‘Israelism’: A Film Worth Taking Seriously, Especially Now

The horrors of early October 2023 — the savage brutalities perpetrated by Hamas on Israel, do not dim the importance of “Israelism,” a film directed by Sam Eilertsen and Erin Axelman. Released in February of 2023, it charts two intertwined phenomena, both of which will not disappear in this post-Oct. 7 world. Both deserve our attention.

“Israelism” captures the emergence in the latter decades of the 20th century of an American Jewish communal truth, a powerfully charged, robustly funded, concerted effort that admonishes American Jews to see Israel as a — or maybe the — pillar of Jewish identity, synonymous with their Jewishness. American Jewish religious, educational and communal leaders created a vast infrastructure of programs aimed at Jews of every age group. But children and youth occupy a special place in their concerns, making them the prime targets of the campaign that declares that Israel and Jewishness cannot be disentangled. They are one. Mainstream Jewish leaders declare to their communities that all good American Jews must accept the primacy of Israel and act on its behalf.

The leaders who shape community practices, with ample funds, publish textbooks and prepare troves of pedagogical materials. They train educators to teach Israel, stage rallies with rock music and strobe lights, sponsor free trips to Israel for youngsters, organize parades with Israeli flags whipping in the wind and skillfully organize themselves politically. At the local, state and national levels, they have successfully made themselves heard by most office-holders and politicians. With vigorous support from successive Israeli governments, American Jewish communal activists have forged cozy relationships with conservative white Protestant evangelicals with their restorationist agendas that verge on anti-Semitism — all these designed to convince Jews, the rising generations, in particular, to “stand with Israel.” This phenomenon provides the film with its deep background.

“Israelism” then documents another significant development — a growing reaction to this communal mobilization, one that has grown with time and blossoms in the present, even in the wake of October’s atrocities. Increasing numbers of young Jews, many beneficiaries of extensive Jewish educations, have stood up and said no to the mandates issued by teachers, rabbis, Israel’s diplomats and so many others. They reject the idea that they must celebrate Israel as a defining element of their Jewishness and serve as that nation’s foot soldiers. As the film shows, these (mostly) younger Jews have organized a movement to expose Israelism as an attempt to substitute Israelism for Judaism. And, in an interesting turn of Jewish history, they do so in the name of their Jewish commitments.

The heroes of “Israelism,” all young people, came gradually to see much wrong in the lessons they had been taught. The audience follows them as they peel away from the communal center that has sanctified Israel — calling it their real home, the only place they as Jews would be safe.

The young Jews of “Israelism” learned also that Judaism required them to pursue tikkun olam, to speak out against injustice, and as best they can, to fix the damaged world in which they live. Because they could not reconcile this imperative with the call to love and defend the State of Israel, the film’s subjects combat Israelism. As they see it, rebellion against Israelism and exposing Israel’s subordination of Palestinians fulfills the Jewish commandment to seek justice. In their actions, they echo the words offered in the film by philosopher Cornell West and Rabbi Miriam Grossman of Brooklyn, N.Y., both progressive critics of Zionism as they proclaim that Israelism violates the Jewish prophetic tradition.

This growing cadre of Jewish young people — many of them the products of dense Jewish education — has parted ways with the communal truth and will not go away.

“Israelism” spotlights the personal journeys of several young American Jews — most dramatically, Simone Zimmerman, anti-Occupation activist and a founder of IfNotNow, and Eitan (last name not given), a young Jew from Atlanta who joined the Israel Defense Forces after finishing his Jewish education in the United States. It charts their transitions, from imbibing the message to rejecting it. Zimmerman and Eitan came of age in the late 20th century, went to Jewish day schools, bathed in the waters of deep Israel education, went to Israel on pilgrimages (sometimes called missions), attended Jewish summer camps and participated in youth activities that put Israel at center of their Jewish imaginations.

Steeped in the romance of Israel, they never learned about Palestinians, heard nothing about the nakba (catastrophe) or the draconian marshal law under which Palestinian citizens of Israel lived from 1949 to 1966. Nothing caused them to question the idea of Israel as the Jewish home. They accepted the premise that being good and authentic Jews required that they embrace the centrality of Israel. They learned their lessons very well.

But for these two, like an inestimable number of their peers, something happened along the way, stopping them in their tracks. They began to question what they had learned. For Eitan, the brutality meted out to Palestinians that he witnessed and participated in during his army service provided his turning point. For Zimmerman, listening to Palestinian students, her classmates at the University of California-Berkeley, led her to interrogate what she had always held as true.

These young people, many though not all associated with IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, saw themselves as products — or perhaps, more apt, as victims — of a manipulative campaign of indoctrination. It was foisted upon them by Jewish educators and the operatives of communal and religious organizations, and aided and financed by wealthy donors, who systematically tried to push them into a near frenzied dedication to the State of Israel. This eventually jarred with their moral commitments, which they saw as more fundamental to their definitions of what being Jewish meant to them.

“Israelism” makes its case with historical footage and features interviews with both advocates for Israel as the essence of today’s Jewishness and those who passionately disagree. We hear Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a key proclaimer of Israel as Judaism, but we also hear Peter Beinart, Noam Chomsky and Rabbi Miriam Grossman on the other side. Animations recreate the harsh realities of the Occupation as seen by several Jewish activists, including Avner Gvaryahu, Israeli director of Breaking the Silence. There are also clips of American Jewish leaders lobbing their “pro-Israel” messages at cheering throngs of young Jews. Simone Zimmerman holds up to the camera the arts-and-crafts projects she made as a child at her Jewish day school, showing how she was taught that Israel embodied the heart of Jewishness. Every poster and picture she presents as evidence only confirms the point here: contemporary Jewish education has been designed to foster an unconditional love of Israel.

The young people — with Zimmerman a notable player — proceeded to form organizations and to stage demonstrations against pro-Israel entities such as AIPAC[i] and the ADL.[ii] They have blocked traffic and engaged in acts of civil disobedience, barricading themselves outside and inside the offices and convention halls where Jewish organizations meet to strategize on how best to support Israel. They have done so as Jews, naming their organizations IfNotNow, a phrase from the often-cited aphorism of Rabbi Hillel, and Jewish Voice for Peace.

This is a disturbing film — one I frankly recommend be shown in every synagogue, Jewish community center and Jewish school. On the face of it, it would seem that the murders, mutilations, rapes and kidnappings of Oct. 7 might render it obsolete, a macabre reminder of the world of “pre-” and “post”-attack. That day surely has made deep criticism of Israel unpalatable to many, maybe most, American Jews who have no sympathy for the committed young Jews who refer with no compunctions to using the words “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing” and nakba in their references to Israel’s past and present. Locating themselves within a long history of accusing dissenters from Israelism as being self-hating Jews, those who would abhor the film and what it celebrates call its protagonists anti-Semites.

American Jews ought to at least get to know the people featured in Israelism in order to become acquainted with how their Jewish moral visions motivate them. They are not antisemites or bad Jews.

I want to suggest that “Israelism” may be more relevant now than before. Its basic drama feels even more compelling since Israel’s war against Gaza launched on Oct. 8. By mid-February, this war has resulted in more than 27,000 Palestinian deaths, causing the near total destruction of the region’s infrastructure. Hunger and disease run rampant among Gaza’s refugees driven out of the north, clustered in the south, a region now the newest target of Israel’s bombardment and ground assault. Jewish settlers living in the West Bank have become further emboldened in their attacks on Palestinians as the IDF, by standing back, empowers them. So, too, protests against Israel’s military actions have cropped up around the world, and post-Oct. 8 realities roil American academic life as the always shaky equilibrium in the Middle East explodes anew.

And so it goes. The on-the-ground realities that sparked Zimmerman, Eitan and their peers have become more extreme, and the situation probably more hopeless. In response to the entreaties of the U.S. government, Israel’s longtime patron and arms supplier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Palestinian statehood will never be and that Israel has no intention of re-imagining its relationship with the Palestinian people, that of hegemon and subordinate. He declares that the Occupation will continue with no end in sight.

The Israelism chronicled in the film — the shrill insistence that allegiance to Israel is central to American Judaism — has become even more palpable as American Jewish leaders boast, “We Stand with Israel.” In November 2023, tens of thousands of Israel supporters converged on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to perform how much Israel means to them. Israel indeed matters so much that rally organizers invited Pastor John Hagee to address the crowd, despite the fact that in 2005, he thanked God for sending the Holocaust because it enabled the birth of the State of Israel.

The rally might be seen as a microcosm of what the creators of “Israelism” reject and fight against: the idea that any price is worth paying to keep Israel militarily powerful, richly supported by the United States and squarely placed in the forefront of American Jewish consciousness. Israelism puts American Jews in league with ultra-conservative politicians, causing them to ignore the real antisemitism emanating from the white, Christian right at the same time that it goes after Zimmerman and others like her who call out truth to power.

I first saw “Israelism” in the summer of 2023 and found myself deeply moved by it. While I thought that the film shortchanged us gray-hairs, older folks who have also gone through the same process, I grant the importance of focusing on the rising generations. But despite the slight offence I took with the film’s overemphasis on the young and the sidelining of old-timers, the film spoke deeply to me. Grossman’s words resonated as she tells a group of 20- and 30-something Jews that Judaism involves so much more than Israelism, and that the tradition’s emphasis on humanity and its insistence on fighting for justice outweighs standing up against a state as it wields brutal power over others. No one, she tells them, can take that understanding and practice of Judaism away from them.

Their Jewish educations and commitments drew them to this. The masses of American Jews, leaders and rank-and-file members who may never agree with the protesters ought to at least get to know Zimmerman, Eitan, INN and JVP in order to become acquainted with how their Jewish moral visions motivate them. They are not antisemites or bad Jews. They might indeed be the best the Jewish community has to offer, presaging a new Jewish communal life built on different priorities and different understandings of Jewish values.

[i] American Israel Public Affairs Committee

[ii] Anti-Defamation League

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