Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Reece Erlich

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival: The Search for Jewish identity

First Published: Unity, Vol. 4, No. 14, September 11-24, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The recently held Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco was more than a series of films. For many third and fourth generation American Jews, it was part of a search for identity in a world vastly changed since the time of our immigrant ancestors.

“I haven’t been to temple since my Bar Mitzvah,” one young man told me at the festival. “But I’m a Jew. This festival is helping me understand my roots and the struggle of Jewish workers both in Europe and the U.S.”

Three thousand people came to the five-day festival, with hundreds turned away from each performance. Elderly Jews from nearby rest homes mixed with teenage Jews sporting punk haircuts. Conservative suburbanites sat next to young radicals of the New Jewish Agenda. People kibbitzed and got to know one another while waiting in the long lines.

The festival included 17 films on such topics as the Israeli New Wave cinema, the immigrant experience, the Jewish labor movement and the contemporary Jewish experience. By the time the festival reaches New York on September 9-16 and Washington, D.C., in November, it will include over 30 films.

The political and cinematic quality of the films varies widely: from chazerie (garbage) to engrossing.

Jewish history

A number of the festival films give a glimpse of Jewish history not usually told in chader (temple religious school). One such film was Image Before My Eyes.

Image creates an emotionally moving montage of Jewish life in Poland between the two world wars. Among other segments, the film shows the widespread leftist political and cultural movement in Poland that was anti-Zionist. Many Yiddish theater groups and the largest Jewish political organizations were dedicated to fighting for Jewish rights inside Poland, not to form a separate society in Palestine.

While the film is not anti-Zionist in its overall thrust, it does give a glimpse of a radical tradition largely unknown to Jews of our generation.

The Alien’s Place

The Alien’s Place is a highly provocative film by Dutch director Rudolph van den Berg. In both content and cinematic style, it challenges the audience to examine our own views of Jewish identity.

At the beginning of the film, alone Jewish man stares starkly at the camera. Off-screen hands measure the length of his nose, the shape of his face and eyes. A scientist concludes that there are no physical features that separate Jews from gentiles. There is no “Jewish race.” The lone man/narrator then asks, “What is a Jew?”

The director cuts from discussions at a nicely set dinner table to the barren hills of the occupied West Bank. He allows various Jews to put forward their views of Jewish identity: a pro-Zionist Dutch rabbi, an assimilationist, victims of the Nazi holocaust and some anti-Zionist Israelis. The film interviews Palestinians evicted from their homeland by the Israeli state.

Among American Jews the film is very controversial because it dares to portray the Palestinians as having legitimate rights. The film questions the connection of Jewish identity with 100% support for Israel. In one moving sequence a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and now an Israeli citizen says:

“Palestinians are prohibited from living in the majority of cities or villages ... of my country. This is racism. I should be against this racism just as I would have expressed it if Jews in other countries would have been under similar persecution . . . . ”

Unfortunately sponsors in New York have withdrawn Alien’s Place from their festival, along with another Israeli-made anti-war film, Paratroopers. Thus the New York audience will be deprived of one of the best films of the festival and an important alternative view to that of the Jewish establishment.

Jewish identity

There are six million Jews in the U.S. today, about half not affiliated with any synagogue or Jewish organization. While their reasons vary, some younger Jews are alienated from the conservative policies of the Jewish establishment.

“I can’t see supporting Israel’s invasion of Lebanon,” one man in his mid-20’s told me. “I’m really angry at the Binai Brith’s support for Alan Bakke and his attack on affirmative action. And when Menachem Begin gave an award to Jerry Falwell (of the Moral Majority), that was the final straw.”

In the films, in organized discussions after each program and in front of the theater – these and other topics were hotly debated. A radical sentiment did not dominate. But for the first time in my experience, a variety of pro- and anti-Zionist views were heard at a major Jewish event.

For too long Jews in the U.S. have learned only a Zionist view of Jewish culture, history and identity. According to Zionist doctrine, Jews constitute a nation with a homeland in Israel. Only the existence of the state of Israel can protect us from another holocaust. Therefore, anything Israel does must be supported.

But some younger Jews reject that notion. Rejecting Zionism, however, does not mean rejecting our identity as Jews.

American Jews have a common cultural tradition inherited from our immigrant forebears. Most of them fled European or Russian exploitation and anti-semitism. Jews of my grandparents’ generation spoke Yiddish, had a common religious background and were discriminated against by American capitalism. Most of them were workers, small tradesmen or other poor people. Jews are similar to many European ethnic groups that faced intense discrimination at one time, but were eventually assimilated into American society. Today, while few Jews speak Yiddish and many are not even religious, we continue to share that common cultural heritage and tradition.

Revolutionary heritage

Various films at the festival give a glimpse of the revolutionary heritage of Jewish workers, a heritage that specifically rejected Zionism. The masses in Russia and Eastern Europe were more likely to ally with revolutionary parties, often communist parties, than with Zionism. In the U.S., many Jewish workers’ organizations had a militant and revolutionary history.

In this tradition, Jews have fought in solidarity with all oppressed peoples. The Jews of today have far more in common with the workers and minorities of the U.S. – and with the Palestinian people – than we do with the leaders of the established Jewish organizations.

Some of the films at the Jewish Film Festival will help people understand that revolutionary Jewish identity. They should be seen by Jews and non-Jews alike.