Young Jews Are Sick of Being Lied to About Israel

False idols are out.

by Rivkah Brown

16 May 2024

A person wearing a face mask sits at a passover seder table holding a sign that reads 'my jewish family wants palestinian families to be safe'
An attendee at a Passover seder organised by pro-Palestine Jewish groups on the US Capitol lawn in Washington DC, April 2024. Allison Bailey/NurPhoto

Simone Zimmerman sits in a palm-fronded courtyard, leafing through childhood memorabilia. Something catches her eye: a piece of blue and white card cut in the shape of an oil jug and furnished with tin foil polka dots. She parses it for her audience: “Hanukah, Israeli independence – all of it together.” My own parents have almost identical artefacts in their basement.

As a British Jew force-fed Zionism from an early age, to watch Zimmerman is to realise that an experience you had assumed was unremarkable was in fact approaching a farce. Celebrating the national holidays of a foreign state; praying for that state in synagogue; performatively yearning to return to a biblical homeland you would casually visit during the school holidays; doing “state dancing”; wearing tie-dye T-shirts emblazoned with the crest of that state’s military you one day hoped to join (mostly because of all the hot Israelis you’d meet, not because you cared about the army or whatever). We weren’t raised to believe in God – that was optional – but my God, were we raised to believe in Israel.

Zimmerman is the protagonist of a recently released film about this new religion, which it dubs Israelism. Directed by anti-Zionist Jews Erin Axelman and Sam Eilertsen and released in February, Israelism is the story of how Zionism has insinuated itself within Jewish communal life – and how young Jews are sick of it.

Sometimes this insinuation is implicit, the merging of the Hanukah oil jug and the Israeli flag. “Does the average congregant understand that I’m teaching them to become Zionists?” Bennett Miller, rabbi emeritus of Anshe Emeth synagogue in New Jersey and national chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, asks in the film. “Probably not, but it’s part of my madness.”

More often, it’s trashier than you could possibly imagine.

From glittering stadium events to all-expenses-paid “birthright” trips, the film depicts how the Israel lobby lures young Jews into its orbit and churns out legions of volunteer hasbarists. It tracks Zimmerman as she follows this yellow brick road – from passively imbibing Zionism as a young child, to cosplaying as an Israeli soldier on an adolescent exchange programme, to becoming a card-carrying Israel advocate – until she doesn’t.

The turning point for Zimmerman, as for many of us, happened at university. A Berkeley freshman and a campus activist with the ​​American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) – some talented archivist has dug out footage of a fresh-faced Zimmerman looking intently at the speaker at an Aipac conference – Zimmerman marches to the student senate to challenge a motion proposing that the University of California divest from Israeli arms companies. A copy of her printed-out “talking points” flashes across the screen. “BE EMOTIONAL.” Sadly, she’s not a gifted actor.

“Please, I beg of you, I beg you please, to have compassion,” Zimmerman wails, her mouth pulled into a tight frown. “I am devastated by this bill, I am a human being.” She sounds unconvinced by herself. She is.

Away from the microphone, Zimmerman was struggling to come up with good answers to the questions she and her Aipac comrades were drilling as they prepared to face their Palestinian peers. There weren’t any.

Cut to a few years later and Zimmerman is attending the Aipac conference once more, this time in an entirely different capacity: as co-founder of IfNotNow, the American Jewish anti-occupation movement.

“Stop lying to us,” their banners demand, as activists chain themselves to the conference hall entrance. From IDF wannabe to anti-occupation torch-bearer – Zimmerman’s is a great story.

The film is clear that Zimmerman hasn’t de-radicalised herself single-handedly. If Israelism refutes Palestinian subjectivity – I was never taught about Palestinians as a child, only “Arabs” – unlearning it requires, well, speaking to a few Palestinians. To illustrate this, the producers organise for Zimmerman to visit Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, where she meets local tour guide Baha Hilo and director of the Palestinian non-profit Holy Land Trust, Sami Awad. It’s a bit contrived, but it does something. It humbles.

For me, the film’s most compelling scene is where Hilo and Awad speak together alone, exchanging their experiences of Israeli apartheid. There’s still a Jewish intermediary in the room – behind the camera – but it’s the closest we get to decentring Jewish perspectives, a manoeuvre the film gently suggests is necessary to loosen the collective narcissism on which Israelism relies.

Some I’ve spoken to have accused the film of that same narcissism. They point out that it focuses exclusively on a single set of younger anti-Zionist Jews, while cropping out the rich history of twentieth-century Jewish anti-Zionism – a manoeuvre practised by Zionists themselves, who claim to have supplanted Jewish diasporic cultures. Jewish anti-Zionism is not a novel invention, these critics say, but as old as Zionism itself. This is true. It also misses the point.

For at least half a century, Zionism has had a chokehold on most Jewish institutions. Those who have rejected Zionism have therefore mostly also been forced to reject with it the whole of the “Jewish community”, sending their children to secular schools and summer camps, avoiding mainstream synagogues and spurning communal media.

By contrast, this new generation was force-fed Zionism and came to painful political awakenings in adolescence and young adulthood. These voltes-face often came at significant personal cost: “I’ve lost many childhood friends over this,” Zimmerman says. Others have lost parents.

Perhaps most importantly, these young Jews are refusing marginalisation and forcing themselves into the mainstream: Zimmerman, a former Bernie Sanders staffer, now works for Diaspora Alliance, a new organisation attempting to build a progressive counterweight to rightwing Jewish hegemony, largely through amassing the support of leading Jewish scholars, activists and journalists – by cultivating for itself a kind of rival legitimacy.

For Axelman, it’s also a question of critical mass. “IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace and other progressive Jewish groups are certainly not the first to question Israel … in fact we only exist because of the foundations and the work that Jewish elders did,” they told Novara Media. “Why we think there’s a turning point occurring is simply the numbers and the scale of the change.” Roughly 58% of American Jewish respondents to a 2020 poll by Pew described themselves as “attached” to Israel, versus 69% in 2013.

What also distinguishes the movements these newly politicised Jews have established from those that came before them is that they aren’t staunchly anti-Zionist – they’re broad church, or “broad shul”.

22-year-old Max Hammer is an American-German Jew who lives in London and a member of Na’amod, the anti-occupation British Jewish movement that organised the Israelism screening I attended (it hosted two screenings on consecutive nights at the 566-seater Genesis cinema in east London, both packed out).“I think an important way of helping to empower people to shift their belief is engaging in dialogue with those beliefs,” he told Novara Media. “Whether or not [people] identify as Zionist is ultimately to me secondary to the question of whether they oppose the systems of occupation and apartheid.” He understands why some Palestine solidarity movements don’t see it that way (some have refused to work with Jewish anti-occupation movements on the grounds that they admit liberal Zionists).

Yet Israelism doesn’t attribute special moral virtue to people like Zimmerman – she and the other young people featured in the film, among them former IDF soldier Eitan (who goes by his first name only), are bracingly open about their own past failings (in Eitan’s case, possible breaches of international law). Rather, it offers their stories by way of contextualising the enormous support for Israel within the diaspora, and suggests that if Israel is losing people like them, something’s badly wrong.

Shot between 2016 and 2021, Israelism couldn’t be timelier. 7 October has sharpened the polarities within Jewish opinion, rendering “liberal Zionism” increasingly untenable. Those who’ve decided to go down with the ship have become ever more desperate, lashing out at everyone and anyone, including Axelman and Eilersten. Several screenings of their film have been targeted for cancellation, none successfully (Hunter College rescheduled its screening, which its president had unilaterally cancelled, after the student senate voted for it to go ahead). Meanwhile, anti-occupation Jews have become bolder and more creative in their resistance to what many – even the usually restrained – are calling a genocide.

On 23 April, hundreds of young Jews held a Passover seder at the Columbia University Palestine solidarity encampment, one of dozens to have taken place across the US, UK and elsewhere in recent weeks, many of them ongoing (so Jewish was the camp at Zimmerman’s alma mater that organisers begged people to stop bringing matzah). Frustrated Jewish leaders, incensed by their own impotence, demanded politicians call in the national guard to bring their former flock to heel. In the film, Abe Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League and a man who has dedicated his life to promulgating Israelism, sounds more defeated: “When we talk about ‘We’re losing the kids’, we’re not,” he laments in an uncharacteristically perceptive moment – “we lost them.”

Israelism is available to watch online. In-person screening dates can be found here.

Rivkah Brown is a commissioning editor and reporter at Novara Media.

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