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“Israelism” on Tour: New Film Examines American Jews’ Growing Rejection of Israel’s Occupation

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The new documentary Israelism examines the growing generational divide among Jewish Americans on the question of Palestine, with many younger Jews increasingly critical of Israel and less supportive of Zionism. Simone Zimmerman, one of the protagonists of the film and a co-founder of the group IfNotNow, says she grew up being told that supporting Israel was central to her Jewish identity, but that collapsed once she visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories and saw the system of apartheid under which millions live. “It’s so deeply contrary to our values as Jewish people to support this disgusting oppression and denial of freedom,” she says. We are also joined by Erin Axelman, co-director and one of the producers of Israelism, who says Zimmerman’s journey mirrors their own and those of many other young Jews who realize they “must fight for the freedom and equality of Palestinians while also fighting antisemitism.” The film is on a 40-city screening tour in Canada and the United States after previous efforts to ban the screenings on several campuses.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Six students have sued Harvard University, accusing it of becoming “a bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment” and tolerating intensifying harassment of Jewish students since October 7th. This comes as reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia have soared nationwide, but there’s been a broader effort to restrict pro-Palestinian speech on college and university campuses and to conflate antisemitism with criticism of Israel’s occupation and demands for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

The former Harvard President Claudine Gay was forced to resign earlier this month, just weeks after the University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill stepped down in the wake of a congressional hearing on antisemitism where they were grilled by lawmakers, including the far-right New York Congressmember Elise Stefanik.

The lawsuit against Harvard was filed by two law firms, including the New York-based Kasowitz Benson Torres, which filed similar lawsuits against New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. The firm also has ties to the Trump administration.

The lawsuit refers to student-led marches on Harvard’s campus in support of Palestinian rights as “mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty” and singles out a screening at Harvard Divinity School in September of the new documentary Israelism, which examines the relationship between Jews in the United States and the state of Israel, and the disillusionment as they begin to question Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

In a minute, we’ll speak with one of the film’s directors and one of the main subjects. This is the film’s trailer.

UNIDENTIFIED: Some American Jews who come here say, “We came to Israel, and we left from Palestine.”

ABE FOXMAN: The non-Jewish community does not understand our obsession with Israel.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: I went to a Jewish day school.

EITAN: Summer camp, organized trips to Israel.

TEACHER: Do you want to go to Israel, too?

STUDENTS: Yeah! We want to go! We want to go!

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: Israeli soldiers, they are hot. They’re awesome. They’re strong.

JACQUI SCHULEFAND: We actually have had quite a few of our former students join the IDF. These are kids. These are 18-, 19-year-olds. Amazing.

EITAN: I told my parents, “I don’t even need to apply to college. I am going to just join the Israeli military.”

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: Ten percent of my graduating class joined the Israeli army.

EITAN: We were deployed to the West Bank.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: I don’t think I realized the extent to which what I would come to see on the ground would really shock me and horrify me.

LARA FRIEDMAN: When people look at the West Bank today and say this is an apartheid system, it’s not just throwing out a word.

UNIDENTIFIED: Palestinians living, day in, day out, without experiencing a day of freedom.

PETER BEINART: And you see what non-democracy looks like.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: What we’ve been told is that the only way that Jews can be safe is if Palestinians are not safe. The more I learned about that, the more I came to see that as a lie.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Within the Jewish community, there’s been a striking change.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: They’re really angry at the way they were indoctrinated, justifiably so.

ABE FOXMAN: When we talk about we’re losing the kids, we not — we lost them. I think they’re a little super naive.

CORNEL WEST: Any time you cut against the grain, you’re going to catch hell.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: “You are a self-loathing Jew. Go kill yourself. You’re an antisemitic Jew.”

SARAH ANNE MINKIN: The way that we talk about antisemitism isn’t about protecting Jews. It’s about protecting Israel. How dangerous is that?

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: They will do anything to preserve unconditional support for Israel.

LARA FRIEDMAN: The great irony is that there actually is a resurgent antisemitism.

WHITE SUPREMACISTS: Jews will not replace us!

LARA FRIEDMAN: History is not going to judge us kindly.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the documentary Israelism.

For more, we’re joined in Toronto by Erin Axelman, co-director of Israelism. The film is now on a 40-city screening tour in Canada and the United States. Here in New York, we’re joined by Simone Zimmerman, Jewish American activist, co-founder of IfNotNow, one of the main protagonists of Israelism.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Erin, let’s begin with you. Why did you make this film?

ERIN AXELMAN: Yeah, this film is really based off my story. It’s based off a story of young American Jews learning a idealized and sanitized version of Israeli history, and really falling in love with that history, but, upon coming into contact with Palestinians and Palestinian narratives, having quite the rude awakening upon learning about the horrific oppression of the Palestinian people.

So, upon learning about the Nakba and the occupation as a young person, I wanted to do all I could in whatever way, big or small, to help change my own Jewish community, as well as to end the horrific oppression of the Palestinian people. And I began trying to come into contact with more and more people who had similar experiences,, and I began to realize that my own story was part of a much larger generational change, as hundreds of thousands of young American Jews begin to realize that to live out our Jewish values to the best of our ability, we must fight for the freedom and equality of Palestinians while also fighting against antisemitism.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the organizations that you chronicle, that you sort of depict in this film, those that are challenging the state of Israel and those that are supporting it, that the other groups are taking on.

ERIN AXELMAN: Definitely. We really — Simone is the main character and protagonist in the film. And we really try to tell a generational story, and I’m telling my own story through Simone, in many ways. We really chronicle a variety of progressive Jewish groups, including IfNotNow, Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street and many others.

And then we also, on the right, document a lot of pro-Israel groups. We had Abe Foxman as one of the main characters in the film, the director emeritus and former head of the Anti-Defamation League. We talk extensively about Birthright and AIPAC and other groups that have tried to keep the status quo of unconditional support for Israel alive and well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s bring Simone Zimmerman into this conversation. Why don’t you tell us about your upbringing, Simone? Talk about your allegiance to the state of Israel, how it was instilled with you, and then talk about your transformation.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. I grew up in a Jewish community where, you know, the Holocaust was a formative part of my upbringing, and I saw defending the state of Israel as a core part of what it meant to keep the Jewish people safe. It was a core Jewish commitment for me, so much so that when I actually met anti-Zionist Jews, anti-Zionist Israelis, people who were fighting occupation and apartheid when I was a college student at UC Berkeley, I couldn’t even believe that those people existed. They were an anomaly to me.

And the more I met those students and, more importantly, met Palestinian students, learned about their lives, about, you know, what it means, from the moment that you’re born, to live under a system that deems you lesser, less worthy, that you have to live under occupation and oppression and dispossession just because of who you are and where you were born, I very quickly ran out of answers that felt moral and logical to me to answer the hard questions that I was hearing from these students about how I could justify the oppression that they lived under.

AMY GOODMAN: Simone, I wanted to go to that moment at UC Berkeley — you’re a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley — a clip from Israelism, which features you in 2010 there, when the student Senate failed to override a veto of a bill calling on campus officials to divest from companies that supply weapons that Israel uses in the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: I just knew it was this bad thing that I had to fight.

BILL OPPONENT 1: It is antisemitism. It is.

BILL OPPONENT 2: You are trying to make me feel marginalized on my own campus.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: And I remember all of us going, “Well, you shouldn’t boycott Israel, because it’s applying a double standard. And you shouldn’t boycott Israel, because it’s unfair to single out Israel.”

BILL OPPONENT 3: Please, I beg of you. I beg you, please, to have compassion and to remember that we are alienating students. And I am devastated by this bill. I am a human being.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: I still remember you have these Palestinian students who get up and said, you know, “Jewish students, you are crying about feeling silenced and marginalized. You know, my aunts and cousins didn’t sleep for weeks while bombs were falling overhead in Gaza. What do you have to say to that?”

BILL SUPPORTER: If divestment is hostile, then where do we begin to describe the hostility of a military occupation?

AMY GOODMAN: Simone Zimmerman, if you can talk about that moment at UC Berkeley, what exactly was happening, and how you decided to explore further the kind of questioning that actually also came out of your Jewish education?

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely. Well, you know, first, I want to say it’s striking to have this conversation right now as the Israeli military has destroyed all the universities in Gaza right now. And for me, I remember when I was in that campus debate, the way that this narrative about Jewish students being unsafe on campus is actually, I think, a deep conflation between being unsafe and being uncomfortable. I was deeply uncomfortable. I did not know about the realities that Palestinians lived under. I was systematically denied an education about that reality. And to this day, we see pro-Israel organizations working to do everything they can to change the topic away from Palestinian suffering onto Jewish discomfort.

You know what? Occupation and apartheid are deeply uncomfortable. We should all be uncomfortable and outraged by what’s happening in Gaza right now. And again, as I already said, the more I listened to Palestinian students testify about their realities, the more it was undeniable to me that I was missing a huge part of the story, and I had to go find out more.

AMY GOODMAN: Erin Axelman, I wanted you to introduce us to Eitan, an American who decides not to go to college first, but to serve in the IDF. We’re about to play a clip of him.

EITAN: From our hands and threw him to the ground while he’s still blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, and they started kicking him for a good few minutes. I was responsible for this man’s well-being. I was responsible to bring him from the checkpoint to the detention center. That was my job. And right outside the fence of the detention center, they grabbed him from me, and they started beating him. I felt responsible, but my commander wasn’t saying anything, so how could I say anything? The entire time that this was happening, a military police officer was standing just inside the fence watching and smoking a cigarette. As soon as these guys were done kicking this Palestinian man, the military police officer tossed his cigarette, he came, brought him inside the detention center. And I didn’t even speak up. I didn’t speak up. And that’s just one of many stories that I have from my time in the West Bank.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Eitan. It reminds me of our previous guest, Mosab Abu Toha, describing being beaten by the IDF. Well, he, Eitan, came to serve in Israel in the IDF. Tell us more about him and his transformation.

ERIN AXELMAN: Yeah, many American Jews are told that to defend the Jewish people and to be a good Jewish person, one of the best things you can do is to join the Israeli military or support the Israeli military. In the film, we extensively interview Hillel educators and an Israel fellow at the University of Connecticut, and they openly brag about how many kids they’ve gotten to serve in the Israeli military. And that is deeply tragic.

And I have had friends, American Jewish friends, who have also served. And they join as young people, as 18-year-olds, thinking that they’re doing a great thing by defending the Jewish people. And then many of them are sent to the occupied West Bank, and they quickly realize that they are actually a cog in a system of apartheid, a system that places you in a different legal system based upon the race you are born into. And so many American Jews, and some Israelis, as well, when they actually realize that this is what they’re doing — they’re not defending the Jewish people; they’re actually defending a settlement expansionist program in the West Bank, that is very literally a system of apartheid — it is devastating, and it is heartbreaking.

Obviously, they’re not the greatest victims. The greatest victims, of course, are the Palestinians who have to face that apartheid. But it’s inspiring to see members of Breaking the Silence, both Israelis and Americans, speak out and say, “We thought we were joining to do something, and we found out that we were actually, again, a part of this apartheid system,” and they are going to do everything they can to end this system of occupation and apartheid. And so, we really wanted to include someone like him, because it’s a common story, and it’s also the story of many of my friends, who were — served in the Israeli military, realized that they were part of a system of apartheid, and are now doing all they can to end that system.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Simone Zimmerman, you didn’t serve in the IDF, but you did go to Israel and the Occupied Territories. You also, for a moment — what was it? For two days? — became the outreach coordinator for the Bernie Sanders campaign, before a campaign was waged against you. Talk about your trajectory, going to the Occupied Territories, coming back, founding IfNotNow.

SIMONE ZIMMERMAN: Yeah, I went. You know, I had grown up spending time in Israel. I felt deeply connected to the place. I thought I knew — I thought I knew Israel. But the way that the apartheid system is actually built is such that Israeli Jews don’t actually have to see the reality that Palestinians live under. They can drive on roads. You know, they can drive on the side of the wall where they don’t have to see what is on the other side, the daily horrors and brutality and deep denial of dignity and freedom that Palestinians live under.

And once I saw those realities with my own eyes, once I met people who had been evicted from their homes, who were denied basic freedom of movement, people just like me who want to live in freedom and safety, whose every piece of their lives have been destroyed and constricted by a system of Jewish supremacy, I couldn’t unsee those things. And again, as Erin has already spoke about, this is a story that thousands of Jewish people around the world have encountered. And we know that it’s so deeply contrary to our values as Jewish people to support this disgusting oppression and denial of freedom from another people. And I’ve been part of this generation that includes IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace and many other groups that are taking on an outdated establishment that wants to enforce a pro-Israel orthodoxy and will do everything they can to attack and marginalize and silence anybody who dissents from that viewpoint.

You mentioned at the beginning of this segment the lawsuit going on at Harvard University. I can’t help but bring up right now the attacks that we’ve seen over the weekend on Derek Penslar, the director of a Jewish studies center at Harvard University, a world-renowned Jewish studies scholar. And he has been attacked for being named to an antisemitism task force at Harvard just because he criticizes the Israeli government.

So we’re seeing how far this establishment is willing to go to attack and marginalize anybody who doesn’t toe that very strict and narrow orthodoxy, and increasingly anybody who doesn’t defend this government’s genocidal assault on the Gaza Strip. And it’s absurd, but it’s also deeply dangerous and offensive to those of us who are acting out of a deep place of intellectual integrity, of Jewish values, of a commitment to justice, who want to build a world of genuine safety and freedom and dignity for Jewish people and for Palestinians. And that old guard is more and more desperate to keep any of us out of public life and political life, and certainly not to be legitimized as a legitimate Jewish voice.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Erin Axelman, you’re in Canada. Simone is here in New York. You’re starting yet another tour of the film. As Simone mentioned, Israelism is mentioned in the Harvard lawsuit, equating antisemitism with anti-Zionism or criticism of the Israeli state. Your final thoughts as the two of you travel both countries?

ERIN AXELMAN: Totally. You know, it’s ironic. You know, there was four attempted cancellations of screenings that we had in the fall. And at all of those screenings, it was actually Jewish groups, Jewish student groups or Jewish faculty, who were bringing this to the venue or university. So it’s very ironic that under the guise of protecting Jewish students or fighting antisemitism, administrations or venues are trying to cancel a film brought by Jewish people, made by Jewish people, about Jewish people. And it just shows how confused this moment is, and how all criticism of Israel, even if it’s being made by Jews, is often considered antisemitic, and which is totally absurd and really makes it much more difficult to fight real antisemitism.

And as we’re about to do this screening tour, we’re sure there’s going to be quite a few attempted cancellations. We just found out that Barnard’s president is attempting to unilaterally cancel a screening of Israelism in February. We’re working with the faculty, and we will make this screening happen. And we will fight all attempts to cancel our screenings. And we’ll also be part of the movement to fight back against attempted censorship of any pro-Palestinian or progressive Jewish voices.

AMY GOODMAN: Erin Axelman, co-director of Israelism, and Simone Zimmerman, Jewish American activist, co-founder of IfNotNow.

When we come back, Ron DeSantis has dropped out of the presidential race. Stay with us.

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