Erin Axelman: ‘Ignorance keeps the pro-Israel narrative alive’

Erin Axelman: ‘Ignorance keeps the pro-Israel narrative alive’

The Israelism director talks about the film’s morphing impact, Israel’s colonialism, and being accused of being anti-semitic.

When Erin Axelman was growing up in rural Maine in the 2000s, they often struggled with their Jewish heritage. The local Jewish community was small, and they largely felt disconnected with the wider diaspora. “I was made fun of for being Jewish as a kid,” Axelman recalls. “Not super intense anti-semitism, but it made me feel different and people made fun of you for being oppressed [historically].”

The idea of Israel as a home for people like themselves, propped up by a powerful military, was a natural counterpoint to their reality, and they found themselves immersed in grand Zionist literature. But a conversation in high school shook those beliefs. “I had a teacher who knew how progressive my family and I were, and was surprised by how pro-Israel I was,” they say. “He asked me if I knew anything about Palestinian history, and I said ‘no’. He gave me all these books by left-wing Israeli historians and Palestinian historians, and I began to wake up and realise that the traditional pro-Israel narrative essentially erases the Palestinians.”

That “transformation” would set them on a path that has culminated in the making of their newly-released, multiple award-winning feature documentary Israelism, which explores the ways that young Jewish Americans are questioning and campaigning against their Zionist upbringings. Co-directed with Sam Eilertsen, it follows the journeys of Eitan, a former IDF soldier, and Simone Zimmerman, the founder of IfNotNow ­– a movement of American Jews calling for the US to stop their support of Israel – as they undergo their own processes of fighting back against the oppression of Palestinian people.

It’s an eye-opening, oftentimes distressing watch, that has only grown in meaning since it was first released in the USA in February 2023. Filmed before October 7, and the subsequent ongoing atrocities in Gaza, Israelism adds context and understanding to the driving forces behind the ongoing tragedy. To mark its first UK screenings, Huck caught up with Axelman to chat about the film’s morphing impact, similarities between Israel and historic colonial states, and being accused of being anti-semitic despite being Jewish themselves.

Congratulations on the film, how has its reception been for you?

The reaction has been amazing. We get people coming up to us at every screening to say “this is my story”. For a long time being a Jewish person that criticises Israel felt quite lonely, and I think part of what our film is trying to show is that this is an incredibly common story. That when Jewish people criticise Israel because of real things it’s doing we’re not losing our Jewish history, or being any less Jewish, but in fact we are acting from a place of our Jewish values and trying to honour the trauma and oppression our ancestors faced.

At the same time there is a lot of backlash, we knew that would be the case when we made the film and we knew that if it was successful, part of that would manifest in a pretty intense backlash, so we weren’t surprised or upset by it. So it’s been interesting to see the huge outpouring of support as well as the wild, unhinged things said about our film on the right.

What drove you to make the film?

After I began to transform in high school, I saw so many of my closest friends begin to change in college. My co-director went to the same college I did and we saw almost all the pro-Israel student leaders begin doing pro-Palestinian human rights work. And seeing all these young people who grew up fervently pro-Israel change when they did meet Palestinians and come into contact with Palestinian narratives. It made me realise that my own story was part of this incredibly large, generational story of transformation. I began the film in 2016 and it took us about seven years to make it.

“I’d known about the occupation but seeing it with my own eyes and understanding the brutality of the occupation was shattering and life changing.”

Erin Axelman

How was that process of transformation for you personally?

My family was very welcoming to the idea. My dad had spent a bunch of time in Israel in the ‘60s – we’re actually related by marriage to one of the Prime Ministers of Israel, the one who began the occupation ironically – and when I began to talk to my dad about the occupation he admitted that he’d always felt there was something wrong. So while my transformation was difficult emotionally because I’d built my Jewish identity around Israel, it was a much easier transition for me than for many folks in the film. That’s why I have so much admiration because my own transformation was hard enough and seeing the incredible stress a lot of young Jewish people go through is really inspiring and amazing to me.

Did you visit Israel, and have similar eye-opening experiences to Eitan and Simone in the film?

Yeah, I’d always wanted to spend time in Israel-Palestine so took a semester off from college and lived there for three months, primarily in Nazareth which is the biggest Palestinian city in legal Israel, and then spent time in the West Bank, especially Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron. I’d known about the occupation but seeing it with my own eyes and understanding the brutality of the occupation was shattering and life changing. When you see it yourself and the apartheid nature of it, you realise Israel has imposed this system where people have to grow up living every second of their lives under a brutal military system that denies them the most basic human rights. It was heartbreaking beyond belief.

There’s one scene in Israelism, where a Palestinian woman tells a settler “you’re stealing my house”, and the settler replies, “if I don’t steal your house, someone else will”. From an outside perspective, the Israeli settler-colonialism often reads as a pernicious, creeping evil rather than being so brazen, but the film takes you up close.

In a lot of pro-Israel communities, when people say Israel is a settler-colonial state people get offended. But the early Zionists all called themselves colonialists, and present day Israel’s settlement of the West Bank is literally colonial. There’s no other word for it. They are going into a piece of land militarily occupied by a foreign government, taking that land, and trying to take as much Jewish land as possible while pushing Palestinians into as small areas as possible.

I think it's shocking to us because it’s one of the few colonial situations left in the world, but Israelis can literally take Palestinians’ homes. It made me realise the similarities between Israel-Palestine and South Africa in the Bantustan system, and America and the system of Native American reservations. America took as much land as humanly possible, pushed Native Americans into as small areas as possible and gave them basically a government without any actual power, which is shockingly similar to what Israel has done. When people say “you’re only criticising Israel”, no – I criticise other countries just as much. America, France, Britain, Australia, Canada have done this on a larger and more lethal scale, but Israel is doing it in real time, and seeing it done in the name of the Jewish people is horrifying.

Another thing the film illuminates is just how little is taught to young Jewish Americans about Palestine, can you explain what it’s like growing up?

When I began to realise how little I knew about Palestine, it reminded me of how little most Americans know about Native American history. Most American Jews who join the IDF can’t say basic facts about Palestinian history and that’s why so many American Jews historically have been so pro-Israel, because they have been taught very little about the people who lived there before Israel was created. That ignorance keeps the pro-Israel narrative alive, because the pro-Israel narrative is incredibly compelling and attractive when you don’t worry about Palestinians.

“Anti-semitism is very real – stereotypes about Jews and Jewish power very much exist but criticising a state for real things it’s doing is obviously not bigotry.”

Erin Axelman

The film was made before October 7, how do you think what has happened since has changed the messages in the film, if at all?

We won’t know the effects of October 7 and Israel’s campaign for a long time because it’s still ongoing. If it ended now it would be one of the more horrific pieces of history in the 21st century, but it’s not over and could get far worse. But I think a lot of the phenomena that our film covers has accelerated since October 7, in particular the pro-Israel right labelling anything that criticises Israel as anti-semitic – even if it’s being done by Jews – has accelerated. Even though our film talks about the history of anti-semitism and modern anti-semitism and we’re an almost entirely Jewish film team, we’ve been called anti-semitic. It makes fighting real anti-semitism much harder. Anti-semitism is very real – stereotypes about Jews and Jewish power very much exist but criticising a state for real things it’s doing is obviously not bigotry.

The closure of the film talks about the conflicting traumas of Palestinians and Jews and how that acts as a barrier towards ending the conflict. Given what’s happened since, is this now a divide that’s impossible to bridge?

Any resolution is going to be unbelievably difficult and complex, but that was always going to be the case, and any reconciliation that gives everyone equal rights was never going to be easy because of the immense traumas that both Palestinian and Israeli people have. That being said, there’s no other option. We have to figure out a way to come to terms with the crimes committed historically and in the present moment, and figure out a way that everyone in that land, from the river to the sea, can have equal rights. The only way that violence is going to end is that people feel hope in that region and people have the basic rights they need to live a normal life.

See upcoming screenings for Israelism and stream the film online via its official website

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