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“Israelism” Review

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The film “Israelism” is a complaint against the organized American Jewish community’s approach to Israel education in Jewish day and religious schools.  The film indicts the entirety of what it describes as the “American Jewish Establishment” for its “indoctrination” of Jewish youth to be “soldiers for Israel.” The core message: a new radical Jewish generation is rising to challenge the “old men” of the “Jewish establishment.” Apparently, ageism does not bother the filmmakers.

The main protagonists in “Israelism” are Simone Zimmerman and an American former IDF soldier identified only as Eitan. Zimmerman is a graduate of a Jewish day school education who started college at UC Berkeley as a pro-Israel activist, but eventually became an anti-Zionist. She is a co-founder of the anti-Israel group IfNotNow.

While “Israelism” includes interviews with supporters of Israel, their only purpose is to demonstrate American Jewish blindness to the actual “truth” of Israel’s guilt. None of them are given the opportunity to challenge the film’s central argument. Instead, they are only exploited to promote the film’s anti-Israel narrative.

“Israelism” studiously avoids nuance and complexity, opting for a simplistic and one-dimensional representation of American Jewish education as being in direct service to AIPAC. AIPAC is a bipartisan organization that works with both Democrats and Republicans to support the U.S.-Israel alliance. However, in the film the group is dishonestly associated solely with former President Trump and even white nationalists. The message: American Jewish youth are being brainwashed into white supremacy against their own interests.

Despite this leap in logic, “Israelism” won a number of awards – including from the SF Jewish Film Festival – and has been shown on numerous college campuses.

Any serious examination of American Jewish communal life would require nuance, but there is none in “Israelism.” The film groups prominent national Jewish organizations such as ADL, AIPAC, Hillel and ZOA together, even though they represent a wide range of views on Israel. It also misleads by depicting these groups as being representative of thousands of other Jewish organizations (national and local, religious and secular) that also hold a very broad range of positions on Israel.

Similarly, thousands of American Jewish day schools are flattened into a single undifferentiated mass, which is engaged in a conspiracy to “indoctrinate” young Jews regarding Israel and Zionism. There is no evidence or substance to justify the generalizations in the film, only anecdotes from individuals with a clear anti-Israel political agenda.

Research by Emory University historian Kenneth Stein, founder of the Center for Jewish Education, shows ”only about 25 percent of Jewish young people in the U.S. receive some form of formal or informal Jewish education in Zionism or Israeli history, so their knowledge of Israel is limited. The same may be true, to some extent, of their teachers… many admit they are insufficiently trained when it comes to the Mideast conflict, which often accounts for their omission or glossing over important facts, events, and nuance.”

This means Israel education is decentralized and varies widely from community to community. Despite the film’s misleading narrative about the “Jewish establishment,” there is no consolidated program of “indoctrination.”

The film’s treatment of Israel is dishonest and distorted. Simone Zimmerman says: “We were taught that the only way for Jews to be safe is for Palestinians to be unsafe.” Yet, she offers no evidence or examples of Jewish curriculum that make such claims. In fact, many Jews have come forward since the film’s release to refute Zimmerman’s argument.

The film also presents accounts by Palestinians who allege that American Jews are ignorant of their experiences. It portrays Israel through a Palestinian nationalist lens, which is designated as the truth. This includes distortions such as depicting Gaza as occupied by Israel, even though Israel removed all soldiers and settlements from the territory in 2005. At the same time, the film egregiously omits the fact that Gaza is controlled by the terrorist group Hamas, which has ruled the territory since 2007. This is especially problematic because many screenings of “Israelism” have taken place after the horrific Hamas massacre of October 7th, when terrorists from Gaza brutally murdered, tortured, raped, and kidnapped civilians across southern Israel. It calls Israel an “apartheid state” uncritically, presenting no conflicting arguments regarding Israel’s diverse democracy or peace proposals which would have led to an independent Palestinian state.

The film is most dishonest in its attempt to link the “Jewish establishment” to white supremacists. It walks the viewer down a path linking Jewish day schools to campus Hillels to AIPAC conventions to Donald Trump and ultimately to neo-Nazis. How does it do this? It shows a sequence of highly emotive scenes of Trump speaking at the 2016 AIPAC convention (ignoring that Hillary Clinton also spoke there), a ZOA spokesperson expressing enthusiastic support for Trump, a scene of white supremacists yelling “Hail Trump,” the aftermath of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville.

Under this montage is the narration, “American Jewish organizations have spent the last decade pouring millions of dollars into smearing and marginalizing human rights advocates… trying to brand Palestinian protest as antisemitic when there were neo-Nazis trying to kill us in our synagogues!” Why would Jewish organizations do this? The film answers, "At the end of the day pro-Israel leaders want to be in the room with the people in power. They will do anything to preserve unconditional support for Israel."

This is malicious nonsense. Any review of the statements and actions by scores of American Jewish groups – including those named in the film – shows how laser focused they were on the dangers of  right-wing antisemitism, and still are. Further, in both the 2016 and 2020 elections American Jews overwhelmingly voted against Trump. It is highly likely the same could be said of most leaders in the so-called Jewish “establishment.”

What bothers the filmmakers, however, is that Jewish organizations are also attentive to antisemitism from other sources, including within the political Left and the anti-Israel movement which they are part of. To this end, the film sets up a strawman argument asserting that, “So many of the self-appointed leaders of our community have been trying to equate the idea of supporting Palestinian rights itself with antisemitism.”

This is a harmful untruth. By portraying Jews as people who intentionally lie about antisemitism to silence pro-Palestinian voices, the film enables the spread of anti-Jewish ideas. It gives a free pass to those who spread such ideas, allowing them to dismiss criticism from Jews as a deceitful effort to weaponize antisemitism. While there may be cases where the charge of antisemitism is wrongfully used, the film’s narrative that Jewish groups systematically do this to quash “criticism of Israel” is a hateful conspiracy theory.

American Jewish organizations, including StandWithUs, recognize that while criticizing Israel is not inherently antisemitic, there are some rhetoric and actions related to Israel which do cross that line. For example, “Israelism” shows a clip of neo-Nazis chanting “gas the Jews.” The same chant was used by pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Sydney just days after the Hamas massacre on October 7. Would the filmmakers, who finished “Israelism” months before October 7, consider rewriting their script?

“Israelism” is a mendacious but slick piece of propaganda. It claims that a vast and powerful Jewish establishment is turning out indoctrinated young Jewish “soldiers for Israel,” ready to do battle against sainted human rights activists who only want peace. The film veers into Never-Never Land with its false conflation of the organized Jewish community with the far-right and white nationalists. Viewers with a low level of knowledge about these issues could walk away believing hateful and false conspiracy theories about the Jewish organizations around them. At a time of rising antisemitism, that would be a dangerous outcome for Jewish communities large and small, across the United States.

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