Ever since the war in Gaza erupted in Israel, prominent Jewish leaders have been calling upon the Diaspora Jewish community not to continue screening the documentary Israelism which was released eight months ago. Directors Sam Eilertsen and Erin Axelman tell the story of two Jews, Simone Zimmerman and Eitan (who doesn’t reveal his last name), as they become disillusioned about what they were taught about Israel in the American Jewish educational system.
The primary argument that the film convincingly makes is that Jewish students in the Diaspora are indoctrinated by Jewish educators to become Zionists and to defend Israel at all costs while depriving them the knowledge of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel.
The film shows how Diaspora Jews conflate Zionism with Judaism without even realizing it (thus the name of the film Israelism), how Jewish students visiting Israel are figuratively and literally steered away from learning about the daily indignities, restrictions and abuses of the Palestinians, and it limns how a growing number of young Jews are educating themselves about the Palestinian perspective and getting involved in the anti-occupation movement.
While one man’s indoctrination is another man’s education, allow me to weigh in. I grew up Modern Orthodox in NY where I was educated in Zionist yeshivas (Haftar High School & Yeshiva University), and I spent a year in Israel after high school in a Zionist yeshiva program (Yeshivat Hakotel). After university I moved to Israel and I served in the IDF.
However, I also made an effort to learn Arabic, interact with Palestinian in social settings and acquire a number of close Palestinians friends living in villages in the West Bank. With that background I can honestly say the message of the movie – that Zionist programing for Jews of the Diaspora does not give a full picture of the Israeli Palestinian situation – is spot on. Jewish students who visit Israel on these programs are unaware that they lack the Palestinian perspective, similar to a fish who is blind to the water surrounding him (parenthetically, the Palestinian educational system is guilty of the same crime in reverse — omitting the Israeli perspective and at times manufacturing facts out of whole kafeeyas.)
This film has the potential to encourage Jewish students to learn more about the situation in Israel on their own rather then just rely on their Jewish educational programing and it just might motivate Jewish Zionist educators to think about what they are teaching and more importantly to think about what they are not teaching.
With all that being said, I do have my criticisms of the documentary. It doesn’t go deep enough into describing the abuses that the Palestinians suffer at the hands of the IDF and by the extremist Israeli settlers. (But admittedly that is not its focus.) The film also short-changes Israel. It paints a snapshot of the situation in Israel, like a balance sheet of a company, devoid of any real historical context. But in the few rare minutes that it does touch upon history it does so only from the Palestinian’s perspective.
The voiceover at one point, for example, describes the Six Day War in one sentence: Israel “managed to complete its control over Palestine.” As if taking over the West Bank was the purpose of Israel’s preemptive strike on June 5, 1967 to fulfill its long-term nefarious plan of total control. While this may or may not be true clearly there is another perspective to this version of the Six Day War which is sorely missing: the Israeli one.
The governments of Egypt, Syria and Jordan made bellicose threats to invade Israel in 1967 and moved their troop to the borders of Israel. And while there is a debate if the Arab threat at this point in time was an existential threat or not it was at the very least a threat. It seems the film is guilty of the very same crime – presenting just one side – that it is accusing the Zionist propaganda programs.
If the film opened the can of worms called history — and it did — then it should have shown as well the Israeli perspective of history that led to the current awful Palestinian predicament. It should have touched upon the long history of Palestinian terrorism (instead of just a two-second clip of the Sbarro bombing), the Palestinian rejection of the Peel Plan (1936), rejection of the UN Partition Plan (1947), rejection of the Ehud Barak peace offer (2000), and rejection of the Ehud Olmert Peace offer (2008). If one examines the history of the conflict one will see that there is enough blame to go around for both the Palestinians and the Israelis that have contributed to the current Palestinian predicament. But one doesn’t get that sense from the film.
Most of the pro-Palestinian interviewees in the film give you the feeling that all Israel has to do is unilaterally stop the occupation, pull out of the West Bank and everything will be fine. Well how did that play out in Gaza?
Some of the pro-Israeli interviewees don’t seem too impressive either. Most of what they say – or the clips that were chosen from what they said – are superficial Zionist sound-bites. It seems to me that Abe Foxman, and others interviewed, were led to believe they were participating in a pro-Israel film. Had they known the framing of the film was not to flattering to the Jewish Zionist establishment, I imagine they would have delivered more forceful and nuanced comments.
One scene in the documentary that I found particularly outrageous was when the voiceover said that Palestinians are made [by Israel] to live in cages while the visual showed an overcrowded IDF checkpoint where Palestinians are holding on to a wall of vertical bars making it look as if they are literally packed into a cage big enough for humans. While I can appreciate the point being made (I have many Palestinians friend who at different time have unfortunately not been allowed by the IDF to leave their villages for weeks at a time) to say that Palestinians are forced to live in cages is egregiously hyperbolic and the visual that accompanied the comment is simply inciteful.
The film is valuable in that it does show (not enough in my opinion) the ongoing Palestinian suffering that is left out of modern day Zionist education. But it’s biggest flaw is that the flavor of the film implies that the current situation is all Israel’s fault and that it can quickly and simply solve the problem unilaterally. It isn’t and it can’t.
The film is an important one for young and old Zionist Jews to see. And the irony of the current condemnation of the film by Jewish leaders is that many of them haven’t even seen it. I recommend they do: they just might learn something about the conflict from the Palestinian perspective.