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Inheriting Occupation: Israelism’s Revelation

Simon Pearson analyses the multifaceted documentary Israelism and the difficult questions it raises about ideology, identity, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The generational divide within the American Jewish community regarding the state of Israel takes centre stage in the timely new documentary Israelism. Directed by two young Jewish filmmakers, the film follows Simone Zimmerman and Eitan, who were raised to defend Israel uncompromisingly. However, after witnessing the country’s mistreatment of Palestinians firsthand, they are filled with shock and disillusionment. Their stories spotlight the growing rift between young liberal American Jews, who are questioning long-held narratives about Israel, and the old guard, who see support for the state as being core to Jewish identity.

Through Zimmerman and Eitan’s journeys, as well as interviews with figures like former Anti-Defamation League president Abe Foxman, the film gives audiences an inside look at this ideological and emotional conflict. It explores heavy topics like military occupation, human rights, antisemitism, and Jewish values. Radical shifts in attitudes about Israel among young Jews in America have resulted in fierce debates over the country’s place within Judaism. With its even-handed approach and emphasis on personal stories over politics, the documentary prompts all of us to think deeply about the complexity of identity, history, and justice.

Movie poster for Israelism

Israelism also prompts difficult questions about the morality of indoctrinating young (American) Jews into reflexive support for the state of Israel. The film implies disquieting parallels between this and other examples of children being raised to defend their ancestral homelands without nuance. One wonders whether similar American attitudes would arise if the subjects were Chinese Americans uncritically championing China after serving in the People’s Liberation Army. There might be disturbing McCarthyist outrage and accusations of dual loyalty.

While the emotional connection many Jews feel to Israel derives in part from a painful history, should educators treat Zionism as axiomatically essential to Jewish identity? When is it acceptable to encourage children to pledge allegiance to any state’s military or policies without leaving room for doubt or debate? Israelism examines when love of country deepens into blinkered nationalism or is used to justify the oppression of marginalised groups.

In addition to spotlighting generational divides among Jews, Israelism also elucidates the dual justice systems that exist between Israeli Jews and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. It highlights the plight of Palestinian citizens living under restrictive military rule, while Jewish citizens enjoy full civil rights protected by law. The absurdity of this disparity comes into focus through the vignettes of young American Jews who, while serving in the Israeli military, possess more legal rights and freedom of movement than local Palestinians who have resided on the same land for generations. By juxtaposing these realities, the film underscores the systemic discrimination that enables occupation. It drives home the uncomfortable irony that privileged outsiders are perpetuating the subjugation of an indigenous people in the name of a Jewish homeland. Israelism shows how the founding of Israel created not just two populations divided by their relationship to the land but also a fractured structure of laws that enforce an imbalance of power, rights, and justice.

One of the most eye-opening elements of Israelism is its behind-the-scenes glimpse at the pervasive militaristic indoctrination targeting impressionable Jewish youth. Alongside standard tourist activities, many Birthright trips and summer camps include chilling ventures like simulated “war games” and visits to IDF training facilities where children are taught to shoot assault rifles. The film reveals how military culture and ideology saturate so much of the messaging around Israel, aimed at diaspora Jews from a young age.

This conditioning, which frames military service as a moral imperative, starts early and plays an outsized role in how young Jews are taught to relate to Israel compared to pursuing peace, human rights, or cultural understanding. It promotes an assumption of Jewish moral superiority and righteousness embodied by state violence.

The IDF’s moniker as the “world’s most moral fighting force” has been demolished in light of recent social media posts and TikToks emerging from the ongoing genocidal conflict in Gaza. These posts reveal Israeli soldiers behaving in reprehensible and degrading ways, obliterating any pretence that the IDF’s conduct deserves pride or praise. No matter one’s views on Israel-Palestine, the fact that such paramilitary engagement—watching children revel carelessly in firing guns or combat drills—is treated as normal speaks volumes about the risks of allowing any state’s military to influence educational spaces.

Simone Zimmerman the co-founder of IfNotNow Movement, speaks to Sami Awad, Holy Land Trust Executive Director
Simone Zimmerman, co-founder of IfNotNow Movement, speaks to Sami Awad, Holy Land Trust Executive Director

Amidst examining complex and often painful divisions, Israelism offers hopeful glimmers of potential bridges being built. It highlights efforts by some Palestinians to appeal to the shared humanity between Jews and Arabs as peoples who ultimately desire the same dreams and security for their families. Scenes showing nascent cultural exchange programmes and tours starting to facilitate genuine interaction across groups reveal touching common ground during moments of open and honest dialogue. When walls break down even briefly, the shared bonds of humanity emerge beneath the layers of vitriol and violence that sustain the occupation.

These tender moments are few in comparison to the prevalent narratives of injustice and division, but they sow the seeds of possibility for a future where compassion triumphs over fear. The film suggests that if such programmes gain wider traction, they could replace cycles of retribution with openness and healing. After its unflinching look at generations-old divides, Israelism leaves us with a note of hope that even seemingly intractable conflicts can evolve through basic human connection.

While Israelism centres on the rising generation of liberal Jewish Americans questioning longtime narratives around Israel, its implications span much wider. The film illuminates the extraordinary efforts by the Israeli state and allied groups to indoctrinate youth into an ideology that erases Palestinians and forecloses any equitable solution. Through exposing the human costs of unchecked settlement expansion and military occupation, it makes a damning case against the settler colonial project that still drives state policy today.

Israelism illuminates troubling truths about systemic discrimination, intergenerational brainwashing, and the ethics of nationalism. One hopes this thoughtful documentary will reach a wide audience across backgrounds to spark dialogue around these urgent but often suppressed issues at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian peace and justice. An initial step toward peace is more open discussion that takes into account the individual stories highlighted in Israelism.

Israelism is available on demand here.

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