‘Israelism,’ a documentary

February 14, 2024

“Israelism,” released in February 2023 and screened recently at the Arab-American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, shows how two U.S. Jewish teenagers broke from the concept that Israel is Judaism as they learned about Israel’s abuse of Palestine and its people. Since Oct. 7, 2023, filmmakers Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen can’t keep up with requests for screenings, while discrediting, outright censorship and suppression from pro-Israel supporters and lobbies have exploded.

Simone Zimmerman and Eitan were filmed over a seven-year period as they became disillusioned and then opposed their own education steeped in a powerful pro-Israel idea that Israel and Judaism were the same. Zimmerman was a student at the University of California Berkeley; Eitan had refused to attend college and instead joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).


On a free trip to Israel, sponsored by Jewish-American organizations and the Israeli government, Zimmerman became curious about the stark differences between Palestinian and Jewish Israeli life, ultimately recognizing the settler-colonial apartheid forced upon Palestinians. Eitan became increasingly appalled at the brutality of the occupying IDF, and deeply ashamed when he did not speak out. “The first time I spoke in public, I cried the whole time,” he said.

The film’s length of one and a half hours allows time for viewers to develop an understanding of Zimmerman and Eitan’s educational and social journey in a community in the U.S. to which “Israel is today’s Jewish secular religion.” We see pre-school children wave Israeli flags as teachers cheer them on to shout, “I wanna go!” We see and hear a huge pro-Israel march in New York and free trips to Israel sponsored by Birthright. We hear American Zionist leaders, including an educator at Harvard’s Hillel chapter, say “Israel IS Judaism,” and Abe Foxman, former director of the conservative Anti-Defamation League, say “We lost these kids,” referring to Zimmerman and Eitan.

We watch Zimmerman having a fun time with Israeli and U.S. youth at a summer camp military program on hills complete with “simulated Arab houses.” Like a trip to lobby the U.S. Congress for American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the military camp is presented as a fun community activity.


However, in college at UC Berkeley, Zimmerman tries to answer Palestinian students opposing a pro-Israel resolution before the Student Council. She told Democracy Now: “The more I met Palestinian students, learned about their lives, that you have to live under occupation and oppression and dispossession just because of who you are and where you were born, I very quickly ran out of answers that felt moral and logical to answer the hard questions from these students about how I could justify the oppression…”

The first time she visits Palestine, conditions appall her and she bonds with two Palestinian peace activists. We see her walk down a major road with a wall between Israel and Palestine, but her Palestinian colleagues may not walk or drive on it. She learns that Israeli Jews live under a civil law system but Palestinians are under military law. Back home, she loses friends but finds many more like-minded young Jewish peace activists. She becomes a co-founder of IfNotNow and works with other organizations critical of Israel. She concludes: “It’s so deeply contrary to our values as Jewish people to support this disgusting oppression and denial of freedom.”

Despite attempts to silence “Israelism,” the filmmakers believe most viewers are looking for understanding. “The University of Pennsylvania tried to censor a film screening; they claimed that our film would put Jewish students in danger…But the students actually showed the film anyway. And so now some of the students are theoretically being investigated for potential disciplinary measures for watching a movie, which is just really weird—getting academic discipline for watching a movie doesn’t really make any sense. But that’s the kind of thing that’s been happening.” Eilertsen continued, “The vast majority of screenings have been just a very lovely and respectful conversation…people representing many different viewpoints are looking for a space where people can have a reasonable conversation about these issues. We’ve been trying to provide that.” (1)

–Susan Van Gelder

1. Interview with Matt Mahler, managing editor of MovieWeb. Rent “Israelism” herehttp://bit.ly/rentisraelism


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