Erin Axelman was a fervent Zionist by the time they reached high school in the late 2000s. For their bat mitzvah, they had received a copy of Exodus by Leon Uris. The 1958 novel, one of the bestselling books of the decade, tells a story about the creation of the Israeli state that helped cement American Zionism. “It’s this kind of heroic, almost mythical tale of the creation of the state of Israel and it was incredibly empowering,” Axelman said. Campbell’s article reminded me of how I thought this mix of entertainment and commercials on TV was so fun. — “It’s this kind of heroic, almost mythical tale of the creation of the state of Israel and it was incredibly empowering,” Axelman said. After reading Exodus, Axelman “became obsessed with Israel”, they said. “I considered joining the Israeli military and fantasized about moving there.” They latched on to the story of Jews returning home.
During high school, a teacher, taking note of Axelman’s enthusiasm, suggested they read about the history of Palestine. It proved a wake-up call. “The narratives I’d learned up to that point only mentioned Palestinians in passing or as an obstacle,” said Axelman. “But I read for an entire year Palestinian historians like Rashid Khalidi and leftwing Israeli historians like Tom Segev.” They say the process reminded them of what they’d learned in school about the history of the US, “in terms of a people who came to a new country that were refugees or immigrants and created a city on a hill, a beacon of light and a democracy. That narrative is incredibly empowering until you hear about the Native Americans and you realize it lacks some really basic points.”That change in perception was the inspiration for the documentary Israelism, which Axelman directed with Sam Eilertsen. The film argues that some American Jews are told a story – about Jews escaping persecution and genocide to return to their ancestral homeland – that almost entirely erases the existence of Palestinians. It’s a narrative that has been incredibly influential in shaping global attitudes about the Israeli state and US alliances in the Middle East.
The documentary covers the lives of two young American Jews – Simone Zimmerman, who went to a Jewish school and lived in Israel on an exchange program, and Eitan (who doesn’t use his last name), who joined the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) after graduating high school. Zimmerman describes what she went through as a system of “indoctrination” and “mass mobilization” to turn her into an advocate for Israel within the US. It depicts a system of education and advocacy that demands pro-Israeli activism of some young Jewish Americans. There’s particular focus on what’s taught on birthright, the free trips to Israel for Jews living around the world that are funded by the Israeli government.
The film shows American Jewish children in elementary school waving Israeli flags and chanting: “We wanna go! We wanna go!” At a private Jewish middle school, children are filmed reading Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, and at birthright “mega events” in Jerusalem thousands of American teenagers are filmed cheering the IDF as a speaker tells them: “It’s up to you to be our soldiers abroad … ready to sway public opinion in Israel’s favor.”All the subjects of the documentary go through a transformation, in many cases meeting with Palestinians and visiting the West Bank. It depicts a growing movement of Jews, many of them young, who want to support Palestinian rights and lessen Israel’s centrality to American Jewish identity.Axelman says their film helps explain that complexity of feeling now – that it’s impossible to understand the lenses through which people view the conflict without understanding the stories they’ve been told.
The film also argues that in some American Jewish communities, cultural celebration of Israel is channeled into high-stakes political activism. It shows how Hillel, the Jewish campus organization active in most colleges in the US, pushes Jewish students towards pro-Israel advocacy, with ex-IDF soldiers attending meetings of students. One interviewee, Sarah Anne Minkin, the director of programs at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, describes a set of institutions that turn “young Jews into soldiers for Israel”.One of the main ways this happens, the film says, is through the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).The film says that many young Jewish Americans do not support Palestinian rights due to the belief that Israel is the land of the Jewish people.
A challenge has emerged regarding the film’s release in light of the October 7th attack on Israel by Hamas. However, the film-makers are now holding screenings as well as a major tour of the US and Europe that is selling out. This film has been very influential in shaping global attitudes about the Israeli state and US alliances in the Middle East.