Late in their revelatory and inspiring documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Emily and Sarah Kunstler include a vintage clip of their iconic father delivering a pithy self-assessment.
“I’m not a self-hating Jew,” the tall, outspoken defense attorney asserts with a sly smile. “Anyone who knows me knows I love myself.”
It’s a great line, but one made necessary by the outcry over his decision to represent El Sayiid Nosair, the Islamic fundamentalist who murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1990.
“The reason he got such negative attention from a lot of people in the Jewish community wasn’t because he took certain cases,” Emily Kunstler says. “It was because he was a Jew who took certain cases. Even if he wasn’t making choices out of some sense of Jewish tradition, other people were judging him based on that.”
From his defense of civil rights activists through the Chicago Seven (including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin), Kunstler was a hero to Jews on the left and to his young daughters. But his subsequent choice of clients, from Nosair to mafia bosses to one of the black youths indicted in the notorious “wilding” attack on a Central Park jogger, cost him much of that respect.
He willingly accepted the heat, but risked endangering his family. Sarah and Emily were teens when their father died in 1995, and William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is in part an attempt to understand and reconcile his principles with their childhood wounds.
The film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and played numerous festivals before receiving a wide release last fall.
“He became a lawyer at a time when a young Jewish lawyer couldn’t join the big firms,” Sarah Kunstler relates in an interview before their screening in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival last July. “Maybe that’s part of the reason why young Jewish lawyers ended up being at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, because they could not be mainstream if they wanted to. They had to forge their own path.”
Kunstler’s ethnicity was both a source of pride for young Jews and a red (pardon the pun) flag for racists and anti-Semites. Sarah, a criminal defense attorney practicing in New York as well as a filmmaker, cites the famous photograph of white supremacist David Duke running for office in Louisiana.
“He was out there with some Nazi youth and a sign protesting my father saying ‘Kunstler’s a Commie Jew’ or something. It was certainly the way people liked to frame him and his work. But it was more of our mother’s experience than his.”
Kunstler’s second wife — Sarah and Emily’s mother — was a red-diaper baby several years his junior. His first wife was a German Jewish refugee who was taken in by Kunstler’s family.
Emily and Sarah are typical assimilated big-city Jews, and the invitation to screen Disturbing the Universe at the S.F. Jewish Film Festival represented an opportunity to consider the ramifications of their father’s — and their own — Jewishness more deeply.
“It’s a film about legacy,” Emily says, “and what we take from our father’s experience and what pieces we reject and what pieces we incorporate into ourselves, and what we put into the world. Being Jewish is part of it, and coming here and thinking about this as our film is about to go out into the world…is a valuable thing for us to be doing.”
“It’s nice to feel like our father’s voice has a more welcome home in the Jewish community now through this film,” Sarah adds. “It’s almost as if people are making an effort to try and understand him differently, and that he’s being seen as Jewish again, which I think he would have loved. He would have loved to have been able to share himself with the Jewish community, because at the end of his life there was this divide.”
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe makes its New Jersey premiere at the NJ Jewish Film Festival on Sunday, March 21, at 1 p.m. at the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus, West Orange. Tickets cost $10, $9 for students and seniors.