Editor’s Note: The following article is the grand prize winner of the Fresh Ink for Teens/StandWithUs High School Writing Contest. More than 60 contestants from around the country answered the following question: “Describe a time when you were put in a situation where you had to defend Israel. Share your feelings, thoughts and actions in response to this experience.”
Summer internships, especially for high schoolers, are a mixed bag. A diverse group of students doing unfamiliar work, interns quickly band together in efforts to work efficiently — and to have some fun.
I was among four religious students at this particular program in New York City. Many of my fellow interns, and even superiors, were curious about my heritage and practice; I invited such discourse, as I felt conversation would yield understanding. Accustomed to my welcoming attitude, no one shied away from questioning me.
It was June 2018, the time of the Gaza border protests. During every break, I refreshed my news feed for updates on fatalities. At lunch, one of my fellow interns, a friend with a religious background like my own, inquired as to how my brother was doing, as he is an elite combat soldier in Israel. The conversation soon progressed to a discussion of the events occurring at the border.
One intern named Aria asserted, “Well, I think Israel kind of deserves it.” I recoiled, aghast at her unapologetic bias. Although I had heard anti-Israel perspectives before, her eagerness for increased violence was both unfamiliar and horrifying.
Attempting to take a moderate stance that she could affirm, I quickly replied, “I wish there was less violence on both sides.” Her response was quick and biting — there was no compromise in her tone.
“I disagree. Those who occupy land are bound to be attacked.”
Never did I actually consider that I would stand and preach Zionist ideology. I glanced at my fellow religious intern, who gave me a nod. I readied myself to unleash what my yeshiva day school education had thoroughly prepared me to say.
“Actually,” I retorted, “Israel is not an occupier. You cannot occupy what belongs to you, nor what did not have a sovereign prior.” I launched into a history lesson, beginning with the Balfour Declaration and the 1947 partition plan, then the Six-Day War, before recapping current events, disregarding her interruptions.
My disbelief was apparent when she insisted that Israel was an apartheid and bloodthirsty regime. “You don’t believe it’s [the Gaza border protests] in self-defense? You think this is aggressive action by an oppressive state?” I was flabbergasted. Had I not just recounted, in mere minutes, Israel’s history?
It was then that I realized our debate had attracted a crowd of listeners who attentively surveyed this conversation. Rejuvenated, I cited recent terror attacks and Israeli policy regarding injured terrorists — who are treated by Israeli doctors in Israeli hospitals. The murmuring that erupted as I concluded, “that doesn’t seem like an apartheid or terrorist state to me — feels like quite the opposite, actually” — was both gratifying and nerve-wracking.
I didn’t think I was convincing Aria that Israel is a compassionate democracy. There is no “winning” with an opponent who refuses to acknowledge its right to exist. I cannot make someone care about safety, about history, about justice.
I did hope, however, that the audience who tuned in went home with Israel on their mind, and a passion for defending it in their hearts.
Meital Fuksbrumer is a senior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J.