Abe Foxman was the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) from 1987 to 2015. A few years after his retirement, he agreed to be interviewed for Eric Axelman and Sam Eilertsen’s movie Israelism. Documentaries can take a long time and it wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that Foxman heard from the filmmakers that it was done. They sent him a link and he started to watch. By his own account, he only got through about ten minutes.
I can understand why he found it so upsetting. During his decades at the head of the ADL, Foxman was one of the leading proponents of the idea that caring about Jewish people means supporting the state of Israel and that anyone who condemns Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians must be an antisemite. Israelism takes apart that narrative, brick by brick, until nothing is left.
The movie tells the story of two young American Jews who were raised in institutions where strong support for Israel was taken as a given. One of them, Simone Zimmerman, went to a Jewish day school where 10 percent of the graduating class ended up “making aliyah” — moving to Israel — and joining the Israeli army.
After spending her K-12 education in private Jewish schools, Zimmerman went to college at University of California, Berkeley. In one of the key scenes of the documentary, she recounts being told that the student government was considering an “anti-Israel” motion — to honor the call from Palestinian civil society for BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions) targeting Israel in response to human rights abuses.
Simone and her friends rushed to the meeting with preprepared talking points about “double standards” and how they felt attacked. But in the aftermath of the confrontation, Simone was increasingly bothered. The Palestinian and pro-Palestinian speakers had made claims about how Palestinians were treated that she found shocking and disturbing. They used the word “apartheid.” Surely that was wrong!
Simone wanted to know how to respond to these allegations — not how to dismiss them or take offense at them or ask why Israel was being singled out, but how to refute them. And no one seemed to have the answers she was looking for. During her next trip to Israel, she crossed into the Palestinian territories to find out for herself.
Another young American Jew profiled in the movie, referred to only by his first name, Eitan, went to similar schools and received the same messages as Simone. In one of the most memorable lines in the movie, a Jewish educator named Jacqui says, “Israel is Judaism and Judaism is Israel, and that’s who I am.”
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Eitan was taught, and in a world still all too full of antisemitism, the existence of a Jewish state is a precious accomplishment that needs to be supported and defended. He took that message seriously enough that, when he graduated from high school, he joined the Israeli army. He was sent to the occupied West Bank, where he became an enforcer of a system that is very literally a form of apartheid.
Israeli settlers have all the same rights as Israelis living on the other side of the invisible “green line” separating what’s sometimes called “Israel proper” from the territories conquered in the Six-Day War in 1967. They’re governed by Israeli civilian law. They vote in Israeli elections. Palestinians living in the same cities are governed by Israeli military law. They have no voting rights and few real civil liberties. A Palestinian mistreated by soldiers at a checkpoint, for example, has little hope of meaningful legal recourse.
At one point, Eitan recalls a blindfolded and handcuffed Palestinian man who was in his custody being taken away by other soldiers and beaten on the ground while Eitan’s commanding officer stood by without intervening. The military police officer who was supposed to take charge next stood nearby, smoking a cigarette and watching. Eitan was wracked with guilt. This man was his responsibility. Should he have tried to do something? What could he realistically do while people who outranked him were doing nothing?
Over the course of many sleepless nights thinking about it, the simple point dawned him that his “everyday” actions, going on patrol, enforcing checkpoints, and so on were “also immoral.” Highbrow obfuscation about the “complexities” of the “conflict” obscure a brutally simple reality. Palestinians whose families ended up on the Israeli side of the “green line” in 1948 are Israeli citizens, though quite unambiguously second-class citizens. Those whose families fled in terror from the mass ethnic cleansing of their villages aren’t allowed to return to the country at all, and generations have grown up in refugee camps. In between, the Palestinians on the West Bank who Eitan was interacting with have spent the last fifty-six years as subjects but not citizens of the state that utterly dominates their lives. As one Palestinian interviewed in Israelism points out, an American who moves to Israel tomorrow will immediately have more rights than a Palestinian who spent their entire life there under occupation.
Over the course of the movie, these stark realities move Simone and Eitan, like many other young American Jews, to realize that their Jewish values are incompatible with support for an apartheid state. They join a modest but growing protest movement against community organizations that support and lobby for Israel. They march in the streets outside of the conference of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). They stage sit-ins at the offices of the ADL, singing traditional Jewish songs as the cops come to arrest them. And the Abe Foxmans of the world take it all exactly as well as you’d expect.
Writing in the Forward, Mira Fox argues that the picture Israelism paints of establishment Jewish institutions trying to hide the ugly realities of Palestinian oppression from young Jews has become dated since the filmmakers started work in 2016. Doesn’t the BDS movement have a significant presence on college campuses attended by many of those young Jews? Didn’t dozens of rabbinical students sign an open letter in 2021 making many of the same points made in Israelism?
The prevalence of BDS on college campuses, never mind in the rest of American life, tends to be wildly exaggerated in such discussions. UC Berkeley is, unfortunately, far from representative in this regard. And state legislatures around the country have been working hard to crack down on this movement — often stretching the First Amendment to the limit to do so.
But it’s certainly true that, partially as a result of the efforts of BDS activists, the situation among young American Jews is starting to change. The point I’d argue that Fox misses is that, far from invalidating Israelism, this is precisely the story the film tells.
At least Fox is engaging with Israelism’s substance, and she doesn’t spare her readers some of the grisly details revealed in the movie. Writing in the Jewish Journal, the venue’s editor in chief, Davis Suissa, rages that Israelism “assaults the truth.”
There is no mention, for instance, of the UN role in the creation of Israel, Arab aggression at the birth of the state, chronic Palestinian terror and rejection of peace offers, the denial of any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, and on and on. . . . [T]he very notion of Israel advocacy in the film takes on a sinister tone, as if anything short of perfect even-handedness is an unforgiveable [sic] sin. This coming from a documentary that is so one-sided it borders on boredom.
I wasn’t bored watching Israelism. But I suppose that’s a matter of taste. What about the rest of Suissa’s indictment?
What most struck me reading it was that he doesn’t share a single detail from Israelism with his readers. If his only response to a documentary about young Jews coming to support equal rights for Palestinians was, “Yeah, well, what about…” and a recitation of shopworn pro-Israel talking points, he literally could have written that without watching the movie. In private communication, Suissa emphasized that he did watch it, which is why he knew none of his points were mentioned. But what I find less than compelling about that response is that he never bothers to connect the dots. How and why are any of these supposed to invalidate the point of the film?
Are we supposed to believe, for example, that the UN is infallible and nothing validated by a UN resolution could be a bad idea? That would be an odd position for a defender of a government that constantly violates more recent UN resolutions.
Assume for the sake of argument that Palestinian leadership was unreasonable in not taking the two-state deal offered at Camp David in 2000. It’s arguable at the very least whether any “two-state solution” could approach justice. “Two-state solution” is such antiseptic language that it’s easy to forget that what we’d be talking about is an ethno-religious partition of the country that would leave millions of Palestinians as distinctly second-class citizens of the “Jewish state” — and continue to deny millions of refugees their right to return.
Moreover, even if you accept in the abstract that a “two-state solution” would be acceptable, the deal offered at Camp David fell well short of a full withdrawal to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. But assume that Palestinian leaders should have taken it — and ignore the many times since then that they’ve been desperate enough to say they would now take it if it were offered again. How does that justify the thirty-three years of military occupation and denial of civil rights to West Bank Palestinians before 2000? How does it justify Israel continuing a brutal occupation regime, one absolutely guaranteed to produce a never-ending supply of armed resistance in response — some of which takes forms that could reasonably be called “terror”? Why not just unilaterally withdraw? Or, if not, extend Israeli citizenship to Palestinians?
A high school where 10 percent of the graduating class joins the Israeli army is pretty clearly engaging in strident advocacy on behalf of Israel. That’s a problem that goes well beyond a “lack of perfect even-handedness.” Nor is that the film’s complaint about the ADL, AIPAC, or the schools attended by Simone and Eitan. These young Jews don’t want communal institutions that are “even-handed” about apartheid. They approach the oppression of the stateless Palestinian population in the spirit of the Jewish prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like rivers, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
A Generation Gap
I watched the movie on Thursday at an advance screening at the Silver Lake Independent Jewish Community Center. The event was cosponsored by the Los Angeles chapters of IfNotNow and LA Jews for Peace. It was a warm night in Southern California. The projector was set up outside, and the start time was delayed while we waited for the sun to go down.
That this predominantly Jewish audience didn’t react to Israelism the way Foxman or Suissa did says something about the politics of the venue, of course, but it also speaks to one of the central themes of the movie — a growing generational divide over Israel among American Jews. While my own background was very different from the Simones and Eitans of the world, I’m part-Jewish and this point struck a chord with me.
I can vividly remember watching news coverage of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006 with my late grandmother. She thought Israel was “defending” itself. That’s the last thing it looked like to me. She was a good person and I miss her. And I can understand where her perspective on Israel came from — she came of age at a time when the memories of Auschwitz and Dachau were all too fresh and the idea of a place of guaranteed Jewish sanctuary had obvious appeal. Even so, our reactions to what we were seeing were so different that we might as well have been watching different channels.
After the movie was over, Simone Zimmerman and director Eric Axelman sat on the edge of the stage and took questions from the audience. One of the questions was from a Palestinian-American man who asked about how to respond to people who took offense when phrases like “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” were used to describe the treatment of Palestinians.
In his response, Axelman pointed out that recent polling shows that more than a third of American Jews under the age of forty agree with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state.” The message is starting to get through. It’s about time.