[Marxism] Former rivals Bruce Robbins and Alan Sokal work together on Middle East issues

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 7 09:32:49 MDT 2012


May 6, 2012
Cut to Controversy
A Professor-Filmmaker Courts Controversy

By Bruce Robbins

Recently I was reminded that I have passed the roomy but not 
unbounded stage known as "midcareer." A typical reaction is to 
decide to do Something Completely Different. By definition, that 
usually means doing something for which you have no training and 
no talent whatsoever. I decided to make a documentary.

There is a rather juicy backstory. In early 2002 I received an 
e-mail message from the physicist Alan Sokal asking my opinion of 
an "Open Letter From American Jews to Our Government" that he had 

Alan Sokal and I were not friends. We had been on opposite sides 
of the so-called Sokal hoax in 1996, when he was the hoaxer and I, 
as one of the editors of Social Text, a journal of postmodern 
cultural studies, was one of the hoaxees. We had published his 
article proposing that gravity was a social and linguistic 
construct, and a cloud of ridicule hung over the names of the 
journal and its editors. The fact that Alan was perfectly civil in 
our handful of public debates did not lead me to seek his 

Still, I thought his "open letter" was good. I saw his (possibly 
unconscious) point in writing to me: Together, we could 
demonstrate that people who disagreed wildly about certain things 
could still come together on issues of basic ethical principle.

I wrote back, proposing some revisions. One thing led to another, 
and by spring the two of us found ourselves running a campaign to 
gather signatures from American Jews who did not accept the 
Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the outrages to decency and 
human rights attendant upon that occupation, or America's 
unconditional support for the whole package. In July 2002 we 
published a full-page ad in The New York Times with several 
thousand signatures, paid for by an avalanche of checks mailed in 
by Jews who felt unrepresented by lobbying groups like Aipac, 
which claimed to speak for all American Jews.

We arranged for ads in other newspapers in the United States and 
in other countries. There was some media attention. I was asked to 
speak at the United Nations. And of course nothing changed.

In 2006 we went through the whole process again. Again there were 
few signs of change other than the welcome emergence of J Street, 
a progressive, Washington-based organization capable of putting 
some fund-raising muscle behind the increasing number of American 
Jews who were fed up with "Israel right or wrong."

As of 2007, $8,000 remained in the till, but that was far short of 
what we would need to run another campaign. What to do, then, with 
the money people had sent? Eventually, urged on perhaps by a sense 
of time running out, both for me and in the Middle East, I decided 
I would make a film—a platform for the voices of the American Jews 
who had signed our open letter.

One year and 10 extended interviews into this enterprise, I find 
myself wondering whether my post-midcareer foray into unknown 
waters was such a good idea. My misgivings arise despite a 
10-minute trailer that has generated some buzz and put me in touch 
with amazing people I would otherwise never have known.

I was entirely unprepared for this project. I leave aside such 
technicalities as how to find a room to film in without radiators 
that knock, how to figure out what constitutes "fair use" of 
archival footage, and how to phrase release forms when you don't 
even know what title your film will have.

There are even more basic challenges, like distribution and fund 
raising. Foundations exist, even some that specialize in Jewish 
film. But they do not readily hand out money for controversial 
films about Zionism or Israel. The seasoned documentarians Deborah 
Kaufman and Alan Snitow, who have already made a beautiful and 
professionally accomplished film on a similar theme, Between Two 
Worlds, took me to lunch and were generous with their advice, but 
they made it clear what I was up against. They have been making 
films on touchy subjects for decades, all of which have aired on 
public television. But PBS would not touch Between Two Worlds, 
even though that film is extremely balanced—much more so than 
mine. Nor would the usual foundations put up money for their film.

On the other hand, the lack of support was a sign that I was 
fighting the good fight. And it was liberating: Now there would be 
no donors to please. It would be minimalist, but I could make the 
film I wanted to make.

It is almost a pleasure to get on to more substantive questions, 
even unsettled ones—like what the film is really about. It wasn't 
until I was well into the interview process that I discovered my 
real interest was not in debating Zionism or even laying out the 
issues that divide Jewish critics of Israel—one state or two, and 
so on. What I really wanted to know was how people had changed 
their minds: what they had been told about Israel growing up, what 
they believed now, and how they had gotten from Point A to Point B.

Much of what I have on film so far, wonderful as I think it is, is 
not strictly relevant to this narrative. I'm thinking of Alan 
Sokal's story about taking part in a multilingual Passover Seder 
in Nicaragua; or the activist Shula Koenig's evocation of the 
period before 1948 when, as she remembers it, Jews and 
Palestinians lived in relative harmony; or the account of Marilyn 
Neimark, also an activist, of growing up in a family that was 
Orthodox but not Zionist; or the screenwriter James Schamus's 
shtick about what it's like to be a critic of Israel in Hollywood.

The center of the film, as I now imagine it, are the brave, funny, 
immensely gripping stories of passionate self-division told by 
Alisa Solomon, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia; 
Tony Kushner; and Judith Butler. Sometimes these stories involved 
confrontations in their families, sometimes confrontations in 
their own hearts. Most often they were both at once. The 
confrontations never seem entirely finished. It's more stories of 
being "torn asunder," as Butler puts it, that I'll be looking for 
in the hopefully final set of interviews.

Kaufman and Snitow suggested that to make my film work, I would 
have to put myself into it. That prospect has forced me to ask 
myself whether I have my own conversion story and, as a next step, 
whether my mother and I are prepared to air our differences on 
camera (I haven't made up my mind, and neither has she).

As is perhaps fitting, I write this essay in medias res, without 
having figured out even the film's title (which will not be the 
attractively edgy but ultimately misleading Some of My Best 
Friends Are Zionists, the title of the trailer) or the story line 
that will connect its beginning and end.

The only thing I'm sure about is the film's premise: Changing your 
mind is possible even on subjects that you care about 
passionately. This is a moral of some pertinence both to the 
Middle East, where the situation often seems nightmarishly 
intractable, and to those of us who are at that advanced career 
stage where we're afraid we'll just keep doing the same thing over 
and over until we drop in our tracks.

I tell myself that there is no need to cling to the receding 
adjective "midcareer." Some slice of the future also belongs to 
the post-midcareer cohort, at least on condition that we take some 
chances both with our media and with our message.

Bruce Robbins is a professor in the humanities at Columbia University.

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