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Gary Rosenblatt

‘Israelism:’ A damning critique of how we teach about Israel

The disillusioned young US Jews who made the controversial film say their Jewish education failed them. They have a point
IfNotNow activists marching to demand that then President-elect Donald Trump fire Stephen Bannon, Philadelphia, November 22, 2016. (Courtesy of IfNotNow/via JTA)
IfNotNow activists marching to demand that then President-elect Donald Trump fire Stephen Bannon, Philadelphia, November 22, 2016. (Courtesy of IfNotNow/via JTA)

“Israelism,” an award-winning, contentious documentary film that promotes the Palestinian narrative and gives voice to young American Jews accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing, made the headlines earlier in mid-November when a scheduled screening at Hunter College was canceled.

The official reason given for the cancelation was security concerns after an email campaign by pro-Israel supporters accused the film of promoting “anti-Israel sentiment.”

I watched the slick, 84-minute film last week – few critics have seen it – and it is, indeed, as deeply accusatory of Israel as it is unfailingly sympathetic to Palestinians. But I think the far more effective response would be to call out the film’s distorted and biased views of the Israel-Palestinian conflict rather than try to shut it down, leading to accusations of violating academic freedom and free speech.

Sadly, I suspect the efforts to prevent “Israelism” from continuing to be shown on campuses around the country are fueled by a fear in our community that many Jewish students who view the film lack the knowledge and confidence to counter its propaganda and may be swayed by its message.

In effect, the film, produced by and featuring young American Jews raised to love and support Israel who later became anti-Zionists, underscores a serious flaw in our teaching – or lack thereof – of the Mideast conflict.

The central figure is Simone Zimmerman, 32, who happily attended Jewish day school in Los Angeles through high school, Jewish youth groups, summer camps, Israel summer programs, and Hillel on campus when she was a student at the University of California, Berkeley (Class of 2013).

How is it, then, that she went on to co-found If Not Now, an American Jewish movement that opposes the occupation and accuses Israel of apartheid?

In the film, Zimmerman traces her transformation to an incident when she was a college freshman, advocating for Israel at a heated student government meeting on divestment. It was there that she heard impassioned Palestinian students speak of Israel’s military occupation and bombings in Gaza.

“I thought I knew so much about Israel,” she says, but didn’t know how to respond to charges about Israeli “occupation, settlements and ethnic cleansing,” words she claims she’d never heard before.

After the meeting, she said she asked friends at Hillel for “rational arguments” to make Israel’s case, and was “very disturbed” when “I couldn’t get answers.”

Zimmerman said she “visited Palestine” that summer, witnessed the difficulties of the daily lives of Palestinians, and gradually took up their cause. She came to believe that growing up, she had been given a rose-colored, one-sided view of Israel that did not deal with the Palestinians’ story and was far from reality.

(Zimmerman made national news in 2016, when, five days after Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) chose her to be his campaign’s Jewish outreach coordinator, she was fired – based on profane social media comments she had made about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.)

The film also tells the story of a young Jewish man from Atlanta, identified only as Eitan, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home and dreamed of moving to Israel after visiting the Western Wall as an eight-year-old. Fulfilling his dream, he joined the IDF, but was deeply disturbed witnessing how a young Palestinian in his 20s was detained at a checkpoint, blindfolded and handcuffed, and kicked by officers, “and I didn’t even speak up.”

Over time, Eitan came to believe that his participation in the army was “immoral.” The kind of behavior he saw made him question Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in general and his allegiance is now with them.

Blatant Distortions

“Israelism” doesn’t attempt to provide a balanced view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While blaming American Jewish groups for presenting Israel in heroic terms, the film casts the Jewish state as the clear villain, displacing Palestinians from their native land and preventing them from living lives of dignity.

History is glossed over, and facts are misrepresented.

A few of the more blatant examples of distortion:

  • The Six-Day War is described in one line by a narrator: “In 1967, Israel managed to complete its control over Palestinians by taking over the West Bank and Gaza” – no mention of events leading up to the war, including Egypt’s closing the Straits of Tiran, ejecting UN forces, massing Arab troops on Israel’s northern and southern borders, and of Arab leaders threatening to destroy Israel;
  • The only reference to the bloody Second Intifada, when more than 1,000 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinian suicide bombings from 2000 to 2005, is a two-second clip of the aftermath of the Sbarro pizza bombing in Jerusalem in 2001 that killed 16 civilians, including seven children and a pregnant woman;
  • As we view a scene of a crowded checkpoint, showing young men grasping vertical bars, a narrator says that Israel makes Palestinians live in cages.

Along the way, there are brief interviews with or clips of pro-Palestinian figures, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), academic activists Cornell West and Noam Chomsky, and journalist Peter Beinart. The only pro-Israel figure in the film is Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director emeritus, who says “it hurts me to hear from Jewish young people calling for justice for Palestine but not justice for Israel.”

Five months after “Israelism” premiered in February 2023 at the Big Sky Film Festival in Montana, Foxman wrote on social media that he was sorry he had agreed to the interview, calling the film “anti-Israel and anti-American Jewish community.” The film’s director, Erin Axelman, told me this week that “we felt we were transparent,” and that Foxman was sent the questions in advance and signed permission for his interview to be included.

Demands Grow To Show – And To Cancel – The Film

In a phone interview, Axelman, 34, who prefers the pronoun “they,” told me the film is the outgrowth of their experience growing up in rural Maine, one of the few Jews in the local public school. They “fell in love with Israel” as a young teenager after reading “Exodus,” Leon Uris’s heroic historical novel about the founding of the state of Israel.

But during college years at Brown University, engaging with Jewish and Palestinian classmates, Axelman began to question Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. During graduate school, Axelman made a short film on American Jews critical of Israel for class, the kernel of the concept for the full-length documentary that took more than seven years to complete.

“Israelism” has won four awards, including one at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and has been shown primarily on college campuses this year, including at UCLA’s Center for Israel Studies, almost always followed by a discussion moderated by Axelman.

The sessions are “usually very respectful, and we welcome people who are very critical of the film,” Axelman said. Before October 7, there were some “under the radar” attempts to have screenings canceled, mostly through emails, as well as pressure, they claim, from regional Israeli consulates and Hillels.

Since the war, though, demands for screenings – and opposition to them – have increased sharply.

During our conversation, Axelman maintained a friendly tone and did not seek to avoid or dismiss my critical comments about the film, noting at times, “that’s a fair critique.” They believe that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same, with some exceptions, and that support for Palestinians does not necessarily mean support for Hamas.

“I’m queer and I hate Hamas, what they did [October 7] was horrible,” Axelman said, adding, “and what Israel did in reaction, killing 12,000 people, is not justified.”

By the end of the interview, Axelman offered: “We can agree that the American Jewish community is not doing its job of educating young people on Israel and Palestine.”

I concurred, and so, in effect, did the ADL’s Abe Foxman when he said in his filmed “Israelism” interview that when young American Jews turn against Israel in support of Palestine, “it means we failed in education. We lost them.”

A Lack Of Understanding

But it’s not that simple, and it’s not all the fault of American Jewish institutions and educators. Indeed, much of the disillusionment over Israel among young American Jews is with the government in Jerusalem.

Over the last few years, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s desperate efforts to avoid a possible jail sentence for fraud, bribery and breach of trust helped lead him to form a coalition a year ago that includes right-wing extremists, highly unpopular among most American Jews.

A government seeking to weaken the judicial system and more inclined to increase settlements and annex the West Bank than to re-engage in peace talks has further deepened the divide between Jerusalem and much of the diaspora. According to a Pew Research Center poll in 2022, 61 percent of American Jews under the age of 30 have favorable views toward the Palestinians; 56 percent feel favorable toward Israel.

Another factor for the distancing of young Jews from Israel is a lack of understanding about the conflict.

Kenneth Stein, an expert on the history of modern Israel and the Israel-Arab conflict, taught at Emory for 44 years. He points out that 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.

Through the non-profit Center for Israel Education (CIE) he founded 16 years ago, Stein estimates that he has held workshops and courses for more than 3,500 middle school and secondary school educators across the country teaching Israel and the Middle East.

Many admit they are insufficiently trained when it comes to the Mideast conflict, he says, which often accounts for their omitting or glossing over important facts, events, and nuance. Like many rabbis, as well, the educators rarely took a course on the modern Middle East, so the context of how Israel fits is not understood, according to Stein.

A stickler on teaching based on text and sources, Stein has insisted that students park their ideology at the door to his classroom. He believes the vast majority of teachers in college and in high school settings teach narratives rather than history.

“They feel it’s their prerogative to impart their personal beliefs.”

(Stein’s two-part series on how Israel and the Middle East are taught in American colleges recently appeared in The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune)

‘Better, But Still A Way To Go’

Until the last decade or so, few Jewish middle or secondary day schools included a required full-semester course on Modern Israel, including the Mideast conflict. More often an optional class would be held on the subject in the spring of senior year of high school, in preparation for students headed for campus or a gap year in Israel.

In both cases, the classes would place a heavy emphasis on advocacy for Israel with little or no reference to the Palestinian narrative of events.

The consensus among a group of Jewish high school administrators, I was told, is that in the last few years, they have broadened their approach in teaching about the Israel-Arab conflict. In part, the change came about after recent graduates, now in college, provided feedback to their former schools.

“We’re hearing from them that they weren’t prepared to respond to what they’re hearing on campus,” particularly regarding Palestinian views, one principal told me. He noted that each school deals with the subject in its own way, based in part on the culture of the community it serves.

(In 2002, in an effort to provide Jewish high school students with the history, knowledge and confidence to defend Israel when they got to campus, The Jewish Week of New York launched Write On For Israel, a unique two-year educational program that reached more than 850 Jewish public, private and day school students before it ended this past June. Linda Scherzer, the founding director of Write On, now leads a similar project, the Teen Israel Leadership Council, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest, N.J. (Full disclosure: I was the founding chair of Write On.))

Paul Bernstein, the founding CEO of Prizmah, a North American network of hundreds of Jewish day schools, observed that in recent years more schools have “recognized the value of nuance” in discussing the Mideast conflict and are teaching it with more perspectives.

“The belief is that offering more information will strengthen the students’ connection to Israel and to Jewish values,” Bernstein said.

In addition to Kenneth Stein’s CIE program, which provides original sources, webinars and workshops, there are a variety of resources online for educators and students. One first-rate source is OpenDor Media, a global non-profit that hosts Unpacked For Educators, offering experiential activities and scores of videos of various lengths and levels of detail, including those that emphasize intellectual and emotional “exploration rather than indoctrination.”

Bernstein noted that for all of the concern about young American Jews distancing themselves from Israel, it’s important to remember that the great majority of graduates of Jewish high schools remain fervent supporters of Israel and many take on top positions at pro-Israel groups in universities around the country.

“I’m amazed at how many alumni of our schools are leading the way, speaking out knowledgeably, proudly and without fear on behalf of Israel on campus,” Bernstein said.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark is the founding principal of SAR, a Modern Orthodox high school in Riverdale, NY, which offers required classes on Zionism in the 10th and 12th grades. “Both include multiple narratives – Ashkenazim and Sefardim, religious and secular, Israelis and Palestinians,” he told me, with the seniors delving more deeply into those topics.

Issues like Deir Yassein (site of the killing of more than 100 Arab citizens in April 1948), the Nakba, settlements, Jerusalem, refugees and occupation are addressed, more so than at a number of other Jewish high schools, Rabbi Harcsztark believes.

Since October 7, SAR has held assemblies regularly that deal with the current war, touching on issues like the morality of war and codes of ethics as well as understanding historical nuances and terms like genocide, apartheid and colonialism in the context of how to respond to critics of Israel.

“Bottom line, I think we’re doing better than in the past, and still have a way to go,” the rabbi said, in finding the proper balance between promoting Israel advocacy while teaching the historical facts of the conflict.

He added that he doesn’t believe the Orthodox community is dealing sufficiently with these issues. “We need to wrestle more,” he said.

How would SAR seniors respond if they viewed “Israelism?” I asked. Rabbi Harcsztark said he believes the students wouldn’t waiver in their support of Israel, based on “a strong understanding” of the last century of the state’s history.

In the film, Simone Zimmerman, who grew up a fervent Zionist, says, “I’m the best the Jewish community has to offer, and I didn’t know what the occupation was.” Her comment haunts me because she was a kind of poster girl for Israel advocates and now espouses a position that would bring about the end of the Jewish state.

Are we prepared to respond effectively to “Israelism,” which is guilty of offering the same kind of narrow, one-sided approach it accuses pro-Israel activists of putting forward?

The only positive use of the film I can think of is to present it to Jewish educators and leaders as a challenge: to discuss together and come up with a program or product that can engage young Jews in a meaningful way.

It’s time our community recognizes the limits of emotional advocacy in teaching about Israel. We need to put more thoughtfulness, creativity, funding and focus on educating the next generation of American Jews to connect to the Jewish state through their own independent thinking based on Jewish identity and a fuller truth enriched by historical facts and a moral imperative.

The future of the relationship between American Jews and Israel depends on it.

About the Author
Gary Rosenblatt is the former editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.