Raised to see Israel as a ‘Jewish Disneyland’, two US film-makers are telling a different story (2024)

Erin Axelman was a fervent Zionist by the time they reached high school in the late 2000s. For their bat mitzvah, they had received a copy of Exodus by Leon Uris. The 1958 novel, one of the bestselling books of the decade, tells a story about the creation of the Israeli state that helped cement American Zionism. “It’s this kind of heroic, almost mythical tale of the creation of the state of Israel and it was incredibly empowering,” Axelman said.

After reading Exodus, Axelman “became obsessed with Israel”, they said. “I considered joining the Israeli military and fantasized about moving there.” They latched on to the story of Jews returning home.

Then in high school, a teacher, taking note of Axelman’s enthusiasm, suggested they read about the history of Palestine. It proved a wake-up call. “The narratives I’d learned up to that point only mentioned Palestinians in passing or as an obstacle,” said Axelman. “But I read for an entire year Palestinian historians like Rashid Khalidi and leftwing Israeli historians like Tom Segev.” They say the process reminded them of what they’d learned in school about the history of the US, “in terms of a people who came to a new country that were refugees or immigrants and created a city on a hill, a beacon of light and a democracy. That narrative is incredibly empowering until you hear about the Native Americans and you realize it lacks some really basic points.”

That change in perception was the inspiration for the documentary Israelism, which Axelman directed with Sam Eilertsen. The film argues that some American Jews are told a story – about Jews escaping persecution and genocide to return to their ancestral homeland – that almost entirely erases the existence of Palestinians. It’s a narrative that has been incredibly influential in shaping global attitudes about the Israeli state and US alliances in the Middle East.

The film focuses on the lives of two young American Jews – Simone Zimmerman, who went to a Jewish school and lived in Israel on an exchange program, and Eitan (who doesn’t use his last name), who joined the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) after graduating high school. Zimmerman describes what she went through as a system of “indoctrination” and “mass mobilization” to turn her into an advocate for Israel within the US. It depicts a system of education and advocacy that demands pro-Israeli activism of some young Jewish Americans. There’s particular focus on what’s taught by the Birthright Israel Foundation on the free trips it organises to Israel for Jews living around the world that are part-funded by the Israeli government.

The film shows American Jewish children in elementary school waving Israeli flags and chanting: “We wanna go! We wanna go!” At a private Jewish middle school, children are filmed reading Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, and at Birthright “mega events” in Jerusalem thousands of American teenagers are filmed cheering the IDF as a speaker tells them: “It’s up to you to be our soldiers abroad … ready to sway public opinion in Israel’s favor.”

All the subjects of the documentary go through a transformation, in many cases meeting with Palestinians and visiting the West Bank. It depicts a growing movement of Jews, many of them young, who want to support Palestinian rights and lessen Israel’s centrality to American Jewish identity.

Raised to see Israel as a ‘Jewish Disneyland’, two US film-makers are telling a different story (1)

The documentary was made before the 7 October Hamas terrorist attack in Israel and subsequent bombing of Gaza. But demand for the film has soared in the past few weeks. The film-makers are now holding weekly virtual screenings as well as a major tour of the US and Europe that is selling out. “People say to us: ‘I want to show my family this film, to help them understand,’” Axelman said.

The duo say promoting the film in the wake of the 7 October attacks has been difficult. “When I first went to Israel-Palestine when I was 21, I volunteered at this hostel with this amazing Israeli guy who does anti-occupation work and runs this hostel with Palestinian folks,” said Axelman. “Both of his parents were murdered by Hamas, and seeing the pain on his face in interviews is unbearable. It’s been obviously a very difficult time for our team – many folks have lost people, or are terrified that they’re going to lose people.”

Axelman says that their film helps explain that complexity of feeling now – that it’s impossible to understand the lenses through which people view the conflict without understanding the stories they’ve been told. “If you think of Israel as totally the land of the Jewish people, it seems like a very straightforward narrative that Hamas committed an isolated incident of pure evil terrorism,” Axelman said. “It’s true that Hamas murdered innocent civilians on a mass scale that is unbelievably traumatizing for Jewish people. It’s also true that happened in the context of brutal occupation that has existed for the entirety of most Palestinians’ lives.”

Raised to see Israel as a ‘Jewish Disneyland’, two US film-makers are telling a different story (2)

Axelman grew up in a small Jewish community in rural Maine. Their parents were hippies, of the same generation as Bernie Sanders. Axelman and their brother were the only self-identifying Jewish kids at their high school. “We got made fun of, it made us feel very different,” they said. “It was difficult to formulate a positive Jewish identity, feeling like an outsider and processing the horrors of the Holocaust and the horrors of antisemitism as a young person.”

Learning about Israel was a salve. “It’s true we do have an incredible ancient history there and so it makes sense, from a very basic standpoint, that it has a lot of emotional resonance. Because it is true we needed to escape Europe.”

Eilertsen, the film’s other director, experienced similar depictions of Israel growing up. “In the reform and conservative Jewish movement, Israel is sort of always introduced as almost like a Jewish Disneyland, this place where Jews can be fully Jews,” he said.

Raised to see Israel as a ‘Jewish Disneyland’, two US film-makers are telling a different story (3)

By the time they got to Brown University, Axelman was meeting other young people who “had been taught to love Israel unconditionally” but changed their views after coming into contact with Palestinians and hearing their stories.

They remember the leader of Brown Students for Israel, “who would essentially harass Palestinian students, and went to work for the ADL after college”, referring to the staunchly pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League. A decade later, Axelman says, those same students are doing Palestinian human rights work. “Seeing so many of these pro-Israel student leaders go through this transformation made me really interested in making this film.”

The film also argues that in some American Jewish communities, cultural celebration of Israel is channeled into high-stakes political activism. It shows how Hillel, the Jewish campus organization active in most colleges in the US, pushes Jewish students towards pro-Israel advocacy, with ex-IDF soldiers attending meetings of students. One interviewee, Sarah Anne Minkin, the director of programs at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, describes a set of institutions that turn “young Jews into soldiers for Israel”.

Raised to see Israel as a ‘Jewish Disneyland’, two US film-makers are telling a different story (4)

One of the main ways this happens, the film says, is through the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac).

“This energy and this education quickly turns into actual political lobbying for Israel. We film people who, in Jewish high school, were sent to Aipac conferences to do lobbying. And in that lobbying, the most important thing is Israel is depoliticized. Supporting Israel is presented as this emotional state; it’s just something you’re supposed to do. And criticizing it is simply antisemitism,” Eilertsen said.

The directors point to Aipac’s unwavering support for Donald Trump, even as he refused to condemn antisemitic white nationalists, as evidence of the way the organization prioritizes support for Israel over other interests.

Zimmerman, whose high school sent her to Aipac conferences, says it was just a normal part of her life. “That’s part of the indoctrination, to tell young Jewish people they have to be soldiers in the battles to defend Israel, whether it’s on the ground or on the battleground of public opinion,” she said.

Zimmerman and the film-makers stress that the US has myriad strategic interests in the Middle East that are separate from the Israel lobby. “It’s about these countries’ foreign policy – but they use the narrative about protecting Jews conveniently as an excuse to justify other aspects of their foreign policy,” she said.

The film-makers are precise in their criticism of Aipac, and stress that it does not represent all American Jews, a diverse community that includes anti-Zionists and people with no connection to Israel. “​When people start making exaggerated claims about the power that Aipac actually has, that can slide into antisemitism,” said Eilertsen. “But the reality is that Aipac and aligned groups like Democratic Majority for Israel do have a lot of influence on Capitol Hill and they are widely credited” with helping elect candidates of their choice and defeat others they deem insufficiently supportive of Israel, he said. “These are facts, not conspiracy theories, so the idea that it’s antisemitic to say they have influence on our politics is an absurd deflection.”

Not everyone agrees. Writing in the Jewish Journal, an LA-based weekly, the columnist David Suissa said Israelism “wants us to believe that Zionist advocacy was so one-sided and all-consuming it created a generation of young Jews who, feeling duped, have turned against the Jewish state”. A board member of the UCLA branch of Students Supporting Israel, a Zionist group, told the Jewish Journal she felt the film was “extremely problematic” and “full of propaganda”.

The directors acknowledge there are people who come to the screenings who don’t agree with the premise of the film and ask critical questions. They encourage this, they say. But there hadn’t “been a single screening where someone hasn’t come up to us and said: ‘This is my story too,’” says Eilertsen.

Raised to see Israel as a ‘Jewish Disneyland’, two US film-makers are telling a different story (5)

They point too to the film’s hopeful tone, showing how through campus life, more open discussion and the Jewish left, many young Jews have a more evolved position on Israel. It shows a mass sit-in at the headquarters of the Birthright foundation, with Jewish protesters demanding a more honest dialogue.

“If there’s anything that gives me even a drop of hope in this horrific time, it’s that more people are going to take the blinders off,” said Zimmerman. “That people are going to stop believing the lies we were taught and have the courage to face the reality of Israel and not the fantasy of it.”

This article was amended on 13 November 2023 to clarify that the Israeli government does not fully fund the free trips to Israel organised by the Birthright Israel Foundation.

Raised to see Israel as a ‘Jewish Disneyland’, two US film-makers are telling a different story (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Mrs. Angelic Larkin

Last Updated:

Views: 6155

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (47 voted)

Reviews: 94% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Mrs. Angelic Larkin

Birthday: 1992-06-28

Address: Apt. 413 8275 Mueller Overpass, South Magnolia, IA 99527-6023

Phone: +6824704719725

Job: District Real-Estate Facilitator

Hobby: Letterboxing, Vacation, Poi, Homebrewing, Mountain biking, Slacklining, Cabaret

Introduction: My name is Mrs. Angelic Larkin, I am a cute, charming, funny, determined, inexpensive, joyous, cheerful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.