Culture

‘Israelism’ documentary tracks changing generational attitudes of American Jews

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Throughout its 70 years of existence, Israel has enjoyed the overwhelming support of the American Jewish community, which has significantly contributed to near-unanimous bipartisan political cover for virtually all its deeds and misdeeds. This should have been a precarious situation, as US Jews generally track “liberal”, and Israel has been a most illiberal project since it was conceived more than a century ago.  At its best, it is rank bigotry that assigns rights and privileges based on characteristics of birth such as ethnicity and religion, and at its worst, it fulfills that bigotry with horrific violence.

Still, the default attitude of most American Jews toward Israel has been pride in its accomplishments coupled with willful blindness and unquestioning acceptance of the most transparent excuses.  As someone who grew up in that community, I have witnessed the PEP (Progressive except for Palestine) phenomenon in all its glory.

But things are changing. A clear generational shift is underway, as younger Jews are abandoning the established pro-Israel consensus in bigger numbers than ever.  They are swelling the ranks of university chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, and continuing to participate in the movement for Palestinian rights long after graduation.

Peering into the increasingly uncertain future of American Jewish support, Israel and its supporters have been more openly embracing the Christian Zionist movement despite its socially conservative agenda inimical to most Jews and even the outright antisemitism of its leaders.  See this New York Times article. Israel clearly hopes to continue its outsize influence on US politics despite the rapidly eroding support among younger Jewish Americans.

The new generation of US Jewish activists is the subject of a new documentary film, “Israelism,” nearing completion and scheduled for release over the next year. You can view the trailer above, and go to the website here.  The project is catching on; on Facebook, the trailer received 150,000 views in just two days.

While the film itself has a decidedly left-wing perspective, the filmmakers interviewed prominent folks across a wide spectrum of opinion, including Abe Foxman, former head of the ADL; friendly critics of Israel (aka “liberal Zionists”) such as Peter Beinart and Jeremy Ben-Ami; as well as much harsher critics Noam Chomsky and Cornel West.

But the real stars are the mostly younger Jewish activists: Simone Zimmerman, Emily Mayer, Alissa Wise, Rebecca Vilkomerson, and many others.  The film captures the spirit of these energetic, articulate activists, virtually all of whom were raised in safe Zionist households.  They recount their discovery of the dark underside of the Israel they were raised to love and support without reservation. Their choice to empathize with, and actively campaign for, Zionism’s victims, whether motivated by Jewish religious principles or by Jewish secular identity, is rapidly changing the relationship between Israel and the community it had considered among its most steadfast international supporters.

The film’s producer and co-director, Eric Axelman, recalls his own journey, from being spoon-fed a tale of Israel as a “story … of Jewish redemption” to his discovery of the real narrative of “colonization, military occupation, and structural racism.” Axelman knows first-hand that “those who challenge Israel publicly face social isolation within their Jewish communities,” and hopes the film “helps start and maintain important conversations about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.”

I took decades to make a similar transformation. In a bizarre world where simple support of equality for all is somehow seen as “extremism,” this film goes a long way to shifting the discourse and giving young Jews the freedom and encouragement to break from “Israelism,” which has replaced adherence to Judaism’s principles and rights as the secular religion of US Jews.

The producers plan to distribute the film as widely as possible, with a special emphasis on college campuses and synagogues.  The project is being financed by the young activists themselves, and although their filming is complete, they are still fund-raising to finish their post-production.  Please consider contributing to their effort (link to www.gofundme.com/israelismfilm).

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Convincing Zionist Jews that they should not support a Jewish Israeli state that has: 1. raped, tortured, maimed and murdered innocents because they were Palestinian 2. Bombed schools full of children because they were Palestinian 3. Bombed ambulances and hospitals full of the sick and injured because they were Palestinian… Read more »

“I think they don’t represent much; they’re a little super-naive” says crazy like a Foxman. Very sad to see what little respect he has for the generation he expects to continue to blindly support the apartheid borderless zionist entity like their parents and grandparents did. I find it particularly revolting… Read more »

Maybe this movie and the activism of more and more young Jewish people are the first sign of the end of Zionism. This would be the beginning of a more peaceful time, not only for Palestine but for the whole Middle East. An end of Zionism would mean the end… Read more »

@DraperRobert

“My grandfather prosecuted Dachau war criminals. Later he wrote a book called “After Fifteen Years.” Its premise was that Nazism can happen anywhere, once good people start believing lies while not believing that those who are different from them are human beings.”

Your documentary sounds like a worthwhile project. I look forward to watching it. There is a sort of “Israelism” among Christian Zionists as well, at least among those I’ve met and talked with. They exist–so far as their understanding and attitudes toward Israel are concerned–in a strange world unconnected to… Read more »