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