How young Jewish people are challenging pro-Israel education and marching for Palestine

Recent documentary 'Israelism' captures increasing community divisions in the US and UK as the young turn against traditional support for the country

Young American Jewish people hold placards protesting against what they see as misleading pro-Israel education. Photo: Israelism still handout
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As American and British Jews take a leading role in both pro-Palestine and pro-Israel protests, a recent documentary is galvanising some young Jews to challenge what they see as years of Zionist education via youth movements, campus groups and sponsored trips to Israel.

Israelism, which premiered in Europe this month, follows young American Jews as they grapple with the realisation that the Israel they grew up learning about at Jewish school and religious camps is not reflected in the reality of the occupying state today.

Directed by Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen, it stars Simone Zimmerman as she recounts her journey from committed Zionist to one of the leading anti-occupation Jewish American voices.

“Many of us grew up with that narrative, that to be Jewish means you support Israel,” Axelman said.

The film, which premiered in the US in March 2023, has become a lightning rod following the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war on October 7, which started when Hamas-led militants killed 1,200 people in an attack on southern Israel.

Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians and sparked global outrage and condemnation, including in the US, with protests challenging the Biden Administration’s support for Israel.

While some Jewish groups have led pro-Israel demonstrations, other Jewish groups – including IfNotNow, founded by Ms Zimmerman – have played a leading role in the Jewish contingent of the marches and protests calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“A lot of the phenomenon that the film explores has actually accelerated quite dramatically since October 7,” Axelman told The National.

“I think the other phenomenon is American Jews and diaspora Jews in mass speaking up and saying ‘not in my name’ and being horrified by how Israel has reacted to October 7,” Axelman said.

The film found itself in the headlines shortly after October 7, when several American colleges cancelled pre-arranged screenings, citing concerns over anti-Semitism – despite both directors being Jewish.

“We've been called anti-Semitic and self-hating Jews many, many times, which kind of proves the point of our film, in some ways, and also is ironic because we talk about anti-Semitism a lot in our film,” Axelman said.

Pro-Palestine protesters at American colleges have faced accusations of encouraging anti-Semitism or creating an environment where Jewish students feel unsafe, with the White House issuing a statement condemning what it said were "blatantly anti-Semitic" statements reportedly made at the protests.

Ms Zimmerman challenged these "horrible fearmongering stories" during a recent visit to Columbia University in New York, one of the centres of the demonstrations.

She said she did Friday night Shabbat services at the camp, where she estimated there were about 100 Jewish students, who are "fully part of the solidarity encampment" and "surrounded by love and support from their peers."

She condemned authorities for their heavy handed crackdown on the protest camp, which she said would do nothing to combat actual anti-Semitism and made Jewish people less safe on campus and beyond.

Pro-Israel education

The film explores the influence of pro-Israel groups on American campuses as one of the ways in which young Jewish students are encouraged to support Israel.

Ms Zimmerman discusses how Jewish students are primed to argue the case for Israel in student debates and politics, including via “pro-Israel advocacy” promoted by the Jewish college campus organisation, Hillel.

The film features interviews with Jacqui Schulefand, a former Jewish day schoolteacher and director of engagement at the University of Connecticut’s Hillel, and Tom Barkan, the Israel fellow there whose job is organising Israeli cultural and political events on campus.

"Serving in the Israeli army is obviously one way of supporting Israel, but there's also another modern battle that is happening on campuses each and every single day, and you are standing at the front of it," Mr Barkan tells a group of pro-Israel Jewish students at Hillel in the film.

The filmmakers also interviewed Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, who describes what he sees as the importance of raising American Jews to be strong supporters of Israel.

“Jewish education is still a major priority for the future and certainly the relationship to Israel,” Mr Foxman says in the film.

Pro-Palestinian student camps spread across the US after Columbia University arrests

Pro-Palestinian student camps spread across the US after Columbia University arrests

The film explores how many Jewish camps and schools across the country help to foster a connection with Israel at a young age.

It shows young pupils inside Jewish schools shouting “we wanna go!” to Israel, and moments of collective euphoria among teenagers during Birthright – a programme that offers a free 10-day trip to Israel for young Jews from across the world.

“In Hebrew schools, in Jewish summer camps and non academic settings, their goal isn't to teach a specific academic knowledge base about Israel,” Hadar Susskind, the president and chief executive of Americans for Peace Now, told The National. “Their goal, quite explicitly, is to instil a love of Israel in those who are learning.”

For some young Jews, this manifests in a desire to join the Israeli military.

“We actually have had quite a few of our former students join the IDF. Amazing, I mean just amazing. These are kids. These are 18, 19-year-olds,” Ms Schulefand tells the camera.

One of the film's interviewees, an American named as Eitan, describes how he joined the Israeli military, only to be shocked by some of the brutality he experienced during his service.

"It took many years for me to really come to terms with my part in it. Only after I got out of the army did I begin to realise that the stuff that I did in the day to day, just working in checkpoints, patrolling villages, that in and of itself was immoral," Eitan says in the film.

British Jewish experience

While Israelism focuses on the experience of American Jews, it has made an impact in the UK and further afield.

The directors recently took the film on European tour, including two packed screenings in London.

The UK has a much smaller Jewish community than the US, but has experienced similar divisions over Israel.

A survey conducted by The Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that between 2013 and 2022, the percentage of adult British Jews who identified themselves as Zionist had fallen from 72 per cent to 63 per cent.

Fifteen per cent identified themselves as non-Zionist, 8 per cent as anti-Zionist, and 14 per cent were unsure or gave another answer.

Among those surveyed aged 20-30, just 57 per cent identified as Zionists.

“What we know about today, is that Jewish people are deeply and increasingly divided, but not evenly divided,” explained Professor David Feldman, the Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of anti-Semitism.

Prof Feldman explained how attitudes have shifted since the 1960s and 1970s, when many young British Jews saw Zionism as a minority culture and positive assertion of identity akin to “a Jewish pride movement”, to today, when some young Jews struggle to ethically identify with Israel after decades of occupation.

“Some people find it harder to identify with the State of Israel in its current state - both with the government of Israel, and more fundamentally and profoundly with the dispossession of Palestinians and with the continuing occupation since 1967,” he said.

“For Jews who are drawn to Israel as an ethical embodiment of their Jewish identity, as an ethical manifestation of their Jewish identity, it becomes harder to sustain that view as you look at facts on the ground, and that, I think takes a toll on identification,” he said.

Em Hilton, the co-founder of Na’amod, or British Jews Against Apartheid, said that the UK premiere of Israelism came at a “really key time for Jewish folks to be critically evaluating our relationships around Zionism and Israel.”

Na’amod held a vigil for victims of both October 7 and Israel’s campaign in Gaza as early as October 10, and has since played a key role in the Jewish block at marches calling for a ceasefire in London. The organisation has grown from around 200 to more than 400 members since October, Hilton told The National.

Like Ms Zimmerman, Ms Hilton grew up attending Zionist youth groups – first in Australia and then in the UK - and later shifted into anti-occupation activism after meeting Palestinians and “seeing the reality of the occupation.”

When asked if it had been a difficult journey, she said: “There will be personal sacrifice. That’s what it means to be in a struggle.”

“But my personal sacrifice about not feeling welcome in some spaces is not comparable to the sacrifice that so many people make, particularly people of colour, particularly Palestinians and Muslim folks.”

Ms Hilton also said that Na’amod and other groups had built a community of activists, including “some of the most proudly Jewish people that I know,” who do Shabbat dinner together and go to each other’s weddings.

“It’s very important to me that people know that there is life after this, and that sometimes the strategy of keeping people afraid or fear of ostracisation is a tactic that our opposition deploy to keep people in line,” she said.

Updated: April 30, 2024, 4:35 AM