Movie Review: “Israelism” provides experiences of two Zionist Jews from childhood to adulthood to display hostile acts committed by Israel.
Written and Directed by Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen
Documentary; English; 84 minutes
Screening and Rental Info @ https://www.israelismfilm.com/
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.
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”