Israelism: Debunking the 'sanitised version' of Israeli history

6 min read
07 June, 2024

"Our non-Jewish community struggles to grasp our deep-seated fixation and obsession with Israel," remarks American right-wing lawyer Abe Foxman at the outset of Israelism, a timely new documentary.

Through the lens of two young Jewish Americans, the film offers a revealing exploration of their disillusionment upon realising that Israel falls short of the idealised "Jewish Disneyland" they once envisioned.

Foxman, a prominent figure as the head of America’s influential Jewish organization Anti-Defamation League, features regularly in the documentary to depict the formidable and historic support for Israel among Jewish Americans.

“I think our film is helping to explain some of the phenomena [that we are] seeing of anything that criticises Israel, even if it is done by Jews, as anti-Semitic"

Israelism uncovers the intense relationship between American Jews, Israel, and a growing generational rift on the subject.

In fact, Israelism delves into practically uncharted waters and unravels the connection between Israel and "Jewishness," and crucially, why criticism of the former is often conflated with criticism of the latter.

The US documentary hit the UK in April at an apt time too; as the British government characterised pro-Palestine demonstrations as "hate marches," while those who criticise the Israeli government continue to be wrongly labelled anti-Semites.

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The brutality of Israel’s war in Gaza, now in its eighth month, means the Palestine-Israel question remains at the top of political agendas and public conversation.

In defiance of Western governments, civil society has been engaged in mass demonstrations calling for an end to the bloodshed, the occupation, and for unconditional support for Israel.

“I think there is a very dangerous conflation of trying to tie Israel to American Jewish identity and Judaism more broadly, which makes certain American Jews feel that if you're criticising Israel, you’re criticising them — which is far from the truth,” says Israelism’s co-director Erin Axelman.

Axelman, 34, met with The New Arab in the east London landmark the Genesis Cinema at the first screening of the British leg of a European tour in spring.

The co-director discussed how the war set off a wave of new pro-Palestine activism. Additionally, Axelman explored why the Palestine-Israel issue remains such a contentious and emotional topic in the public sphere.

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While it has been enlightening many through viewings across the US and more recently in the European cities of Marseille, Malmo, Copenhagen, and Rome, it has been met with resistance too.

In Germany, five requests to organise a screening event were rejected, Axelman said, despite being organised by Jewish groups.

Surge in interest since the war

Israelism, made by Axelman and co-director Sam Eilertsen, has seen a surge in interest since October 7.

Axelman says the film is helping to address misconceptions and serving as a tool for those looking to understand the multifaceted connection between the US and Israel on a social, educational, business, cultural, and political level.

“I think our film is helping to explain some of the phenomena [that we are] seeing of anything that criticises Israel, even if it is done by Jews, as anti-Semitic,” they said.

“As well as the huge movement of diaspora Jews proudly saying ‘Not in our name… We are horrified by what Israel is doing,” Axelman adds.

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The recent wave of support for Palestine across US college campuses in April and May through mass demonstrations and encampments organised by student Palestine solidarity committees and Jewish groups demonstrated the growing generational divide on the subject that Israelism touches on.

'It was a land without a people, for a people without a land'

Axelman explains how the documentary is based on their experience: growing up in the north-eastern state of Maine and being taught to unconditionally love Israel, idolise the Israeli military, and then, later on, begin to discover the Palestinians “across the line.”

"It’s actually an incredibly common Jewish story," Axelman notes, referring to their childhood experience. "Of learning a very idealised and sanitised version of Israeli history."

The traditional pro-Israel narrative that many American Jews are brought up with erases the Palestinian story or treats them as “lesser,” Axelman explains.

But today, more and more young people are beginning to realise what years of school, religious trips to Israel and family members have sheltered them from.

This discovery sits at the heart of Israelism, which profiles Simone Zimmerman and Eitan (we don’t learn his surname).

Simone Zimmerman, a focus of the film Israelism, displays flags she created as a child at school [Photograph: Israelism]

Simone went to a Jewish school, visits and lives in Israel on an exchange program, and Eitan joins the Israeli army after finishing school and spending holidays at youth camps in Israel as a teenager.

Venturing 'across the line' to the West Bank

Both narratives are striking. The viewer follows Simone’s naivety as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. At one point, she is reduced to tears when her college votes in favour of the boycott divestment sanctions movement (BDS) in 2013.

Later on, however, after a trip to the West Bank against the advice of family and friends, she transforms into a pro-Palestine-end-the-occupation activist who is denounced by the community as a “self-loathing Jew.”

In the West Bank, Simone finds herself witnessing things which contradict everything she had been taught.

She meets two Palestinians, Baha Hilo and Sami Awad whose families were expelled during the Nakba in 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees and their villages were taken up by Jews as the state of Israel was formed.

Awad’s family were evicted from their home in Jerusalem to make way for a Jewish family, while Hilo’s were expelled from the city of Yaffa, present-day Tel Aviv.

Criticism faced by pro-Palestine Jewish activists

Eitan, the soldier, becomes slowly disturbed by how he is ordered to treat Palestinians when he is posted to the West Bank in his first official deployment.

What Eitan reveals, like how the Israeli military teaches cadets to dehumanise Palestinians, is perhaps most poignant considering the numerous accusations of war crimes Israel is facing in its current war on Gaza.

"Often to be a Jewish person critical of Israel can feel very lonely initially because the mainstream narrative suggests that all diaspora Jews support Israel"

Eitan looks back on his period serving in the West Bank as “immoral” as he comes to terms with what he witnessed — soldiers beating Palestinians for the sake of it while he’s told to randomly pick out men and women for searches to instil a culture of fear.

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Back in the US, Simone gets called a “self-hating Jew” and a “threat to the community” as she begins to advocate for Palestinian rights and criticise Israeli policies. She even loses a job as the Jewish outreach director for socialist politician Bernie Sanders after Foxman calls for her to be fired.

Her experience testifies to how speaking up for Palestinian rights and criticising Israeli government policies can put you in a vicious firing line.

Axelman hopes that the film not only helps to explain why historically there has been such unconditional pro-Israel support from the Jewish community but also testifies to the growing movement of Jews who empathise with and support Palestinian freedom.

“Often to be a Jewish person critical of Israel can feel very lonely initially because the mainstream narrative suggests that all diaspora Jews support Israel,” Axelman says.

“But the actual truth is far from that. We are unbelievably divided and incredibly polarised.”

Israelism is available to watch on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, or Vimeo

Rosabel Crean is The New Arab's Foreign news journalist, based in London

Follow her on X: @CreanRosabel