Israelism is a full-length documentary released in February 2023 that describes the process a growing number of young American Jews have gone through in breaking with an “indoctrination” central to their upbringing, where love for all things Israel was integral to their Jewish identity. But as they learn about, witness, and in some cases take part in the brutal way Israel oppresses the Palestinians, a new generation of American Jews are opposing the identification of Zionism with being Jewish, and standing with the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
The movie principally tells the story of two American Jews with upbringings where strong support for Israel was taken as a given. One of them went to a Jewish day school in Los Angeles where 10 percent of the graduating class ended up moving to Israel—and joining the Israeli army. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, where her staunch Zionism was first challenged. On her next trip to Israel, she went to the Palestinian territories to find out for herself. The reality of the Palestinian occupation opened her eyes to Israel as an apartheid state. She went on to co-found IfNotNow, an anti-occupation movement of American Jews.
Another young American Jew who received the same indoctrination went to Israel at age 17 to join the IDF—the Israeli army. Right out of training, he was sent to the occupied West Bank, where he became an enforcer of a brutal system that treated Palestinians as second-class people in every way. His experience made him sickened and ashamed of everything he witnessed and been made to do.
There are many others who appear in the documentary that have gone through similar transformations themselves, often through meeting with Palestinians and visiting the West Bank. It depicts a growing movement of Jews who want to support Palestinian rights and break Israel’s centrality to American Jewish identity.
Israelism is directed by Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen, both Jewish first-time feature film directors, who went through this experience themselves.
The documentary had won awards at film festivals around the country, including the Audience Award at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, prior to the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack and the start of Israel's relentless bombing of Gaza. Yet since that time, attempts to show Israelism have come under repeated attack. Students who went ahead with campus showings, as they did at the University of Pennsylvania, have been threatened with discipline. And public theaters have been pressured to cancel showings as well.
But in many cases, these acts of suppression have had to be reversed in the face of public outcry. In fact, the filmmakers have said demand for the film has soared in this period. As one of them described it, “People say to us: ‘I want to show my family this film, to help them understand.’” There are now weekly screenings on, or near, many campuses, and Israelism is on a major tour of the U.S. and Europe that is selling out.
Israelism can be seen as background to the open rupture by many Jews in this country with the lie that “anti-Zionism = antisemitism,” which is being promoted at the highest levels of the U.S. ruling class as a whole. And the daring and dramatic protest actions in recent months against Israel’s war on Gaza and in support of the Palestinian people—including shutting down and occupying the Congressional Rotunda, at Grand Central Station in New York City, and most recently the massive occupation of the Israeli consulate in Chicago, all led by Jewish organizations—have been an inspiration to people everywhere.