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‘We came to Israel and left from Palestine’: the awakening of young American Jews

January 30, 2024 at 8:26 pm

Hundreds of American Jews rallied for a ceasefire in Gaza at the gates of the Democratic National Committee in Washington DC, United States on November 15, 2023 [Celal Güneş – Anadolu Agency]

The awakening within the American Jewish community about the lies and propaganda they were subjected to as children in advancing the Zionist cause is powerfully told in the documentary, Israelism. It follows two young American Jews, Simone Zimmerman and Eitan (who does not use his last name). Zimmerman went to a Jewish school and lived in Israel on an exchange program, while Eitan joined the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) after graduating high school.

Like so many young American Jews, Zimmerman and Eitan were indoctrinated from a young age to unconditionally love Israel and, like so many of their peers within the Jewish community, the end of their love-affair with the apartheid state is dramatically told in this compelling new documentary.  Both join a movement of young American Jews battling the old guard to redefine Judaism’s relationship with Israel, revealing a deepening generational divide over modern Jewish identity.

Indoctrination of young American Jews occurs through programs like “Birthright Israel”. Founded in 1994, it offers a free ten-day heritage trip to Israel, Occupied Jerusalem and the Golan Heights for young adults of Jewish heritage between the ages of 18 and 26.

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While such initiatives ostensibly aim to foster a connection between American Jews and Israel, they sow the seeds of anti-Palestinianism within the Jewish community, according to Zimmerman. She participated in various Jewish programs, including youth groups, camps and exchange programs. Israel is presented as a core element of their Jewish identity. One character in the documentary described trips to Israel as “planting seeds that are eventually going to blossom”.

Some are indoctrinated and radicalised in Jewish summer camps, as Eitan found out. The summer camps play a pivotal role in shaping young minds to believe in the myth about Israel’s status as a miracle in Jewish history. Camp goers are often taught that Israel is the ultimate insurance policy, a safe haven for persecuted Jews. The camps go to great lengths to connect American Jews with Israeli culture, even simulating military experiences.

Young American Jews engage in military drills, spending nights simulating life in the Israeli Occupation Forces. Two paths are presented to continue their service to Israel: either join the Israeli army to serve in the Occupied Territories or become advocates for Israel in US campuses throughout their life. Learning about what is referred to as “the conflict” is part of the programming. It has no bearing on reality and peddles familiar racist tropes about Arabs and Palestinians. Young Jews are equipped with pro-Israel talking points and a conviction to sway public opinion in favour of the apartheid state.

The indoctrination does not end at summer camps; it continues at universities. Representatives from Israel actively engage with American Jewish students, reinforcing the bond between them and Israel. Students are encouraged to join the IDF, with some considering it the “greatest gift” one can give to the youth. The extreme and genocidal vision of a greater Israel, where the entire land of Palestine comes under the control of the occupying state, is instilled in the minds of young Americans.

Are American Jews turning their backs on Israel? MEMO in Conversation with Simone Zimmerman

After witnessing the brutal reality of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine, Zimmerman and Eitan became aware of the full extent of the lies and propaganda they were subjected to. Eitan began serving in the West Bank after months of training. The goal of his mission, said Eitan, was to intimidate and humiliate Palestinians and to let them know that they are constantly being watched. It became apparent that his role in the Israeli Occupation Forces was to protect the illegal settlements and not the state he was conditioned to have an affinity with. Knowing that Americans moving to the West Bank had more rights than native Palestinians, forced many to question the Zionist narrative.

Eventually, terrorising Palestinians took its moral toll on American Jews, like Eitan. In one of the many moving parts of the documentary, viewers learn how it took many years for him to come to terms with his role in the brutalisation of Palestinians.

Zimmerman underwent an equally inspiring transformation. Like almost every American Jew, she was told that Israel is a core part of her identity. It was reinforced through years of indoctrination in Jewish schools. The Palestinians were never discussed in the story of Israel that young Jews are inducted into. They were led to believe that Palestine was an empty wasteland when the Jews arrived from Europe as part of a settler colonial project.

Zimmerman had no conception of what it meant to be a Palestinian, other than that they are a people who want to kill Jews. Inconsistencies and contradictions between the idealised version of the state of Israel and the reality on the ground pushed Zimmerman onto a path of awakening. She crossed into the Occupied West Bank to discover for herself. Shocked and horrified at the situation – and told since a young age that the only way Jews can be safe is if Palestinians are not safe – Zimmerman discovered just how untrue that was.

While exploring the end of the love-affair between growing numbers of young American Jews and Israel, voices of prominent figures from within the American Jewish community are introduced to explain the phenomena. “We came to Israel and left from Palestine”, is how some Americans have described their journey from Zionism to anti-Zionism.

Despite the growing numbers of American Jews undergoing such transformation, it remains a controversial issue. The likes of Zimmerman are ostracised, demonised and excommunicated by sections of their community. Zimmerman, who became the national Jewish outreach coordinator for US Senator, Bernie Sanders, was forced out from her post following a campaign by prominent pro-Israel figures in the US.

For many, visiting Palestine challenges everything they are taught. Young Jews are angry and asking to know why they have been mobilised in support of Israel on the basis of lies and indoctrination. Zimmerman and Eitan are part of a bigger story about the crises facing the American Jewish community in their support for Israel.

Young American Jews are undergoing a “moral and spiritual awakening” said Cornel West, who was featured in the documentary. Outside of Israel, the new generation of Jews possess the potential to have the greatest influence in changing the brutal reality of Israel’s Occupation of Palestine.

READ: Remembering the Naksa