Movie Review: ISRAELISM

A long-awaited documentary on the generational shift in perceptions of Israel by U.S. Jews came to the Maine International Film Festival last night. Seven years in the making, ISRAELISM combines searingly honest interviews with archival material to tell the story of the profound absence of the Palestinian point of view in the training of young Zionists. (Full disclosure: I donated to an early fundraising round for the film, and director Eric Axelman is a childhood friend of one of my kids.)

As he conducts a tour through the occupied West Bank, Baha Hilo of To Be There tells the camera crew, “Jewish Americans would tell me things like, We like you but we don’t like Palestinians. Even though I’m the only Palestinian they know.”

Animations for recalled incidents reminded me of the Israeli film WALTZ WITH BASHIR depicting tormented recollections of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacres by a traumatized IDF soldier who participated. Forty years on, this week’s IDF and settler attacks on the Jenin refugee camp will produce the same result: trauma for the Palestinian survivors and for their oppressors. The turning point for young idealists in the IDF who find themselves on the wrong end of a gun is a major theme in both films. And although no one in ISRAELISM uses the term “moral injury” it’s clear that it affects even non-soldiers who witness the brutality of occupation firsthand — in one case, by exiting a Birthright tour funded by older Jews who have made it their life’s work to train kids to be Zionist.

Jewish identity in my lifetime has often focused on issues of justice and equality. When these traditional ethics of Judaism confront apartheid, land and water theft, and violent suppression, it creates friction. Holocaust trauma does not, for many young Jews, justify brutality against the indigenous people of Palestine.

Anchored by the recollections of two young Jews, the film centers Simone Zimmerman and Eitan. We hear Eitan recount why he enlisted in the IDF and how his experiences tormenting Palestinians while “just following orders” turned him against the occupation. We see Zimmerman give details of the indoctrination she experienced in her Jewish day school and summer camps, producing a 10% IDF enlistment rate among her U.S. high school graduating class. 

We also see Zimmerman, co-founder of the organization If Not Now, touring the West Bank with Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust. And headlines about how she was hired as Jewish outreach advisor to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and fired only days later for a past social media post critical of Israeli PM Netanyahu.

It’s not the only brush with U.S. presidential politics in the film. Coincidentally, current Green Party candidate Dr. Cornel West appears giving a talk on his views on the spiritual dimensions of Israeli apartheid. (Not incidentally, the pro-Israel views of Democratic primary challengers Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Marianne Williamson have eroded support for both among leftist opinion leaders in the U.S.)

The film succeeds in part because it maintains a sharp focus. It could have widened to include many related topics: why so many politicians and other power brokers in the U.S. are beholden to AIPAC and Israel (cf. Epstein’s black book). The complicity of the corporate media in pushing pro-Israel narratives. The intifadas and ongoing Palestinian resistance could have been covered in more detail. And the film could have addressed the constitutional crisis of the alleged “only democracy in the Middle East” enforcing segregation and ethnic cleansing.

It could have delved into the role of settlers, many of whom are from the U.S., as the opportunistic Zionists who serve as colonizers. One of the most poignant clips in the film is one I’d seen elsewhere: a Palestinian woman confronts a settler saying, “You are stealing my house!” He responds in a U.S. native speaker accent, “And if I don’t steal it, someone else is gonna steal it.” So much for his Jewish ethics.

To my mind Zimmerman gets the last word:

What we’ve been told is the only way that Jews can be safe is if Palestinians are not safe. 

The more I learned about that, the more I came to see that as a lie.