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Israelism, Documentary USA, 2023, Eric Axelman and Sam
Rick W
/ Categories: Film Score News

Israelism, Documentary USA, 2023, Eric Axelman and Sam Eilertsen

Work on the documentary ISRAELISM started in late 2015 and was completed at the end of 2022. The film was released in February 2023 and offers a challenging interpretation of the contemporary meaning of Jewish identity in the United States against the background of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Axelman and Eilertsen, first-time Jewish filmmakers, provide a cogent and objective analysis of the forces shaping the modern Jewish-American identity and the growing discrepancy between the definition offered by the politics of Israel and her American followers and the more traditional understanding of what it means to be Jewish without linking it to the existence of Israel. In this discussion the directors and the principal protagonists Zimmerman and Eitan explore some obvious current issues such as the links between Judaism and Israel, Zionism, settlements in the areas occupied by Israel, and the rise of antisemitism. What also transpires through the comments by Zimmerman and Eitan are their insights about being raised in US Jewish families and school settings ; the bonding with their faith and the strong link with Israel as well as their experience in  Israel and eventual conversion to a critical perspective.

As revealed in the documentary, these insights include the settler movement on the West Bank now exceeding more than half a million, compared to the more than 2.7 million Palestinians living there, perspectives which are also new for most Israelis who rarely have direct contact with the Palestinians living on the West Bank. In that context it should be noted that even before Irael-Hamas Gaza war prompted by the Hamas invasion and killings, a survey revealed that 25% of the US Jewish population considered Israel an “apartheid state” and 22% held the view of Israel was committing Genocide (The New Republic, April 2024, p. 37). As Abraham Foxman points out in Israelism, we failed to educate them “When we talk about ‘We are loosing the kids’...we lost them”.

ISRAELISM clarifies the growing generation specific gap in Jewish communities and congregations in the perspectives about Israel. Younger Jews in the US are more likely to be sympathetic of Palestinians and critical of Israel. Given the ready access to information they tend to be better informed about the Gaza war and West Bank developments than young people living in Israel whose access to current and past information about the history of their country is censored. Ironically, similar attempts to control information about Israel can be observed in Germany* where any criticism of Israel is identified as anti-Semitic, also common in the United States. Both countries are probably the only firm remaining friends of Israel and face a strange situation. They try to ameliorate the food and famine crisis in the Gaza strip while its residents, including Hamas and affiliated groups, continue to be killed by weapons both countries provide. The latest estimates for the Gaza strip death toll as of mid-April 2024 are 35,000 dead of which at least two thirds are civilians and overall one third are children and the elderly. Since the Hamas attacks, more than 400 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank area by Israeli forces and settlers. For historic reasons, current German funding amounts to $352 million, 10 times higher than in 2022. Germany is the second biggest exporter of arms to Israel with a 30% of all sales. The US share amounted to an estimated $3.8 billion 2023, not including the value of US arms stockpiled in Israel. Arms export from other countries is minimal.

ISRAELISM presents a balanced perspective of organizations with unquestioned backing to Israels and its enlargement, including annexation of all occupied areas, and of those groups which emphasis the human rights of Palestinians. ISRAELISM is now on a screening tour in more than 40 cities in North America has received several awards in 2023 as the best documentary by the Arizona and Brooklyn International Film Festivals and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. However, it had some problems getting screened in a few colleges. From the data presented in ISRAELISM the amount of funding for events supporting the state of Israel’s philosophy and actions far exceeds what is available to those defending the human rights of Palestinians to live in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Apart from AIPAC’s dominant role influencing Congress and engaging in well-funded public relations events aimed at policy makers and young Jews, the Birthright Isael foundation has been arranging free trips to Israel for the Jewish 18-26 age group. By 2020 twenty percent of that age group had gone on that trip. Compared to AIPAC’s radical pro-Israel positions, the Wahington J group supports Israel but emphasizes democracy and peace.

The negative reactions to alleged or real pro-Palestinian events and their restrictions by senior university administrators has been covered by the media and the labeling of these events as antisemitic is frequent in press reports and comments by observers precluding meaningful exchanges about the Gaza war. As a former professor at Hunter College specializing in media and social research I was struck by the sudden cancellation of the screening of ISRAELISM by Hunter’s acting President Ann Kirchner and her executives without consulting the faculty involved in organizing the event. The screening event had been set for November 14, 2023, but was cancelled on the same day. It was organized by the media department and associated faculty and student groups including the Arab Studies program as a co-sponsor. Kirchner invoked security considerations as a reason but agreed to a subsequent smaller event limited to Hunter College faculty, students and staff which was eventually held on December 5, 2023. As it turned out, large organized outside pressure was applied to Kirchner, including more than 300 identical emails requesting cancellation of the screening. Her involvement stretched into requesting Rabi Andy Bachman as a moderator for the panel which also included Simone Zimmerman, featured in ISRAELISM and one of its directors Eric Axelman. The Arab Studies program was dropped as a sponsor of the event. The December event attracted a full house though the audience was not comfortable with the moderator who could not handle the film, or questions given his strong pro-Israel bias. Thus, an event meant to generate open exchanges  about Israel failed in part because of the intervention of the acting president and the violation of academic freedom

*Check my essay “Censorship at Berlinale and the German Dilemma …”  in March 4, 2024 and Masha Gessen comprehensive analysis, “In the Shadow of the Holocaust” New Yorker December 9, 2023

Claus Mueller
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