Anti-Dissent Disorder

The film shows emails scrolling across a computer screen. Addressed to Peter Stein, director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, they carry more venom than it seems mere pixels of text could contain. They accuse him of being an anti-Semite and of running an "anti-Israel hate-fest." They include words like "Hitler" and ask if next year he will present a retrospective of Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl's work.

This sequence comes early in the documentary Between Two Worlds, which premieres later this month in New York. Stein's offense during the 2009 film festival was showing another documentary: Rachel, about Rachel Corrie, an American activist killed several years earlier in Gaza by an Israeli army bulldozer as she tried to stop it from razing a Palestinian house. At the same festival, Stein also showed 36 Israeli movies as part of his effort to catalyze intelligent conversation of Jewish issues.

That didn't save him from the hate letters or from the protests outside the Castro Theater when Rachel screened. For balance, Stein invited a representative from the right-wing group Stand With Us explain his objections before the screening began. A barrage of cat-calls from the audience interrupted the guest's comments, as if to prove that silencing opponents is a game everyone can play.

Between Two Worlds, by directors Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, portrays the internecine fury that has seized the American Jewish community. This is a periodic illness, a social auto-immune disorder in which healthy dissent -- particularly regarding Israeli policy -- sets off panicked accusations of perfidy. The outbreaks date back at least to the 1970s, when Jews on the right succeeded in ostracizing Breirah, an early group promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace. In a more advanced stage, toxic self-righteousness may afflict spokespeople of the left as well as the right. The current bout is so virulent that many Jews prefer to drop out of the argument about Israel entirely -- a symptom akin to gourmets finding they can't bear to eat. As Daniel Sokatch, head of the liberal New Israel Fund, tells Snitow and Kaufman's camera, "People will walk away from an argument that looks like, 'Israel, right or wrong,' or, 'Israel is an apartheid demon state.' That is not a compelling paradigm for most young American Jews."

So here's a proposal for three-part introductory course for anyone who wants to conduct an educational cure for Anti-Dissent Autoimmune Disorder among Jews or other groups. (Surely, Jews are not the only minority that sometimes go into a frenzy over Kaufman's concluding question in the film, "Who is entitled to speak for the tribe?")

Devote your first section to Between Two Worlds. It's not just that the film packs in a series of controversies - whether Jewish organizations can be open to criticism of Israel; whether the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign against Israel expresses Jewish values or destructive bias; whether American Jews' liberal politics are intrinsic to Judaism or an accident of history. Snitow and Kaufman, narrating their film, identify as politically progressive, but their most basic position is pro-nuance, pro-doubt. Their voices are the quiet counterpoint to interviewees enamored of their own certainty - from radio host John Rothmann blasting the San Francisco film festival to pro-divestment activists at a stormy UC Berkeley meeting.

The film's most powerful sequence shows Snitow's exploration of his mother's membership in the Communist Party. In 1936, she visited the Soviet Union and wrote home that, "In the hope of the people you can see the comfort and beauty which our own poor must carry as only a dream." She refused, her son says, to believe reports about the purges and gulag, but finally left the Party over the 1939 Soviet-Nazi pact. In the 1950s, as an activist in the pro-civil rights American Jewish Congress, she hid her past well enough to evade a purge of Communist sympathizers. Snitow expresses discomfort with the purge, and with leftwing groups that "intimidate dissent in the name of liberation." As you watch, you'll feel compelled to ask whether you have ever pushed facts or questions aside to keep your ideals uncomplicated.

That question sets up the second study session, devoted to the essay, "The Trials of That Woman," published this week in Ha'aretz by preeminent Israeli poet Haim Gouri. Now 87 years old, Gouri grew up in an influential wing of the Zionist left that was both pro-Soviet and insistent on Jews' right to a homeland extending into today's Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. He describes a woman he knew on kibbutz in 1938 confronting the news of Stalin's purge trials:

She locked herself up in her room, on an extended penitential fast. She did not believe in those false trials, and felt as if her world was crashing down. She was a kibbutz member, a Communist Zionist for whom Red Moscow was the holy city of the Revolution. She fell into a sorrow worse than anger - the loss of faith.

Others kept faith longer. In the early 1950s, Gouri writes, he took his girlfriend to hear leading poet Avraham Shlonsky. "The revolution is history's surgeon, even though its hands be bloodied," Shlonsky said. Gouri's girlfriend said, "These are your friends?"

Gouri's power as a writer derives partly from fearless self-criticism. After Israel's conquests in 1967, he writes, he had to confront his own belief in the Jewish right to the Whole Land of Israel. The indoctrinations of his youth had ignored the presence of Arabs. He came to believe that "only through a compromise on the separation of the two peoples, in partnership, would life here be possible." He lives, he says, with "bruised faith."

Read Gouri's essay, and consider the possibility that the present-day battle of establishment and rightwing Jewish groups in the United States against any criticism of Israel is a burlesque reenactment of Communists repressing knowledge of Soviet failures. In no way do I mean to suggest that Israel's mistakes resemble the Soviet Union's, or can be measured in the same metrics. But the psychology of suppressing questions bears a family resemblance. Likewise, the reaction of some who lose faith is similar - embracing the opposite extreme. If Israel is not altogether good, they conclude, it must be altogether bad. Political sanity, on the other hand, consists of being able to affirm ideals and criticism at the same time.

That brings me to lesson three, which should be based on reading Jeremy Ben-Ami's A New Voice for Israel, to be published next month. Ben-Ami is the head of J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby and the target of attacks from both the unsmiling paleo-Zionist right and the grim anti-Zionist left for lack of ideological purity. (Full disclosure: I've been a paid speaker at J Street events.)

Yes, I agree with Ben-Ami's basic position that support of Israel and support of a two-state solution go together. But that's not the main reason I recommend the book. Ben-Ami accurately describes the absurdity of U.S. politics, in which politicians and the lazier journalists treat Jews as a constituency that votes on the single issue of Israel and in which a small conservative minority gets away with speaking in the name of the overwhelmingly liberal Jewish community.

He argues for nuance rather than rigidity -- for instance, rejecting the vile personal attacks on Richard Goldstone, chief author of the U.N. report on the 2009 Gaza war, while criticizing the serious lacunae in the Goldstone Report's treatment of Hamas. Most important, Ben-Ami rejects the luxury of pessimism, the laziness of giving up on Israeli-Palestinian peace. His idealism consists not in idealizing Israel (or vilifying it) but of working to make it a better place.

These three sessions could be the start of treating Anti-Dissent Disorder. Be warned, though: If you organize them, you may receive some truly awful mail.

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