An unfit, collegiate Israel advocate
I can remember sitting in my high school seminar class, called Modern Israeli History—a class invented, essentially, to equip us with political Israeli defense before we were sent off to college—into what was advertised as the anti-semitic abyss. There were one hundred fifty or sixty students in my grade, back in 2007, so the course was split into several separate classes, a few different teachers, but the message was unified: with this knowledge imparted onto you, and the past four years of education at Milken Community High, it is your responsibility to represent the Jewish Homeland, wherever you may be. Which I take to mean, in hindsight, you don’t have to wear a beard, nor all black, but your parents just invested a fortune in your Jewish identity, now do your best at Herzl.
That I did. It was an elective class with little academic significance—we had already gotten into our colleges, there were no grades, no final exam. But I probably took it more seriously than any other class I’d taken. I often found myself reading texts twice instead of once, participating vocally, emailing Mr. Bloom questions sheerly out of personal interest. If I were to have taken my actual classes as seriously, my parents would have probably been more satisfied with my final transcript.
I took the message of Modern Israeli History to heart. Probably too much so. When I began my Freshman year of college at UC Irvine in 2007, I entered excited, energized; ready to take on my anti-Israel foe. I developed a nearly flawless thesis, developed off of key quotes, decisions and meetings in Israeli history—catered for length and delicacy, of course—that I was prepared to present at any moment somebody called Israel an ‘Occupier’ or racist.
In early 2008, Israel began to respond to the bombardment of rocket attacks coming the recently evacuated Gaza Strip. Right around then, an imam came to campus to speak under the theme of ‘Genocide: Auschwitz to Gaza.’ I remember my initial fury upon seeing caricature pictures of larger than life Israeli soldiers with swastikas on their uniforms pointing machine guns at little babies; in addition, a desperate responsibility to dissuade people from buying in to this. I skipped class that day, heard the imam equate Zionists to terrorists, then stuck around with a dozen AFI’s (Anteaters for Israel), ready to engage the imam’s empathizers, who stuck around chanting ‘end the occupation’ in unison.
We AFI students and MSU (Muslim Student Union) students started talking. It did not require much time before this “intellectual quarrel” warranted the presence of cops standing nearby, watching, prepared to act. Getting nervous now, but more so feeling the stronger obligation to act, I turned to talk to a female MSU member standing close to me. In a timid voice, I explained to her the logical fallacies in the imam’s speech, but she basically ignored me. I tried to speak more loudly, but in the face of this chaos, I realized I didn’t have it in me. What value did my self-created theses have in the forum of passionate, educated college students going at it?
I decided I needed confidence, a mentor, somebody to learn from. And so I chose to become a disciple of Isaac Yerushalmi—the fearless president of Anteaters for Israel, also a fellow AEPi. “That kid’s got balls,” Rosen, the tallest, toughest member of our fraternity said once, while we watched Isaac stand in the center of an intense anti-Israel rally with a mien of steadfastness, holding up a sign with statistics and phrases that contradicted the MSU’s message.
As the year continued, I followed Isaac around. I helped him in many ways—unloading and loading stuff into his car, telling my friends to come to events, helping him videotape things—but when it came to the intellectual, or the argumentative, Isaac kept it sort of to himself. “What are we going to do, Isaac?” I asked, stressing the ‘we,’ when the pro-Israel body would have to act. I never got clear answers. Isaac had an impeccable ability to dodge a question with mum silence, and have you not take offense—a tremendously valuable skin nowadays. You just figured he was thinking ahead, or thinking more deeply. In truth I envied a Batman and Robin dynamic, where I, Robin, possessed an energetic yet untamed courage, who could only mature into an asset once disciplined by Batman himself. The dissension arose, perhaps, from how Issac saw me for what I was: a neurotic, timid freshman, rather than who I wanted to become: an influential, confidently speaking pro Israel leader on campus.
I ended up transferring out of UC Irvine in favor of UC Santa Barbara. There, I met Eli Levine, a very talented leader of the pro-Israel body. He, unlike Isaac, seemed eager to have somebody young and energetic get carried under his wing. And I, being the Israeli groupie of sorts, was the one he picked. But it was at an AIPAC Policy Conference in 2010, where I had become Liasion at UCSB and Eli lined up with a fine gig at Hasbara, that I let Eli down before we began work. See, I missed my flight to the conference, and ended up hanging out at LAX for over a day and a half, missing half the conference itself. I got incessant, disappointed text messages from Eli: “Where are you? Loads to discuss.” I explained what happened. “This is ridiculous,” he said. He had a aggressive manner of forming important relationships and building connections, and each time I sought to contribute to them, I didn’t fail to underperform.
Then there was Leah, president of American Students for Israel, who I always sought to please, but I couldn’t work well with because I’d always end up having feelings for her. She applied a blend of work-oriented discipline and coquettish push-pull that I had never experienced before. In result, any time we met to discuss campus activity, I pondered telling her how I felt.
The following summer I became an intern at AIPAC in San Francisco, but that did not translate to glory either. I lacked professionalism and truly feared the concept of a cold call. To make matters worse, my mother had a meltdown and made a call to a VBS rabbi, begging him to reach out to the right people at AIPAC and have me return to Los Angeles without negative repercussions. This, obviously, didn’t boost my credibility within the reigns of the AIPAC office.
During this entire aching for relevance to the pro-Israel movement on college campuses, I wasn’t eligible for Birthright until turning twenty-two, given that I had attended the March of the Living trip in high school. The trip for UCSB’s Hillel delegation was taking off on June 15th, 2011—one day before my twenty-second birthday.
“I’m eligible to go, right, Rabbi? Does one day actually make a difference?”
“I spoke to them,” the rabbi said softly. “And the age restriction is firm. We’re sorry,” the rabbi said.
But sometime around early June two weeks away from graduation, a call from a strange number woke up my excellent daytime nap.
“Hello?” I asked.
“I’m calling from Taglit. A few extra spots have opened up for the Hillel group with Stanford University. There may be other students from other universities, but as of now I don’t think you will know anybody else on the trip.”
“I’ll take it,” I said.
I mention Birthright because I think the highlight of my Israeli advocacy came on this trip, in a very unexpected way. Ten new friends I had made and I sat in the backseat of the bus, driving back from the Dead Sea, and a handful of them said that they were having an excellent trip thus far, but were curious: Why was bloodshed so often associated with Israel? Why is the country relentlessly warped in a field of controversy? These were Stanford students, so I knew it was not ignorance, or an incapacity to process information, which prevented them from knowing this. Lilach, our guide, sought to answer these questions, but her explanations did not quite suffice to the level of detail these students needed. Before thinking about it, I commenced an impromptu lecture: starting from 1922, I then delved into the UN Partition Plan, the War of Independence, Six-Day War, various Peace Treaties, and now the complicated relationship between Hamas, Fatah and Israel. I spoke with a loud, clear voice that I never had in college as fifteen Birthright fellows encircled me and we cut through the South of Israel. I attributed this great moment to a vast intellectual shift made subconsciously. I finally used my privileged education from to engage others, rather than feed my identity. It was essentially everything I wanted out of Israel advocacy.
What I deduce from all this, other than missing my Birthright trip, is that one only encounters personal satisfaction when staying true to their path, to their skill set. Forcing myself to be a leader, I think, is not doing so, unless it happens organically. So often we’re instructed to be leaders, to influence others with a superior goodness. There’s an underrated value in simply acquiring information and passing it on to the next curious mind, as I did on that bus.