In the absence of a visionary or even steadfastly progressive leadership, the Jewish community has become stuck in a vicious cycle of recriminations, while slowly shifting to the political right.
This rightward drift does not apply only to issues concerning Israel. A resounding 78 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election, but only 60-65 percent support Obama in the current build up toward the 2012 election.
My partner Alan Snitow and I witnessed this political shift intimately over the last year while touring with our newest documentary film, Between Two Worlds: The American Jewish Culture Wars. Our travels took us to over thirty cities in eleven states and four countries.
The movie explores bullying and censorship, asking “Who has the right to speak for a divided community?” It also examines interfaith marriage and conversion, tells a story about the uses of Holocaust history, presents a family memoir in which disillusionment with Communism triggers a re-evaluation of Jewish universalism, and shows how the Israel/Palestine conflict is seen through the eyes of the younger generation. Each story engages the audience and demands that they ask: Where do I stand?
From our world premiere in Toronto last summer—where a majority of the Jewish community had just voted for the first time for Canada’s Conservative party—to our subsequent screenings throughout the United States, we witnessed the shift away from liberal commitments.
The Waning of Prophetic Tradition
When we spoke of a past progressive tradition inside the Jewish community, we also had to remind audiences that since the demise of the American Jewish Congress—featured in our film—there have been few national Jewish organizations that are organized democratically, where members actually vote for representative leadership. Today, the American Jewish community is overwhelmingly led by wealthy, conservative patrons who exert control with no accountability to the community. Few remember the days when leaders were elected based on vision and commitment, making them accountable to members. Young people in our audiences were especially shocked to hear there had been a time, not so long ago, when this was so. The very structure of our communal institutions models this shift away from liberal ideals over time.
As we traveled we saw the new face of American Jews—secure, middle-class, or affluent, and increasingly aligned with the powerful. In the vast majority of communities, the memory of marginalization and oppression triggers not solidarity with the downtrodden, but support for parochial and nationalistic causes. We have to conclude there is little reason for Jews to remain committed to universal values if their class interests are against it, if they no longer identify as outsiders, if the prophetic tradition is waning in their communal institutions, and if their leaders drive them away from liberalism with the threat of excommunication.
Responses to the Film
We screened the film in festivals, commercial movie theaters, universities, synagogues, and community centers. Audiences ranged from crowds of over 750 to intimate circles of 20. They were young and old, Jews, Muslims, Christians, conservative and progressive, religious and secular. Some people told us the film was brilliant, others said it was sheer propaganda. The entire audience usually stayed for an hour-long discussion after the screening.
The film was intended more as a political than therapeutic intervention, but in almost every screening, people expressed a series of emotional reactions, a kind of abbreviated twelve-step catharsis, mostly but not exclusively related to Israel and Palestine.
Some viewers attacked us verbally, calling us terrible people and decrying the film as “sophisticated propaganda.” Others were moved to express their fear of being “alone in a hostile world.” Some accused of “airing dirty laundry” and failing to consider the possible impact of the film. Many expressed a profound sadness, saying “I can’t speak with my parents about Israel,” “We can’t discuss Israel at my synagogue,” and even, ”My wife and I can’t talk about Israel.” And many expressed relief that they could finally speak their minds in a safe setting.
Often, someone in the audience suggested that Jews were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and we discussed the ways in which victimization can be a trigger for destructive pathologies, or simply an excuse for bad behavior.
Where there were non-Jews, they often identified themselves as such, and praised the film for helping them to understand the divisions inside a Jewish community they thought was monolithic.
Surprisingly often, Arabs and Muslims told us they identify with those in the film who are ostracized for asking difficult questions inside their own community. This was especially true on university campuses—at Penn, Ann Arbor, Columbia, and Fresno to name a few. They said things like, “I take flack for being secular,” or “I’m called a traitor for being in a Palestinian-Jewish dialogue group.” One Arab student stood up to testify that using claims of victimization to justify violence were the same in the Arab world as they are in the Jewish state.
Christians, too, told us how important the film is to them: at our first screening the former Catholic Chaplain at Brandeis stood up to say until this screening he was afraid to speak critically of Israeli policies for fear of being accused of ignorance or anti-Semitism. Presbyterians told us it helped sensitize them to Jewish fears. One man in New Jersey said his church was also riven by internal disputes—and as if to reinforce his words, that same week, we read of Catholic nuns being slammed by the Vatican for their support of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Divides Over Israel and Jewish Identity
There is a kind of dysfunction in Jewish communities that are divided over the issues in our film; they are long past being able to have civil dialogue or debate. In those settings, the most irrational people dominate discussions, while moderates in the audience remain silent. It is a Jewish-inflected reflection of a recent Tea Party discourse—loud and vitriolic.
In these communities, there was usually one person who stood up after the screening to lecture us, “You should not be using the word “Occupation” in the film—there is no “Occupation”—it’s disputed territory.” This was ironically like some scenes in the film itself, where the word “de-legitimization” is used repeatedly to accuse and excommunicate political adversaries. Language is code, and those in power use these linguistic barriers as dividing lines to identify those inside and outside the tent of the tribe.
Younger people on college campuses were troubled by another divide—they often spoke less about Israel and more about the challenges of diversity and the open society in which they live—and the feeling imposed by the Jewish establishment that they may not be authentic or entitled as Jews because they have a non-Jewish parent or lover.
And in non-college settings, many people spoke with intense emotion about their children—how despite Jewish day schools, or summers in Israel, their kids had non-Jewish boyfriends, girlfriends, or spouses. “How do we come to terms with this,” they asked, as if utterly unmoored from the community.
Barriers to Dialogue
We encountered especially troubling efforts to repress free speech in relation to Israel/Palestine at several University of California campuses—beginning at UCLA where two of our cosponsors pulled out at the last moment, and continuing at UC Santa Cruz where there was an organized campaign to stop the film from being shown. The would-be censors organized a petition campaign against the University saying our film created a “hostile environment” for the Jewish students! We also heard from students of a campaign by hardliners to assemble dossiers on pro-peace Jewish student organizers. We were questioned by these latter-day McCarthyites who wanted us to reveal our “contacts” on campus! And at a small screening at UC Davis, an individual sat in the back avidly taking notes on everything we said after the screening.
The chilling effect that this behavior creates has a widespread impact. Many Jewish Film Festivals were unable to screen our film because of the pressure from this kind of intimidation. In many communities—from Boston to Calgary—we were told that despite the desire to screen the film in a Jewish Film Festival or at a Jewish community center, the programmers were unable to do so because of a funder, board member, or community member who warned of dire consequences for crossing some kind of political line. They told us the film was too controversial because… it’s an analysis of controversy! It was too divisive because… it explored divisions! In one surreal moment, one Jewish film programmer told us there were pickets outside his door accusing him of self-hate at the very moment he was speaking with us on the phone.
But we also observed a small but significant countervailing trend. Some individuals wanted to show the film—even when they disagreed with some of the specifics—because they knew it would open a conversation that has been suppressed for too long. Whether it was a Professor of Holocaust Studies in East Lansing, a major donor in Denver, or a Rabbi at a Reform Synagogue in Chicago, we saw a commitment to dialogue and intellectual inquiry. Our hosts in these places often referred to Jewish culture, history, and texts as rooted in open debate.
We also heard from many audience members who asked, “What can I do?” Seeds of liberal activism are still alive in communities—a Jewish social justice movement, Israel-Palestine peace groups—and we saw evidence that many are happily engaged with a struggle to keep their communities open and inclusive.
We discovered some amazing and inspiring people on college campuses—young men and women, many associated with J Street U or Jewish Voice for Peace—with energy, insight, and compassion, who are not afraid of political debate or cultural change. Their courage to take on the challenges of their time gives us reason to hope that the impaired debate, rightward drift, and dysfunctionality of the moment is not a permanent feature of American Jewish life.
In the film, we anchor our stories of contemporary conflict around the tales of our parents—one who was a right-wing Zionist, working for the uplift of his people, the other who was a passionate left-wing Jewish leader, committed to justice and equality for all. These differing ideological strands of secular American Jewish culture continue to reverberate today, and to echo in the background of the battles over power and politics in the Jewish community. A small field of work is now growing to keep these “Guardians” and “Prophets” from tearing each other apart and from driving an alienated generation away.
We believe American Jewish leadership today remains ultimately responsible for the environment of discord that we depict in the film and that we saw recapitulated as we toured the country. The discord keeps conversation stifled, serves those currently in power, and sustains the status quo.
Our observations suggest that despite our own efforts and the efforts of others to come to terms with these patterns, the rightward drift will continue, and the toxic nature of current Jewish debate will intensify through the election, and for some time to come.