Jews Step Forward” .. Challenging the Zionist’s Perspective on “Social Justice” - Interview with Director Marjorie Wright
In May 2016, HPFF has the chance to speak with co-director Marjorie Wright about her powerful film, Jews Step Forward. The film will be shown on May 27 at 7pm during the 10th annual HPFF festival at Rice University Media Center. Wright will be attending the screening and participating in a Q&A session to follow.
Talking about the historical aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has never been an easy job. For that, you have to go through a lot of research, conflicting materials, different opinions and perspectives, making the task of authentication and verification even more difficult and challenging for the sake of objectivity. But for Marjorie Wright, this task has become an everyday routine of her life. She has worked on a number of documentaries as a producer and a director. She is known for her role as a producer in the film “Voices Across the Divide”, which sheds light on the millions of dollars are spent on campus groups and in the media, aggressively promoting an Israel-right-or-wrong political stand, which is a major threat to the fundamental principles of free speech and tolerance and thus to our basic democratic values. The film follows its director’s personal journey as she begins to understand the Palestinian narrative, while exploring the Palestinian experience of loss, occupation, statelessness, and immigration to the US, exploring voices for a just peace in the region. Recently, Wright has worked on a new film, “Jews Step Forward”, which traces a path grounded in Jewish identity, which ultimately separates personal conscience from a socialized mythology loyal to Israel. The film is directed by Wright and her colleague Elika Rezaee.
Jews Step Forward will be screened at the Houston Palestine Film Festival on Friday, May 27. We talked to to Marjorie Wright about her film, the reasons to make it, the process, and how challenging it is to distribute such films in the US and worldwide.
Tell us more about the main idea of the film, and why did you decide to make it?
In 2009, we showed our previous film, which was based on interviews with Israelis. But then, I realized I really should do one with Jewish activists from the US movement. I see my films as a tool in the movement ]towards freedom[, they’re not for entertainment or sensational purposes. They are rather a way to help advance the movement, to help change people’s minds, and to awaken people so that there is a critical mass particularly inside the Jewish community. In the US, we want to stop what is happening in Palestine, so that was the decision to make this film. I read a book called “Overcoming Zionism” which is cited in the film, and it was such a brilliantly and eloquently written book, and I somehow connected with the author. His name is Joel Kovel. I wrote him a letter and we connected and spoke. So I told him about the idea of this film and he’s the one who opened the doors to me towards contacting many of these activists in the film. I have spent 10 years in Dubai so I did not know enough people to be able to make those connections, but one thing led to another, and I was lucky that this has happened.
The film was screened in India, and this week it will screen it in Houston. How do you expect people to react towards it, especially in the Jewish community?
There was one test screening in Palm Springs, California, and it was a very small group. In the Palm Springs festival, half of the audience was Jewish and the other half was a mix of people. I didn’t know if people were going to scream at the screening, or if they’re going to jump and run out. I have had reactions with my earlier film where people were very angry, because it creates a very controversial reaction inside the Jewish community, especially when talking about what’s happening in Palestine. I am sure Houston has a significant Arab population and activist movement. So it would be very interesting to hear people’s take on it.
How difficult is it to promote and distribute the film, especially with the sensitive issues it discusses?
I think the film fits in a Jewish niche, but of course Jewish festivals often won’t touch it with a 10-foot stick. This film is really not an Arab film, because we’re not interviewing Arabs. I think the best director to do a film interviewing Arabs, is an Arab, someone who is completely inside that community.
The film keeps on talking about “social justice” as the core of Judaism, but Israel is not associated at all with social justice. So, to what extent do you think Israel is harming Jews worldwide especially with this contradiction in hand?
That is the contradiction and what young Jews are confronting. The social justice movement inside Judaism is something that I do not think was inherited in the religion, but it was very much a product of the 20th century. Young Jewish Americans were the ones who were fighting for unions and for poor people because they came from that community. What Israel has become is a complete contradiction of what Judaism has embraced, which was social justice. There are various people in the film who ask about the definition of Judaism and what does it mean to be a Jew. There are a lot of questions for the next generation in terms of identity, and I think the Jewish community is going through very serious questioning about what does it mean to be Jewish, what does that involve and what parts of their identity has or does not have to bring Zionism. All of them are anti-Zionists and they’re trying to go back to the roots of Judaism which is 1000 of years older than Zionism, which they believe has hijacked their community.
Tell us more about the research process you had to go through to prepare for the film?
I have been involved with Palestinian human rights since the first Intifada, so from the Palestinian side I have followed this consistently since 1988. Through my research, I formulated questions and posted them to the interviewees, and the film you have is what they tell you. But then came the hard part about looking for Jewish activists, which I knew little about. There are a couple of things that I would want to mention. At Columbia university, there is a superb collection of posters, called the Palestine Poster Project with some 8,000 posters, and Mr. Dan Walsh who just began collecting those informally, had been exposed to my earlier films, and he was very welcoming and inviting me to use the collection. Then of course I worked with someone in Dubai, and we purchased moving footage which most films in the US would not be able to make that connection to get images and footage from the Arab side.