‘Israelism’ documentary focuses on young Jews’ change of heart – Mondoweiss
directed by Eric Axelman and Sam Eilertsen
84 min. Tikkun Olam Productions, 2023
The growing disenchantment and disaffection with Israel among young American Jews has long been evident. This development is the subject of a new documentary, Israelism, directed by Eric Axelman and Sam Eilertsen, which had sold-out premieres in New York and LA this past week.
The documentary explores the awakening of two 30-ish Jewish Americans, both thoroughly steeped in pro-Israel propaganda throughout their childhoods, to the harsh realities of the Israeli Occupation. Simone Zimmerman, co-founder of IfNotNow and “Eitan” (who withheld his last name) recount their personal journeys from enthusiastic supporters of Israel to pro-Palestinian activism.
The film’s first section gives voice and exposure to the fervor of pro-Israel feelings still common among a shrinking number of Jewish Americans. Simone and Eitan offer detailed recollections of their upbringing where love for all things Israel was integral to their Jewish identity. Simone exhibits Israel-themed memorabilia from her childhood, and Eitan recounts how he was impatient to finish high school so that he could move to Israel and join the IDF.
This early part of the film also includes interviews with Abe Foxman, former director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Jacqui Schulefand of the University of Connecticut Hillel staff. Schulefand is accompanied by a group of about a half dozen students whose zeal for Israel mirrors that of Simone and Eitan at the same age. While neither Foxman nor Schulefand appears to have been aware of the perspective of the filmmakers, both are allowed to candidly express their passion for Israel, and neither interview appears unfairly edited to invite ridicule. Indeed, the same interview excerpts might easily find their way into a pro-Israel documentary.
The film thus establishes the meaning of its title, a reference to the unsettling confluence of Judaism and pro-Israel fervor that has created a new quasi-religion, Israelism. Schulefand sums up this passion precisely: “Israel is Judaism and Judaism is Israel, and that’s who I am.” This succinct quote goes hand-in-hand with the now oft-made but disingenuous claim that Jews’ support for Israel is such a core part of their Jewish identity that pro-Palestinian activism can be seen as anti-Jewish discrimination that warrants suppression and/or disciplinary sanctions.
Once this groundwork is laid, the realizations and misgivings of the two young protagonists take center stage. For Simone, her pro-Israel advocacy in her college years at UC Berkeley exposed her for the first time to the Palestinian counter-narrative in which Zionism meant dispossession, subjugation, and exile. She remembers her genuine shock when none of her more experienced colleagues could offer effective rebuttals.
Eitan, who followed his childhood dream to join the IDF, discussed his gradual recognition of the cruelty he and other recruits were trained to inflict, such as establishing a highly armed presence in occupied Palestinian territory to intimidate ordinary civilians simply trying to navigate their daily lives. One particular event that led to an epiphany was when Eitan escorted and delivered a bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainee to other soldiers, who then knocked the defenseless man to the ground, kicking and stomping him while superior officers looked on in casual indifference.
The sea-change in U.S. Jewish opinion, particularly among the young, is a nightmare scenario for those who seek permanent Jewish domination over the native population of Palestine. Last Tuesday’s Brooklyn premiere of Isaelism encountered little opposition or protest, but pro-Israel enthusiasts were more organized to confront Wednesday’s showing at UCLA. An NGO called “Stop Antisemitism” tweeted in advance: “Dozens of students have contacted us begging to cancel this screening, fearing for their safety!” Apparently, they feared that impressionable college students exposed to a film about young Jews questioning their pro-Israel indoctrination would lash out by randomly inflicting violence against Jewish students. Some of these anxious students nevertheless risked life and limb to attend the screening, as they peppered Eric Axelman, one of the film’s directors, with several challenging questions in a post-film q-and-a.
Bertrand Russell wisely counseled, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” It isn’t easy to follow that guidance, but Simone Zimmerman and Eitan have practiced it with intelligence and compassion for the victims of an ideology they formerly embraced. The Abe Foxman generation will be left to despair about its collective failure to sufficiently inoculate Jewish youth against the “corrupting” influences that have led to questioning and rejection of the most sacred tenets of Israelism.