Middle East studies in the News
Campus Battleground [a movie on campus tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian forces; cites Beshara Doumani]
Oy Bay! Blog
Before you read any further, I would like to encourage everyone reading this article to attend the November 28 screening of Bill Jersey's Campus Battleground. The screening will be at Yerba Buena Center at 7:30 PM. It is co presented by both the Jewish and Arab film festivals. This simple fact is remarkable in and of its self, and testifies to the strength of this documentary's story. This movie explores the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian debate and how it plays out on college campuses. It focuses around event in spring of 2006 at Columbia University and U.C. Berkeley. The centerpiece revolves around the arrival at Columbia of intellectual and academic rivals Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz. It is important to note that this movie is not so much about the Middle East Conflict itself, as it is about how it is approached and discussed, particularly, on campus. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Jersey by telephone recently about his film and the interesting journey which led to its creation and evolution.
Bill Jersey is no rookie to the documentary film world and has a string of directing credits stretching back to the 60's. Therefore, it is not surprising that he was commissioned to make a documentary about this subject. It is interesting to note though, that Bill Jersey is neither Jewish nor Arab. He does come from a fundamentalist Christian background, and believes this gives him an unique perspective on the issue. He commented that his background gave him an appreciation for the passion that a strident supporter from either side of the issue could have. He also understands how easily it is to put on blinders when one takes on any fundamentalist ideology (as often happens in this debate). In late 05 and early 06, a controversy was growing at Columbia. This controversy focused on a number of Middle Eastern Studies professors who were accused of making anti-Semitic remarks or even encouraging anti-Semitic activity. After an investigation by the University, no hard evidence of institutional anti-Semitism was found and none of the accused professors were reprimanded. However, the tension did not end. This event was viewed as a boiling point for tensions that had been rising on campuses across the nation, and the fall out led to a renewed series of speakers, protests and campus activity. Bill Jersey was commissioned to make a documentary about these accusations of new anti-Semitism and hatred rising on campus. When he arrived at Columbia though, Columbia had concluded its investigation and found no professors guilty of hate speech. He too, found it difficult to locate evidence of this type of rhetoric. However, it is unclear if it had actually existed and disappeared or never existed in the first place. One of the primary reasons for the difficulty of this investigation was the refusal of these professors to talk with Mr. Jersey citing distrust of the media in general. When he was unable to put together a story on anti-Semitism at Columbia, the theme of the documentary shifted to the nature of the debate between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students.
Mr. Jersey contacted various activist groups on campus at Berkeley and Columbia and located his subjects. I asked him if it was easy to secure subjects. He responded that it was difficult to find many Arab students or professors who were willing to talk in front of the camera. He also found people who were eager to argue their viewpoints, but reluctant to discuss their experience. (There were also some very vocal community members always trying to get on camera who were not even students.) Bill was able to win over a few students and faculty members though and followed their activities over the course of the spring semester in 2006.
One of the most interesting stories revolved around an Israeli student in Berkeley named Avi Criden. Avi recently completed his military service. He made a bold move that semester and enrolled in a class titled "The history of Palestine," which was instructed by Professor Beshara Doumani. Avi was the only Israeli in the course (though not the only pro-Israeli). Avi asked one question at the beginning of the course: "Is there hope?" He remained silent for the remainder of the course, for reasons explained in the movie. Though I personally do not agree with some of the positions held by Professor Doumani, he appeared to be a good professor. One statement that won me over in particular was a comment on the possible outcomes of a Palestinian state. He raises the very important question of the nature of a state founded on principles of terrorism and what type of nation this might become.
One of the other students followed by Jersey was Beri Weiss of Columbia. Beri introduces herself as a Zionist, though she adds a long list of "buts" to her label of Zionist. Despite this list of "buts" she takes on editorial responsibilities at The Current; a pro-Israeli magazine at the University. She discusses the passion of the arguments on campus and the strength of the written word over the spoken word. Ms. Weiss took on a leadership position that brought her to a conference on Israeli/Palestinian issues at Georgetown. The footage of the Georgetown conference ultimately ended on the cutting room floor. However, Mr. Jersey informed me that it contained a passionate protest between Zionist groups and organizations such as Neturai Karta (anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews). It was a difficult choice to eliminate this scene, but both Mr. Jersey and Ms. Weiss felt it was for the best. It did not flow well with the rest of the focus on Berkeley and Columbia. More importantly though, all of the subjects in this movie, although passionate, are good listeners as well as good speakers. The Georgetown conference involved some rather unfriendly elements.
On the pro-Palestinian side of the debate were two very interesting students named Yaman and Khadija. Interestingly, neither of these two is Palestinian. (Yaman is Syrian and Khadija is Iraqi.) Neither of them is from a very religious background. Over the course of filming though, each goes through an interesting journey. Yaman begins to reacquaint himself with Islam and for a while embraces his faith. By the end of the movie though, he distances himself from Islam and identifies as an Agnostic (though still Arab).
Khadija spends most of the movie in typical American fashion. She actually comments upon her identification as an Arab and Muslim arising out of the September 11 attacks (having rarely identified so before 9/11). At one point, the touchingly comments upon how, at times, she would like to be able to forget the whole conflict and just go back to being a college student. At the end of the movie though, she has moved towards a more traditional Islamic lifestyle and begins wearing the hijab in public and attending a Mosque.
There are many other interesting subjects in this movie (some of whom I once new as a kid) that I am unable to discuss here. The movie ends with a revisit to Avi Criden's question from the beginning of the semester. Avi speaks once more on the issue. I will not spoil the ending for you. I believe this is a great documentary though, and great documentaries often leave you with more questions than answers. I asked Mr. Jersey about how his movie has been received thus far. He replied that the reception has been good and in many ways what was expected. All of the subjects were glad to have participated and felt they were honestly represented. Many of them did add though that they felt their issues were not given enough film time. This brings us right to the heart of the matter of this movie. It is not so much about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict itself. It is more about the debate surrounding the conflict and how we discuss, argue and protest it. It is a great testament to the power of language and ideas and how they shape our lives. Given the nature of debate on campus and in cyberspace (hello Oy-Bay!), I think it behooves us all to remember how we speak and listen. I asked Bill if he had any personal stand on the issue or if he wished to deliver a specific message to his audience. He only suggested that we read Amos Oz's book How to Cure a Fanatic. He added that when he looked for subjects, he tried to find people who reflected ideals expressed in Oz's book. I am not familiar with this book myself, but I hope to be someday soon. If Mr. Jersey has any biases though, I believe he handled them excellently.
I cannot say that I agreed with everything stated in this movie, or even half of what was stated. I doubt anyone will though, because he examines a diversity of perspectives and positions. There were times when I wanted to scream at a speaker through the television. There were times when I wanted to cheer for a speaker. And there were times when I found myself empathizing or identifying with someone I thought I never would. Clearly, I highly recommend this movie, especially for the Oy-Bay audience. I hope you will all take this opportunity to see it. Once again, the title is Campus Battleground by Bill Jersey. It screens at the Yerba Buena Screening room in San Francisco on Wednesday, November 28 at 7:30 P.M. And Bill Jersey will be present. I hope to see you there. And if you are reading this Bill: Thank you for the great documentary and thank you for the interview. I hope I did our conversation justice.
Formal Press Release Below
MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT HITS HOME AT AMERICAN COLLEGES IN NEW DOCUMENTARY
Screening at the Yerba Buena Center Screening Room
The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is proud to present CAMPUS BATTLEGROUND, the latest documentary from acclaimed Berkeley filmmaker Bill Jersey, in the Screening Room of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street in San Francisco, on Wednesday, November 28 beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8.00 general admission and $6.00 for students, seniors, and Jewish Film Forum or YBCA members. CAMPUS BATTLEGROUND runs 54 minutes and is in English. For tickets and information, please call (415) 978-2787 or visit www.sfjff.org. The director will be present for a dialogue following the screening. Ideally, a college campus is a sanctuary of ideas, both for their formulation and their free and unfettered expression. But world politics can turn ideal settings into minefields. Filmed in 2006, CAMPUS BATTLEGROUND captures the political passions of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students during one semester at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University in New York City. At Columbia, tensions escalate as student activists bring to campus, in quick succession, the publicly antagonistic academics, Norman Finkelstein and Alan Dershowitz. The seemingly intractable Middle East conflict forced students on both campuses to think about allegiances to family, ethnicity and religion, and above all about the need to take a stand that will define them and their ideals. For more than forty years, Bill Jersey has been producing and directing critically acclaimed documentaries. A pioneer of the Cinema Verité movement,
Jersey's skill and the integrity of his work have earned him numerous accolades, including Academy Award and National Emmy nominations. His filmography includes A TIME FOR BURNING (1966), FACES OF THE ENEMY (1987), SUPERCHIEF (1989) and WHAT ABOUT GOD? (2001). SFJFF's year-round programming is supported in part by grants from Koret Foundation Funds and The San Francisco Foundation. Following CAMPUS BATTLEGROUND, SFJFF's programming at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will resume in January 2008.
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