‘Israelism’ explores the disillusionment of American Jews


If you would like to better understand why young Jews are becoming alienated from Israel, and even from the mainstream Jewish community, watch “Israelism,” a documentary released last spring about the controversial role of Israel in mainstream American Judaism. “Israelism” has local connections – both the directors, Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen, who are Jewish, graduated from Brown in 2012.

The film has now had over 100 screenings around the country and has won numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the 2023 Arizona Film Festival and the Audience Choice Award at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, in July 2023. It was screened in December at the Columbus Theatre, in Providence, though I watched it online – and you can, too.

The documentary traces the political transformation of two young American Jews from being staunch supporters of Israel to deep disillusionment when they finally witness for themselves Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Their disillusionment is not simply about Israel’s occupation, however, but about a sense that their own Jewish community betrayed them by serving them up a “Disneyfied” version of Israel that is far from reality.

Simone Zimmerman grew up in a Jewish “bubble,” going to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp, and participating in Jewish youth groups, before finding herself defending Israel on her college campus.

After she was confronted with arguments from fellow students about “occupation, settlements, apartheid and ethnic cleansing,” words she claimed she had never heard before, she began to question whether her understanding of Israel was complete.

Traveling to Palestine to see for herself, she met Palestinians and heard their stories. She came away from this experience both disillusioned and heartbroken.

A second story line follows Eitan, a young Conservative Zionist from Atlanta who joined the Israeli military, but eventually became disturbed by the Israel Defense Forces’ degrading and even brutal mistreatment of Palestinians in the West Bank. He eventually came to believe that participation in the IDF is “immoral.”

Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians left him dispirited about both Israel and the Jewish community at home, which he felt had misled him.

Both these young people are compelling, but Zimmerman is clearly the star. She speaks articulately about being raised to love Israel unconditionally, while remaining ignorant of the Israel-Palestinian reality.

In the film, Zimmerman, who grew up a devoted Zionist, says, “I’m the best the Jewish community has to offer, and I didn’t know what the occupation was.” She is angry that her Jewish upbringing delivered indoctrination rather than knowledge.

The film, including footage of pro-Israel rallies, reinforces the impression that support for Israel has cult-like features – indoctrination and constant reaffirmations of unconditional support and commitment. Jewish summer camps have become recruitment centers for the Israeli army, complete with mock military maneuvers in the middle of the night.

“Israelism” is painful, but also compassionate. For many viewers, the film will resonate with elements of their own personal experience.

The film was made before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza, events that have only exacerbated the growing polarization over Israel in the Jewish community.

While the film certainly is critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, it is not a film about Israel-Palestinian history. Rather, it is an indictment of the American Jewish community’s failure to teach Jewish young people about the actual Israel, rather than the myth of Israel.

At the end of an interview with Gary Rosenblatt, the former longtime editor of the Jewish Week, in December 2023, director Erin Axelman said: “We can agree that the American Jewish community is not doing its job of educating young people on Israel and Palestine.”

The issue is not just about teaching Palestinian perspectives (which are diverse), but also teaching diverse Jewish perspectives.

As this important film urgently suggests, the larger issue is the future role of Israel in American Judaism.

NINA TANNENWALD teaches international relations at Brown University.