, one of the founding members of our very own Leviathan Jewish Journal wrote, “Snitow and Kaufman identify as politically progressive, but their most basic position is pro-nuance, pro-doubt… As you watch, you’ll feel compelled to ask whether you have ever pushed facts or questions aside to keep your ideals uncomplicated.”2 Unfortunately, constituents from all sides of the debate often freeze banter by shutting down opposing viewpoints. Terminating discussion is decidedly not an objective in Between Two Worlds, quite the opposite. Using what social theorists call a “reflexive approach” for cultural analysis, Kaufman and Snitow disclose their personal histories in Between Two Worlds. In doing so, they honestly acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of the debate, extend credibility to all perspectives and keep the conversation flowing.

The Federal Investigation of Anti-Semitism

Taking a leaf out of Kaufman and Snitow’s book, this article is my own attempt to position myself within the debate over support of Israel in the US and to link the debate to our own campus. What follows is an abbreviated version of the conversation between myself, an aspiring journalist and cultural Jew, and Kaufman and Snitow, two artists whose work documents the Jewish community in a moment of self reflection. As it turns out, I didn’t have to look far to find the connection between the film and our own campus; Between Two Worlds directly relates to an issue I discussed in my last article for Leviathan.3 In it, I examined the recently opened federal investigation of anti-Semitism on our campus, arguing that such an investigation is not only unnecessary, but also threatens freedom of speech. Although the complaint responsible for the investigation didn’t use the term “new anti-Semitism,” its definition of anti-Semitism echoes the earlier controversy of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, helping to clue me into the connection between UCSC and Between Two Worlds.

In my mind, the definition of new anti-Semitism falsely conflates being Jewish with being Zionist and creates an unfairly rigid meaning of what it means to be a Jew in the United States. Restricting identity is troublesome, particularly for young people who are still in the process of finding their place in the world. It is my belief that new anti-Semitism is guilty of confining Jewish identity to those who support Israel unconditionally in public, an especially problematic assumption for the growing number of students who maintain a connection with Judaism, but not with Israel. For my family and me, the situation in Israel is a lived experience, so it is impossible for me to separate myself from the discussion. But the thoughts and feelings of other students are just as important and valuable as mine. Even though, as a Zionist, it hurts to hear my peers and professors discuss Israel negatively, out of the discomfort comes new understanding. A public university’s responsibility lies not in policing conversation, but in keeping it alive. Similarly, the creation of knowledge should not be a comfortable process, but should expose new concepts and challenge the way we see the world. The federal investigation of anti-Semitism is not generating a sustainable environment for those of us who refuse to adjust our beliefs in hopes of fitting into a standard definition of “Jewish.” Time and again I evoke our university’s custom of cherishing the alternative and of nurturing the unconventional. Although it may be buried under the waves of budget cuts and tuition increases, I still believe in the power of a critical education.

Curious to hear their thoughts on the matter, I brought up new anti-Semitism and the federal investigation during my talk with Kaufman and Snitow. As filmmakers, they offer a unique perspective in the national conversation on Jewish identity. After a nice schmooze about Leviathan (during which I learned that Kaufman is a banana slug), we gradually began to discuss their motivation for creating Between Two Worlds, turning to their views on the federal investigation of anti- Semitism at UCSC and finally arriving at the eternal debate over Jewish identity in the United States. In the interest of time and space, I have done my best to leave you with only the essentials.

Courtesy of Snitow-Kaufman Productions

On Motivation for Creating the Film

Kaufman: I felt that there was no affirmation in my generation for a diaspora-based Jewish identity that was secular and proud and that countered Hollywood stereotypes, so I was really interested in alternative visions. I’ve been involved with the issues inside of the film for a really long time, about who speaks for the Jewish community, and I wanted to present a forum that had different voices. I understood from going to UC Santa Cruz that there was more than one way of being a Jew. So that was my personal story.

Snitow: In the early days, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival ran into a number of conflicts with the establishment of the Jewish community. Deborah and Co-Director Janis Plotkin invited the leading non-violent activist voice of the first intifada to speak after a film, which was called “Speaking to the Enemy,” so it was appropriate to have the “enemy” come to speak. That was during a period of time when the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation enforced a rule that no Jewish institution was permitted to talk to Palestinians in public, period. It was absolutely verboten. In our movie, we wanted to address these issues of ideology, silencing, and identity by taking a look at our own family histories and secrets. My mother was a teacher in Harlem and saw racism first-hand. She joined the Communist Party, but later became disillusioned and left the party. But she stayed pro-labor, pro civil rights, and she pursued her ideals through the Jewish community. To do that, she felt she had to completely hide her communist background. Her colleagues and the FBI never found out about her past. But it was important for us to acknowledge this hidden part of our Jewish history. We want viewers to know the complexity of the past so there would be no hidden agendas. We wanted to be up- front about history and about how it affects what we think today so we can say, “Look, we’re putting our cards on the table so we can have this as an open discussion,” taking that risk, rather than keeping it all under wraps. And the response has been great with people recognizing their own family secrets. We’ve had people come up to us after screenings and say, “Oh, my uncle was also a communist! My parents were communists!”

K: And other people tell us, “My grandmother worked for The Forward and my grandfather worked for Commentary.” Within families you have ideological splits, and sometimes they are the subject of raging battles and other times they’re completely submerged and nobody talks about it. But they all have an impact on who we are today. All of these “isms” are a legacy that inform some of the battles we have today over who can speak. The reason that we’re alarmed is that the rancor seems to be worse now. I mean, the rabbis fiercely debated in the Talmud, so this is part of our tradition. But now, the fighting seems really unproductive and out of control. Some Jewish community leaders are allowing this to happen and in some cases even provoking the bullying of people they disagree with. So the film is trying to say that we’ve got to get back to a more respectful conversation.

S: We talk about the idea that social justice, activism and commitment are part of Jewish identity. There’s a big debate among rabbis and historians about what is the ethical content of Judaism and what are the politics of Judaism.

Chabansky: Do you feel that you’ve changed the atmosphere by making this film?

K: The truth is it’s been hard. Jewish funders didn’t want to fund the film, some Jewish film festivals rejected it because it’s too controversial. So we hope the film has an impact in changing the kind of debate we have. And the good news is that many Jewish film festivals are showing the film, and people are starting to book it on college campuses. We are now touring with the film with screenings sponsored by festivals, Jewish Studies programs, synagogues, Hillels, and JCC’s.

On New Anti-Semitism and the Federal Investigation at UCSC

S: There is real anti-Semitism to be confronted in the world, and there are people who use being anti-Zionist as a cover for prejudice. But there are also important people both in Israeli politics and in the American Jewish community who have tried to conflate virtually all criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. This is a slippery slope. One Jewish Studies professor we heard explained the distinction like this: that traditional anti-Semitism has relied on fantasies of Jewish power. That even if Jews lived in shtetls and were poor and so forth, that they still controlled the banks, they were super-human, and that the Rothchilds had their tentacles around Washington and that every Jew in every shtetl was part of this conspiracy. This fantasy has been central to anti- Semitism and we still have to confront it today. But that doesn’t mean that everything is the same. Israel is a state with a powerful military. It has real, not fantasy, power. You may object to the way people talk about Israel and there is anti-Semitism when people claim that Israel controls everything about US foreign policy; again, the old conspiracy theory. But Israel is now a reality with an army that can defend it, but which, like every other army, can also cause suffering to other people. It’s not just a fantasy anymore. There are people really suffering because of Israeli policies, not because of some fantasy that the Rothchilds are oppressing the Polish peasantry.

K: A lot of Diaspora Muslims and Arabs on campus are angry at Israel for real reasons and Israelis and Jews have to learn to deal with it and engage rather than withdraw. I don’t think Jewish students need to be protected from that speech as much as they need to learn what the issues are and be able either to defend their views. We hope they will be able to defend Israel’s existence even as they strongly criticize the occupation and settlements.

C: It’s more of an internal thing, like who are we? And can we have independent ideas?

S: There’s another element to this, too. Many of the same people who are trying to conflate criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism and anti- Semitism in order to initiate federal court cases are engaging in their own bullying. They say they are just trying to protect Jewish students who feel uncomfortable on campuses or in debates with Arab-American students of Muslim Students Associations. But freedom of speech is uncomfortable! We have to make a distinction between real threats and dangers to Jewish students and the freedom of speech that may make Jewish students uncomfortable and require them to do what we try to do in the film: to look into our own Jewish identities, histories and families. That’s different from real threats of violence and incitement, which cross a line.

C: Some would say that speech can be violent. That saying something like, “Israel should not exist as a Jewish state” is threatening.

K: If you threaten to harm someone physically, then that is crossing a line. But speech that you disagree with, even speech that outrages you, isn’t necessarily a threat. People may say things that make us feel pain, but the solution isn’t to call the cops.

C: And in my opinion, what comes after that, what comes after the pain can be powerful when you can say, “This is what I think” and informing yourself and refusing to be intimidated by either extreme.

K: The thing that’s so disturbing about federal investigations on campus is that it’s happening in exactly the institution most dedicated to the defense of free speech. This is why it’s important for students to be exposed to the debate. People are suffering and dying in this conflict. That’s a reality that should be confronted, not avoided. In our film, we’re trying to inform people, not protect them from uncomfortable realities. The federal investigations we’ve seen are an effort to halt that kind of dialogue and education. It’s really going so far in the wrong direction and it’s such a waste of effort and money.

C: Is it possible that the investigation is helping bring Jews out of their shell? That in some ways, we should be thanking [the investigation] for bringing previously silent Jews out into the forefront to state their beliefs?

K: That would be nice, but I think that the investigations are just alienating people. We think what it’s actually doing is poisoning the atmosphere so that most young people want to stay away from the discussion. We’ve had people say that the issue is just too “toxic,” and they don’t want to deal with it. And the truth is, I get sick of it too! So I don’t think it’s helpful. I think it’s turning people off.

C: Off of Judaism?

K: No, no, not off Judaism. I think there’s a lot of positive trends in terms of Jewish culture. No, in terms of Israel. I think it’s going to create less attachment and involvement because the discussion is so inflamed and polarized. The middle is getting completely wiped out and turning away. The result is that the extremes get to call each other  names while more reasonable people on both sides are excluded.

On Jewish-American Identity in the United States

C: So what made you decide to do this now?

S: Probably because we felt that the debate over really crucial issues was being hijacked. And that a lot of people were intimidated, not just on questions of Israel, but also on questions of intermarriage and on questions of Jewish progressive left-wing ethics in history. It’s always hard for us to remember how a film got started. What’s your recollection?

K: I think all of these issues were really important to us because, as Alan said, a sense that the Jewish community was moving really far to the right and shutting down a thoughtful debate. So we tell a series of stories that are about that, but they’re not all about Israel. It’s not all about Israel, it’s a lot about younger generation Jews wanting to have a more hybrid identity. There are a lot of Jewish kids who have one Jewish parent and one non-Jewish parent who want to claim their Jewish identity. For them, the idea of being exclusive and having a litmus test for who’s a Jew seems to make the Jewish community smaller and less vibrant. We want to make it more alive. Although every tribe sets its own borders, those borders keep changing over time, and that change is okay. It can mean growth and innovation, rather than contraction and stagnation. That’s what Talmudic debate is. It’s about how to make Judaism relevant to new situations and ideas and how to assimilate new realities into the tradition. I think that’s a good tradition and I think it’s good for tradition.

C: Where do you think non-Jews fit in? Do they have something of value to contribute? There’s this mentality that just doesn’t translate to the United States. When you’re part of an issue, you have a lot of opinions about it and you’re very involved in it. So at what point do you go to an “outsider” and ask for help?

S: That was one of the first questions we had on the very first screening we did, which was at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival this past May. A guy got up and he said, “I was the Catholic chaplain at Brandeis and I would not talk to anyone about issues in the Jewish community that you raise in your film because 1) I was afraid of being branded a Catholic anti-Semite or 2) I was afraid of being considered an ignorant outsider who should shut up.” So I think non-Jews do have something to contribute, and it’s really important that non-Jews feel the ability to participate and to ask questions and to raise the difficult issues and not be silenced. We’re planning to show the film to a Presbyterian group that’s talking about divestment because we want to be able to talk with them about why Jews needed self-determination in a state and the dangers of anti-Semitism in boycotting a society that for better or for worse is identified with the Jewish people. A lot of people, including Jews, don’t know much about what anti-Semitism is and we have to open the conversation in order to clarify the differences between views we may strongly disagree with, even detest, and anti-Semitism. We need to talk and educate, not shut down conversation.

C: The problem is that some people get very agitated when a non-Jew enters a conversation about these lines. Even if the non-Jew is very knowledgeable, it may not be personal for her or him.

S: Exactly, we’ve had this same question come up in Jerusalem, “Your kids are not going into the Israeli Defense Force. What right do you have to–”

K: “—to be part of this conversation.” I mean, this is what the whole film is about.

S: There’s a lot of delegitimization of the debate.

C: It comes from entitlement.

S: Yes, and disentitlement.

K: But it’s also coming from a strange place of not understanding that we live in America, a place with a diverse population. A huge number of Jews have interfaith marriages. I mean, “those people” are not “those people.” They’re us! Our partners, our children are not “pure blood” Jewish, whatever that is. I mean the whole thing’s insane because we’re all interbred, technically. But if you live in America, you’re living in an open society and you need allies. You need to have really strong connections with people who aren’t Jewish. We’re a minority in this country, we need to have our non-Jewish allies with us and understanding our issues. We need the benefit of their solidarity and their experience and their own point of view. We need those allies in order to survive as Jews in America. So I really reject that argument about “they don’t understand.” Being open is a strength. Circling the wagons is just a defense strategy. There’s another element of this too: there’s a discourse that definitely intimidates a lot of Jews, both old and young, about whether they are “authentic” or “legitimate” or “entitled” to speak.

S: And even who is the greater victim.

K: We trivialize Jewish history when we say that so many different ideas are mere preludes to another Holocaust. This is an issue in Between Two Worlds. We’re in another country now. We’re in another century, and we can’t do that. It’s just unrealistic. So I reject that argument. We want to have people who aren’t Jewish come to see our movie and talk with us and give us the benefit of their wisdom.

Note: The above conversation took place just three months before the film was to be screened at UCSC. This article was published before the screening.

Check out the film’s website at: 

[1] The first was their film Blacks and Jews in 1997.

[2] Gorenberg, Gershom. “Anti-Dissent Disorder: The U.S. Jewish community needs to be open to criticism of Israel.” The American Prospect. June 17th, 2011.

[3] Chabansky, Shani. “Operation Jewish-American Scoliosis: Federation of Anti- Semitism at UC Santa Cruz.” Leviathan Jewish Journal. June 2011: Vol. 38, Issue 3.

Published on page 16 of the Fall 2011 issue of Leviathan.

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