'Between Two Worlds': New Film Explores Jewish American Identity and the Fate of Israel

"Between Two Worlds" takes us on a journey of the increasingly contentious factions within the American-Jewish community.

Time is running out. Israelis know that. So do American Jews. If Israel refuses to cease building settlements in the West Bank, the newly unified Palestinian government will ask the UN General Assembly to ratify it as a new and sovereign state in September. Only Israel and the United States are expected to vote against the adoption of this resolution.

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What then? Israel will no long be occupying "territories." It will be in violation of international law by occupying a sovereign state. As my late uncle would have said, "This can't be good for the Jews."

Such a vote is hardly the best way to create a two-state solution. Yet this just may happen, deepening world opinion against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and causing rippling consequences that may endanger the very existence of Israel as a sovereign nation.

Jewish voices from the left have been trying to prevent this for decades. Tikkun Magazine just celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary. J Street, a relatively new Jewish-American organization that seeks a fair and just negotiated peace agreement, attracted over 2,000 participants in early March to its second national conference in Washington D.C.

Shortly after, in April, I spoke at a conference at New York University about women's liberation and Jewish identity. Many of the panelists revealed how early and contemporary feminists were deeply critical of Israel policies and how much they desired Israel to live up to the very ideals that propelled them into the civil rights, anti-war, and women's movements.

Yet silently standing in the middle of that auditorium was the perennial 900-pound elephant--in this instance, Israel. Some women saw any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic; others viewed such dissent as a continuation of their long-held values. That the conference didn't explode into warring factions was testimony, I think, to our maturity and age. Been there; no one wanted to do that again.

Since time truly is running out, Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman's new film, Between Two Worlds, couldn't be more timely. They are well-known and highly respected for their investigative documentaries, among them Thirst, an exposé of the privatization of water. They have earned a stellar reputation for making documentaries that speak powerfully to audiences who didn't know they cared about an issue before the film was screened.

Between Two Worlds takes us on a journey of the increasingly contentious factions within the American-Jewish community. For each person who passionately wants the Israeli occupation to end, they present someone who remembers the terrorist acts they have suffered at the hands of Palestinians.

The film opens with the Jewish Film Festival, founded by Deborah Kaufman in 1981, and an annual cinematic treat for people living in the Bay Area. In recent years, the festival has drawn 35,000 people to its many Israeli, American, and foreign films that deal with Jewish themes. In 2009, however, the festival screened the film Rachel, about the young Rachel Corrie who was killed by a bulldozer as she protested the destruction of Palestinian homes. The festival was no longer a community; it was now at war with itself. The audience became contentious. Outside, people picketed the festival without having seen the film. Dissent about Israel was now, according to them, prohibited.

It was hardly the first time that the festival had screened a film critical of the Israeli occupation. But this time the American-Jewish community was deeply divided. The festival director was subjected to what he called "Internet rage"; Jews spoke bitterly about "us" and "them," both groups Jewish Americans. The chilling effect was palpable, not only at the festival but across the country.

It's hard to imagine a more enthralling and provocative film about the American-Jewish community at this moment in history. The questions raised at the festival and elsewhere tore apart friends and families and caused internal civil wars within individuals: Who is entitled to speak for Israel? Does being Jewish mean unconditional loyalty to Israel or following the values one was taught as an American Jew?

Although the film is clearly aimed at the hearts and mind of American Jews, it takes a brief detour to Jerusalem to capture a story that further reveals our nation's complicated relationship to Israel. Both the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem had given the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles the right to build a new Museum of Tolerance, designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry, right in the very heart of the city. The problem, however, was that they were planning to build this museum in the cemetery and over the graves of Muslims. The debates between those who are horrified by such desecration and those who remind us that Jordan used Israeli gravestones to pave roads is riveting. Israelis and Americans are hardly of one mind; many remember the rage they have felt when Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed.

Back in the United States, the film takes us to a noisy debate among students who are deciding, at the University of California at Berkeley, whether to divest funds from two corporations that sell military equipment to Israel. The students are passionate and articulate. Their stories as Americans, Israelis, and Palestinian students are frightening, convincing, bracing, tragic, and sorrowful. And they are being repeated across the country on many campuses. In the end, the motion to divest is defeated, and advocates, including many Jews, symbolize their inability to criticize Israeli policies by leaving with their mouths taped shut.

What is remarkable about this film, aside from the choice of fascinating stories and memorable characters, is that Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman have managed to produce a balanced documentary about the growing civil war among those American Jews who view unconditional loyalty to Israel as the core of their Jewish identity and those who view Jewish values of social justice and equality as that which fuels their activism.

The even-handed character of Between Two Worlds is perhaps due to their own families, which they briefly discuss in the film. Kaufman's father was a famous Zionist activist and Snitow's mother was a Communist. The result of growing up with these beloved parents, who held such absolute convictions, has taught both filmmakers, blessed with agile minds, that they can and must contemplate ambiguity and ambivalence.

Between Two Worlds is just starting a tour of many film festivals, including one in Jerusalem. Eventually, I hope, many American Jews will see it and come out, as I did, provoked, educated, and, as usual, torn apart. If no peace negotiation is reached before September, this beautiful, passionate, and riveting personal documentary may well end up as historical documentation of what American Jews did--and did not do--before the General Assembly created a new Palestinian state.

Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis, is a former columnist at the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her most recent book is The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Changed America. She is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Movements at U.C. Berkeley where is she is writing about why women have been drawn to the Tea Party.