Growing up in a Zionist household where it was common to discuss Israeli politics over tahini and salad, I have always felt that Israel is at the heart of my Jewish identity. But while I am familiar with Israel from my home, Jewish community events, and the country itself, I have seldom been able to exchange ideas and discuss my political outlook with someone who disagreed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first attempts at conversing about Israel with people who did not share my viewpoint consisted of repeating facts and phrases I had heard, which rarely moved the person with whom I was talking.
It was not until I joined the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Campus Engagement Fellowship that I learned a more nuanced approach to debating Israel: one which synthesized facts, stories, and various perspectives.
From the beginning of the fellowship, Shay Rubenstein, Howard County’s shaliach (Israeli emissary), fostered an inclusive environment, encouraging us to ask questions and engage with the material we were learning.
As one of the other teens told me, he thought it was helpful that Shay was not too far from our age; making the experience relatable, personable, and engaging. Indeed, Shay was fantastic at making the fellows comfortable to share their opinions, starting with the first session in which each fellow, including a Muslim friend of mine, shared a little of what they already knew about Israel.
We all came to the Federation with different knowledge bases, yet we each learned something new from the sessions. The second session, for instance, was a crash course on the history of the Jewish people and their connection to the Land of Israel, starting from exile into the Diaspora through the founding of the State of Israel. This knowledge contextualized many contemporary debates, such as whether there can be Palestinian sovereignty when there is a division of power between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority that prevents any cohesive “Palestine.”
The differences among perceptions underpin much of the current conflict, like the perception that Israel is occupying said Palestine, pervades the Palestinian narrative of the conflict and is inconsistent with the Israeli narrative of security. In the third session, we explored these different viewpoints and why each side believes their interpretation.
Shay explained that while many narratives stem from differences in interpretation, many times the narratives critical of Israel are used to mask anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments promoted by movements like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). We fellows then practiced responding to common claims made by pro-BDS students.
In addition to gaining an understanding of the dialogue that surrounds Israel, we also learned to effectively present our opinions. Shay stressed the importance of beginning controversial conversations by establishing an understanding for the other side, to find a common ground before laying out facts and reasoning. The following day at school, I was able to apply this strategy when Israel came up, at lunch, and was able to get the other person to agree with ideas I presented. It was a novel and empowering experience.
The fellowship also trained us to use our public speaking skills in front of teens and parents to common questions people may ask about Israel (e.g., relating to settlements, the UN, or the Israeli government). This session was the culmination of our experience and showcased the depth and breadth of our growth.
To cap off the program, we were honored to host Michelle Rojas Tal, director of Israel fellows to Hillel International, whose presentation contextualized modern anti-Semitism, critiques of Israel, and how to be an effective advocate for Israel on campus. Her presentation was energizing and reinforced the importance of not being afraid nor intimidated to speak out against those who criticize Israel. As a result of this entire program, I feel better prepared to be an advocate for Israel in college and to confidently say, “Am Yisrael chai!”
—Liron Karpati is a senior at River Hill High School in Howard County, Maryland.