Since Amy Weiner Weiss took over programming the Jewish Community Center's Denver Jewish Film Festival five years ago, she’s had people come up to her with the same gripe: “Not another Holocaust film.” And her answer is always the same: “This is our legacy — to make sure people don’t forget the Holocaust.”
Tragically, people are forgetting, she says.
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany released a worldwide study in September with troubling statistics about how quickly people are losing awareness of the genocide of the Jewish people.
In the United States, 49 percent of millennials cannot name a single one of the 40,000 camps or ghettos that existed during the Holocaust, according to the study. In Colorado, which passed a bill in 2020 to mandate genocide studies in schools, 42 percent can’t name one. And 70 percent of Americans say people care less about the Holocaust now than they used to, although 58 percent believe something like the Holocaust could happen again. Around a third of Americans and four in ten millennials believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed during the Holocaust, while the actual number was around six million.
These reports came out months before a group of right-wing terrorists — some decked out in Nazi iconography — stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in a failed attempt to overthrow the election and assassinate public officials.
Anti-Semitism has polluted both the rhetoric of the far right and the far left in the United States, according to Weiner Weiss. And there has been a drastic rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Colorado in recent years. “We’re watching these things happen in real life,” she says. “It’s an important mission in life, and as Jewish people, to continue to share stories of the Holocaust so people can remember this.”
It’s fitting, then, that the festival, which runs from February 8 to 17, opens with Upheaval: The Journey of Menachem Begin, the first English-language biographical documentary about Begin, a controversial figure in Israeli history and politics. He was a leader in the Betar youth movement and part of the militant Zionist resistance against anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s and early ’40s; he was actively involved in freeing Jews from Nazi-occupied Poland. His father and other family members were among 500 Jewish people gunned down by Nazis at a river; all of his relatives were eventually killed in the Holocaust.
Begin himself was imprisoned and put into solitary confinement in a concentration camp in Russia and charged with the thought crime of “Zionism” for advocating that Jews move from Europe to then-British-controlled Palestine. After he was freed in the early ’40s, he moved to Palestine to be with his wife, who had relocated there while he was imprisoned. Through the mid-’40s, he led a violent campaign to overthrow British colonial rule — which ended, in part, after the Irgun forces he commanded blew up the King David Hotel, the colonial government's headquarters; ninety-plus people were killed in the 1946 attack. Many labeled him a terrorist and fascist; others considered him a hero fighting for Jewish survival.
For years, Begin's memory was all but erased from the history of the foundation of Israel by the more moderate David Ben-Gurion, the country's first prime minister, who distanced himself from the militant strategies of the Irgun and even opened fire on a ship that Begin brought to Israel loaded with weapons to arm his movement. Begin decided not to retaliate, attempting to avoid a civil war among Jews, but for nearly two decades, he led the opposition party, ensuring that the country was more than a one-party state.
Begin was among the minority who opposed Israel accepting money from Germany as part of a reconciliation process. He also encouraged the new nation to welcome Jews of color and other refugees from around the world, and championed the civil rights of Arab Israelis.
In 1973, Begin co-founded the Likud Party with Ariel Sharon, taking what had been a largely secular Jewish state in a more religious direction after he was elected prime minister of Israel in 1977. He was instrumental in creating a peace treaty with Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, but his legacy was marred after his generals invaded Lebanon in an attempt to root out the Palestinian Liberation Organization. While Sharon led the invasion, the Christian Lebanese Militia, an ally of Israel, killed hundreds of civilians at Sabra and Shatila in a massacre that brought widespread condemnation to Israel's foreign policy and shone an international light on the plight of Palestinians, who were clamoring for their own nation. In the wake of the tragedies in Lebanon and his wife's death, Begin resigned as prime minister in 1983; he died shortly after.
Upheaval is a moving and complicated documentary that does not shy away from big questions about nationalism, resistance and the existential struggles of both the Jewish and Palestinian people: Is it ever acceptable to use violence to achieve a political end? How should Israel address its own military atrocities in Lebanon and elsewhere? Should Begin be remembered as the father of a far-right political party, or a man who was deeply committed to the dignity of all humans?
The film was produced by Greenwood Village philanthropist and businessman Rob Schwartz, who says he was mortified when he realized that there were no English-language films about Begin. At the encouragement of former senator Joseph Lieberman, whom Schwartz had worked for, he recruited a team, helmed by director Jonathan Gruber, to tell Begin's story.
The lesson Schwartz takes from Begin’s life is to the point: “Jews should hold their heads high with pride. They should fight any form of hatred, racism, genocide, whether people are Jewish or not. In some instances, you cannot talk to someone who’s a hater. Sometimes you have to 2x4 them to protect yourself and protect your loved ones. ... Jewish blood should not be viewed cheaply.”
But Schwartz also notes that Begin’s life story is one of inclusivity — a far stretch from the stereotypical conservative politician he was often depicted as by his detractors.
This is the rare film about Israel that is loaded with more nuance than propaganda, and one that treats the nation’s history as a story of survival while acknowledging the country's deeply flawed legacy of violence.
"I’ve gotten some pushback from strong Begin supporters who don’t like the end of the movie. They say it’s sad," says Schwartz. "I’m not going to put rose-colored glasses on it. It was sad. ... We’re all human beings. We all make mistakes, and we’re all complex creatures. I wish Lebanon didn’t happen. It did, and we had to report it honestly."
From beginning to end, offering an unflinching look at history was Schwartz's goal.
Upheaval is not the only Colorado-based film in this year's Jewish Film Festival to address the Holocaust. The short animation “The Tattooed Torah” is a tear-jerking account of a child whose Torah scroll, created by his grandfather, was taken by the Nazis. The boy and his zaidy were recruited to mark Torahs with numbers so that Nazis could catalogue them; when the war ended, his beloved scroll disappeared. The child, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, immigrated to the United States, and he spent his life searching for the family artifact. He eventually finds the scroll and passes it down to his grandchild.
Other films in the mix include ’Til Kingdom Come, a look at the evangelical funding of Israel; Shared Legacies: The African-American Jewish Civil Rights Alliance, the story of how Jewish civil-rights activists worked to help desegregate the South; and Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation, an account of former Neo-Nazis and skinheads working to de-radicalize people involved in white-supremacist groups.
Another documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, chronicles a Hassidic Chabad rabbi who moves from Brooklyn to Bozeman, Montana, to fulfill various mitzvot, or commandments, with local Jews. His presence raises the ire of Conservative and Reform rabbis who fear he has shown up to poach their congregation members. In the meantime, Neo-Nazis begin to raise trouble for the local community. Weiner Weiss, who identifies as a secular Jew and says the festival caters to people who are “Jew-ish,” whatever that means to them, and their allies, says that film will likely resonate with the “mountain Jews” of Colorado, who share cultural similarities with those in Montana.
The festival's films are hand-picked by a committee of laypeople who watched more than 500 movies over several weeks. “Generally, they are not film scholars,” says Weiner Weiss of the people on the selection committee. “These are people who enjoy film or have opinions on film. ... Buy-in from the community helps us create a more democratic festival.”
The result is an event that is ideologically diverse, spanning documentaries, fiction and feature films, and shorts. Many of the programs will be followed by Q&A sessions on Facebook Live; Weiner Weiss hopes that the festival, which is entirely virtual this year and funded by the Chotin Foundation, feels somewhat akin to the in-person experience of watching movies in a theater with strangers. And because the festival is online, more directors than ever will be participating in conversations with the audience.
“We have access to way more filmmakers than we normally would,” Weiner Weiss says. “I’m excited about the festival this year because the lineup is awesome, but also because we have the opportunity to reach so many more people because of the on-demand. And people can watch throughout the festival. If you’re outside of the metro Denver area, you still have the chance to connect.”
Even as Denver's JCC has faced layoffs and programmatic cuts during the pandemic, the institution can use its festival programming to keep members and the broader community connected and engaged, exploring different perspectives together as they discuss the rise of hate groups, debate the politics of Israel, or reflect on the way genocide and the Holocaust are remembered.
"Generally," says Weiner Weiss, "the festival is this space where folks can have all of those conversations.”
The Denver Jewish Film Festival runs from February 8 to 17. For tickets and more information, go to the Jewish Community Center website.
This story has been updated to clarify Sharon's actions in Lebanon.
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