Review: ‘Israelism’ – directed by Erin Axelman & Sam Eilertsen

The groundbreaking documentary Israelism follows the stories of two young American Jews, Simone and Eitan, who were raised with Israel at the centre of their Jewish identity. But when they witness the occupation firsthand, they decisively reject the Zionist narratives fed to them since birth and speak out for Palestinian liberation. The documentary, filmed in 2016, was released shortly before the current genocidal onslaught on Gaza, and has never been more relevant for understanding such widespread support for an apartheid state. The idea of Israel looms large in the upbringing of US Jews, in schools, synagogues, communities, families. Many young US Jews are taught that, in the words of one Jewish educator, “Judaism is Israel and Israel is Judaism.”

By Keisha Taylor

The groundbreaking documentary Israelism follows the stories of two young American Jews, Simone and Eitan, who were raised with Israel at the centre of their Jewish identity. But when they witness the occupation firsthand, they decisively reject the Zionist narratives fed to them since birth and speak out for Palestinian liberation. The documentary, filmed in 2016, was released shortly before the current genocidal onslaught on Gaza, and has never been more relevant for understanding such widespread support for an apartheid state. The idea of Israel looms large in the upbringing of US Jews, in schools, synagogues, communities, families. Many young US Jews are taught that, in the words of one Jewish educator, “Judaism is Israel and Israel is Judaism.”

While Israel’s very existence is presented as an insurance policy and a response to the very real trauma of the Holocaust, young people describe being taught that Israel was a “land without a people.” Palestinians are not discussed in schools, except as people who want to kill Jews. Organisations like ‘Birthright Israel’ arrange trips to Israel for young Jews. Teenagers spend time on Israeli army bases, wearing military uniforms, responding to real IDF commands and pretending to be soldiers. These activities are designed to recruit US teenagers to the Israeli military, one of two preferred paths for young people loyal to Israel. The other is to act as “soldiers abroad” and to fight the ideological battle defending the Israeli State from the supposed “lies” it is subjected to. This is particularly the case at US colleges, with ‘Hillel’ branches on almost every campus. Simone recounts being instructed to intervene “emotionally” against an “anti-Israel” motion at student council, but words like “occupation” and “settlement” baffled her and her Jewish peers. Despite completing “all the trainings,” she was ill equipped to respond to the questions posed by Palestinians and their supporters.

Determined for answers, Simone visited Palestine and was horrified to hear from Palestinians about being displaced, beaten and humiliated daily. She witnessed the stark reality of the apartheid system, where a visiting US Jew has more rights than Palestinians over their whole lives. Eitan, an American former-IDF soldier, described the cruelty with which the occupation is enforced day to day, and detailed human rights abuses casually perpetrated by IDF soldiers. The utter dehumanisation of Palestinians is justified by the idea that Jews can only be safe if Palestinians are not safe. The film highlights the connections between Zionist organisations and the political establishment, with US capitalism reaping huge benefits from the “only democracy in the Middle East.” Millions of dollars are poured into branding any criticism of the Israeli State as anti-Semitic, yet genuinely anti-Semitic forces, such as Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists, are rising.

Since the inception of Israel, there have always been Jews standing up for Palestinian rights, but their numbers are growing. Young American Jews are sickened and infuriated by how they were indoctrinated saying, “you mobilised me to be a soldier for Israel, you Lied.” Despite the horror of apartheid and the sinister manipulation of young people, this documentary is ultimately inspiring. Young Jewish people are searching for answers, rejecting propaganda, challenging others in their own community, and standing in solidarity with Palestinians. It shows the drive for justice inherent in the majority of humanity and the willingness to courageously act in solidarity with the oppressed. The film ends with a commitment to building a movement for Palestinian rights and solidarity: “May you be blessed to know you’re not alone. Let’s get to work.”

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