Watching ‘Israelism’ from Wesleyan

A student's perspective on the film everyone's talking about but few have seen
By | Dec 11, 2023
Cover Story, Film, Latest, Opinion
A girl holding paintings of an American flag and an Israeli flag

Movie Review: “Israelism” provides experiences of two Zionist Jews from childhood to adulthood to display hostile acts committed by Israel.                                                                  

Israelism poster

Poster of the movie “Israelism”


Israelism (2023)

Written and Directed by Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen

Documentary; English; 84 minutes

Screening and Rental Info @

A person hearing of the large-scale email campaigns organized to pressure universities to block Israelism screenings on their campuses might think there is some inherent danger in the film’s message. One of the emails,  copied and sent by hundreds of different people, claimed the documentary amounts to “nuanced antisemitism that fuels the flames of hate and brainwashes young minds.” Written and directed by first-time Jewish filmmakers Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen, Israelism is billed as a story of “two young American Jews raised to unconditionally love Israel” who grow disillusioned after witnessing “the brutal way Israel treats Palestinians.” After viewing the film last week at Wesleyan University, I can say definitively that it is dangerous—dangerous to people who believe their own safety is inseparably linked to uncritical support for a Jewish state and to non-Jewish Zionists who see Israeli/American hegemony as paramount. 

Simone Zimmerman, cofounder of the progressive U.S. Jewish group IfNotNow, and Eitan, an American who served in the IDF and who asked his last name not be used in the film, are the focal points of the documentary. We follow their stories from childhood to the present day, honing in on Zimmerman’s experience in Jewish day schools and Eitan’s Israeli military experience, interspersed with interviews with prominent figures such as Abe Foxman, Noam Chomsky, Peter Beinart and Cornel West.

Israelism presents a broad picture of Jewish support for Israel, acknowledging the trauma of the Holocaust that many feel necessitated the founding of a Jewish state while also putting a spotlight on the intense suffering endured by Palestinians displaced by its creation. Israelism does more than analyze the way in which many Jewish children are brought up to combine their Judaism with Zionism—it provides an alternate path. The future envisioned by Zimmerman is one where Jewish people link arms with the oppressed people of the world, as they have dozens of times before, and call for freedom from occupation and self-determination for all.

Although I’m not Jewish, I grew up surrounded by Jewish life: attending a Jewish preschool, having Jewish friends and celebrating Jewish holidays and traditions. I felt welcomed, and I admired the resiliency of a people who had withstood so much yet retained such a vibrant and loving culture. However, as a non-Jew, I know that my understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Israel will always be limited in fundamental ways. I do think Israelism is a film that can be illuminating for Jewish and non-Jewish viewers alike. For me, it shed light  on something that had always left me confused: the intense reluctance of those in the Jewish community typically critical of oppressive policies and governments to discuss those characteristics that are apparent in the Israeli state.  

The first minutes of the film explore the picture presented to Jewish Americans that portrays Judaism and Israel as virtually synonymous. Zimmerman’s artifacts from childhood (particularly the drawing of Greater Israel), the summer and school trips to Israel and AIPAC conferences, and the lessons in Israeli culture at Jewish summer camps, all set to swelling music, illustrate how much this image of Israel as a glorious homeland is drilled into the heads of Jewish youth. The coordinator for student life at the University of Connecticut’s Hillel, Jacqui Schulefand, states in the film that “Judaism is Israel and Israel is Judaism,” and New Jersey rabbi Bennet Miller shares that he preaches Zionism, whether his congregation knows it or not.

Another aspect of what Axelman and Eilersten portray as indoctrination is the blatant militarism that is often built into these interactions. Zimmerman talks about being dressed in military garb and given weapons on her Birthright trip, and the trip being the first time most of her peers had ever shot a gun. Eitan, the secondary focus, describes games at his summer camp that involved waking children up in the middle of the night to conduct combat drills, essentially sneaking around camp and following the orders of one’s counselor/commander. As Schulefand says, the best thing that one can do as a Jew is join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Many, including Eitan, answer this call, and Zimmerman reports that more than 10 percent of her high school graduating class immigrated to Israel specifically for that purpose. 

Per Schulefand, who serves as the film’s voice of the Zionist establishment, the second best thing a Jew can do is to become an “Israel advocate,” and this is the path Zimmerman initially went down. As a student at UC Berkeley, she and other Jewish students receive a message informing them of an “anti-Israel” (BDS) hearing happening in the student government. The text is a call to action. She shows up and is handed a sheet of talking points, then is instructed to use her emotions and leverage her Jewish identity to gain sympathy. She is then sent in, without even truly understanding what the meeting is about. This whirlwind of events will be shocking to anyone not well-versed in aggressive advocacy tactics.

Zimmerman’s experience once in the hearing touched on another important aspect of her and Eitan’s upbringings: erasure. Zimmerman recounts never having even heard the words “occupation” or “apartheid” that were later being used in the context of Israel; with all that was taught to her about this land, there was hardly any mention of the Palestinians who lived on it before the State of Israel was founded and continue to live there today. 


While Israelism does reckon with the inherent injustices and brutality that come with the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the film’s focus is decidedly on telling the story of American Jews, and this is to its benefit: the narrow scope allows for a full investigation of the relationship between Jewish Americans and Israel. The minimal representations of Palestinians in Israelism—we meet a tour guide named Baha and Sami Awad, the executive director of the Holy Land Trust—serve mostly to humanize and give a basic overview of Israeli history from the Palestinian perspective. The friendship between Awad and Zimmerman is special, formed by his understanding of generational trauma resulting from the Shoah and her commitment to creating a world free from occupation and apartheid. Their bond provides an example of solidarity between Jews and Palestinians that many claim is impossible, and is a blueprint for what allyship should look like.

Israelism is not caught up in solely lamenting the past, and while not delving into solutions, it does provide multiple paths forward for those within the Jewish community looking to challenge the narrative that Jewish safety must come at the expense of Palestinian freedom.  Zimmerman’s public grassroots organizing, Eitan’s more intimate and private reflection, and the number of political and media personalities attempting to make a change show just how large and diverse the movement against occupation is within the Jewish-American community. Many in this crowd, such as interviewee Rabbi Miriam Grossman, source their involvement precisely out of Jewish values of equality and resisting oppression, despite those who reject supporters of Palestinian rights as “self-hating Jews.” And, it must be said, in the wake of October 7 and the continuing bombardment of Gaza, the movement is growing. 

In a Q&A session with one of the directors, Sam Eilertsen, following the screening, the questions focused on Israel’s treatment of non-Ashkenazi Jews, what it was like to travel in the West Bank, and how the film has been received on U.S. campuses. Eilertsen said that while there had been massive campaigns from parents (including Mothers Against Campus Antisemitism) and even from Israeli consulate offices opposing the physical screenings, there had been no serious disruptions. This suggests how much of the resistance to Israelism is coming from outside student bodies. Every question posted at this particular post-screening event was intensely respectful and cognizant of the suffering endured by Israelis in the Hamas attacks and their aftermath, as well as the suffering of millions of Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank before October 7 and since. 

When an audience member asked what individual Americans can do, Batya Kline, one of the leaders of Wesleyan’s Students for Justice in Palestine and founder of the college’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, offered a story from her own life. She had become a vocal critic of Israel in high school and had unfortunately lost many friends because of it. A few days prior to the screening, she had received a message from an old high school friend. The two had not spoken to one another since they left for college, and this friend, who had originally been an ardent Zionist, told Kline that seeing her remain so passionate for so long, while also fully embracing her Jewish identity, caused them to reconsider their support of Israel. This mirrors Zimmerman’s story in a way, as she mentions in the film that every time she’s been on the streets with her organization to protest, she’s recognized someone in the crowd: an old friend, a teacher, a neighbor. Every act of resistance is noticed, every word impactful, and every action important. “If anybody has any influence on Israeli policy—and I say this with a big if—it is the American Jewish community,” Sami Awad says in the film. 

Whether or not this is true, as well over a million Palestinians  remain expelled from their homes, as death counts climb by the hundreds daily in what UN experts warn is a “genocide in the making” in Gaza, and as Israelis continue to mourn their own dead and the 136 remaining hostages, Israelism is an important addition to the conversations that must be had if there is ever going to be an end to the cycle of violence.

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Liam Dorrien was raised in Bethesda, Maryland, and is a current student and social activist at Wesleyan University. 

Top image: A still from the documentary “Israelism”

9 thoughts on “Watching ‘Israelism’ from Wesleyan

  1. Barrett Burka MD says:

    We would not be enjoying the fruits of American democracy as Ashkenazi, Jewish citizens if not for multiple, recurring pogroms. In short the great migration of European Jews to America from the 1880’s to 1920 was directly the result of pogroms. The creation of the modern state of Israel was a direct result of the Shoah when those Jews who survived had no other place to go. Why didn’t the U.S. open it’s doors to Jewish survivors? Indeed there are more Sephardic & Mitzrachi Jews in Israel, people of color, than Ashkenazi Jews. It should be noted that Sephardic & Mitzrachi Jews fled pogroms in Syria, Iraq, Egypt & North Africa. Then there’s the Ethiopian Jews who fled JewHatred & Russian Jews forced to live in the Soviet Lunatic Asylum. As American Jews you are living in a country that decimated Native American populations, enslaved African Americans & after the Civil War perpetuated segregation. Through imperialistic wars we stole land from Mexico. America was overtly antiSemitic, homophobic & Xenophobic. Why is it that you don’t advocate dividing the U.S. into four separate countries, one for whites, one for blacks, one for Native Americans & one for Mexicans? I’ll be willing to bet that the land where your home is situated was once stolen from Mexicans, Native Americans or slaves! I believe it’s called hypocrisy.

  2. Deni Hirsh says:

    Growing up, I didn’t have the kind of blind devotion to Israel that was clearly drilled into some Jews. However, I did hold a special place in my heart and soul for the land of our ancestors that — following the Holocaust — seemed to be the one place Jews could freely call home. Sadly, until the leadership of the Palestinians, such as it is, can accept Israel’s right to exist and defend itself and its people, there will never be peace. I can acknowledge that Israel’s government has not always had peaceful intentions, but the Palestinians have had numerous opportunities to build a peaceful 2-state solution; at every turn, the proposals have been rejected. The only solution for them is clear in the cry “from the river to the sea” — meaning the total destruction of Israel. May that never happen! Am Israel Chai

  3. Paul plotkin says:

    Does no one have any historical knowledge of how things got to where they are? Are Palestinians not to bear responsibility for at least three times rejecting a two state solution and responding to it with violence against the Jewish people? The wall on the West Bank did not go up until the intifada took many civilian lives with bombings and other attacks on civilians. Gaza was given back in 2005 and money was collected by private donors worldwide to purchase and donate back to the Palestinians the many formerly Israeli businesses of growing crops in Hot houses but in a week they were dismantled for scrap? Israel’s wall around Gaza was built only after a now independent Gaza started shooting at Israelis and then sending missiles at civilians. Israel is not and has never been perfect and as in all democracies, many people domestically and around the world disagree with the policies of a government. It does not damn the country and is only an election away from change, but there are trends in behavior that show you the true nature of a country and not its aberrations. I believe that a two state solution is the only way out but a two state solution requires 2 states that want to live next to each other in peace. When the Palestinians want their own state more than they want to destroy the state of Israel then it can happen. Till then Israel has a right to do what it needs to do to survive.

  4. Ted Hochstadt says:

    Having seen the film, I think that Liam Dorrien’s review is fair and balanced. But more important, people who have objections to the film should present their objections in whatever forum they wish, but not try to ban screenings of the film. That is contrary to both American and Jewish principles of free discussion and debate.

  5. Wallace Feldman says:

    I wish these young people would learn some history before pontificating on Israel’s situation, which certainly did not begin with 1948. They might become aware of the Arab pogroms and anti-Jewish riots during the 1920’s and 1930’s under the British mandate. They might also learn that the Jews accepted the 1947 UN Palestine partition plan, totally rejected by the Arabs. And they would learn that 5 Arab armies marched into the land as soon. as Israel declared independence.
    And as for “…the intense suffering endured by Palestinians displaced by its creation. “… Like so many others, this author totally ignores the fact that an equal number of Jews were forcibly displaced from Arab lands during Isreal’s creation. The difference: Israel absorbed the refugees, while Arab countries refused to do so. And granted that Palestinian life is not easy in the territories, this needn’t have happened; the Oslo accords and other peace efforts have always been displaced by repeated intifadas, to say nothing of the Hamas takeover in Gaza, sworn as they aren to total genocide of the Jewish people.

  6. Megan Hoyt says:

    While I have not seen the film yet, I think the timing of presenting it on university campuses is suspect. With such vitriol and violent antisemitism going on, why inflame it further? They couldn’t wait a few months?

  7. Davida Brown says:

    Am Israel Chai indeed! I would agree with all the above opinions and facts given, but they do not go back far enough. First of all, as I previously mentioned, there is no such people group called “the Palestinians.” The term: “Palestinian” is the Latin version of Phillistine, a pagan group from earlier times coming from outside the land originally. It was meant as an insult to the former Israeli natives…sent by God to this land…called Canaan, after their miraculous release from 430 years of slavery in Egypt. The present day “Palestinians” are related to the original Jews and Arabs that occupied “Palestine”. When the Jewish people were called back to their beloved homeland (first by, yes, Christians from Europe in the EARLY 19th century) and eventually were inspired to return to this ancient Jewish homeland, much larger than present borders, things took a sour turn and many came against this plan. When the U.N. voted for a much smaller homeland for the Jews, the surrounding Arab nations were angered and threatened to anihilate all the Jewish people there and they asked all Arabs to leave the land in order not to be destroyed with them. Israel asked them not to leave, but they did. That was the beginning of the situation that resulted later claiming that Israel “stole Arab lands” and the “Palestinians” were an occupied people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Check out a little known historical book entitled “For the Love of Zion” by Kelvin Crombie, an historian, formerly at Christ Church, Jerusalem. His story, purely historically backed facts, is contained in this book published in 1991 by Hodder and Stoughton. Check it out for the real story and true historical facts! This animosity and jealousy goes back thousands of years in the Bible. Read the Book of Genesis also for facts.

  8. It was the Romans who coined the name Palestine. This was after the Great Revolt of 66-70 CE. It was plainly an attempt to deJudaize the Land along with naming Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina. The name continued to be used through 2000 years of history.

    The Palestinians are a distinct ethnicity among Arabs and their history goes back to the Muslim conquest of the Land in the 7th century. Some Palestinians are aware that their ancestors from that period were Jews who converted to Islam. Whether or not they called themselves Palestinians before modern times, they are a distinct group that has lived in the Land for many centuries. Denial of their existence as a people is simply false.

    As to those who refer to God giving us The Land, it is seldom mentioned that, in the Torah, we got the Land only on good behavior and the Canaanites were ousted because of bad behavior. There are two passages in the Torah called “tohahot” explicitly threatening expulsion as a penalty for bad behavior. The Biblical Jewish commonwealth was ended in 586 BCE because of bloodshed, immorality, and idolatry. The second Jewish commonwealth in the times of Hellenism and Rome ended for the sin of baseless hatred. I have seen it suggested that the State of Israel, the third Jewish commonwealth, is guilty of abuse of power.

    DEclaring the state of Israel as “exceptional” (meaning it cannot be guilty because of its mission in the world) places it above the limitations stated in the Torah. I call that kind of nationalism a form of idolatry (along with Yeshayahu Liebowitz).

  9. David Eisenberg says:

    How does the tremendous immigration of Arabs into Palestine from other areas of the Turkish empire (like “Syria”) from 1880 until 1947, affect the reality of a “Palestinian” ethnicity? Isn’t it more accurate to call those Arabs in Palestine in 1947 just Arabs, some with longstanding local roots, but most without?

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