Is it really legitimate to talk about legitimacy?

There was a time when the world understood the need for a Jewish state; somehow, it's now up for debate

For 25 years of growing up in Israel, never have I imagined the existence of my state, or my state of being for that matter, becoming a topic of debate. Of course, I remember the stories of my grandparents living an entirely different reality than mine, but even to them, the State of Israel has always been an answer, and never once a question. And yet I find myself in 2019, approaching three years in the United States as a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” being discussed. At times as an academic question, others as a historical debate; even as a theoretical exercise. Here in the United States, there is a certain privilege in having intellectual debates such as these. For me, there is nothing academic or debatable about any of it. To me, it’s simply home, and every time that question comes up, I can feel my foundation shake.

The Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program was envisioned and created in the early 2000s with the leadership of Natan Sharansky, both out of the increasing concern for Israel’s reputation on college campuses, and the notion that Jews of college age are straying away from Israel. The topic of Israel has become partisan, young Jews did not necessarily view Israel as the haven their parents and grandparents told them about, and the optics of the political situation in Israel were not making it any easier. In those days, we used to call Israel’s foreign affairs approach “Hasbara.” In simple terms, it means “Explaining.” Israel was out to explain to the world what was really going on. The way I see it, the need to explain came from two different approaches — one, is that the situation in Israel is always, as we like to say, complicated. Hence, by us explaining, showing the nuanced and “full” picture, Israel’s supporters were hoping to set the record straight and gain public support in the US and around the world. The other piece, and this is the interesting one, is our constant need to justify ourselves. Why did a sovereign country, which has been around for more than 50 years at the time, need to justify its existence? Maybe it is what the discussion has always really been about? Even today, 71 years since its establishment, people still grapple with the question of Israel’s mere existence. Israel’s critics aren’t just occupied with questions of morality, territory disputes or human rights issues — in the back of their minds, their well-articulated articles and their campus podium performances, there is forever a question much more basic than any of these complex issues — should Israel even exist?

In order to deal with this question, we find ourselves “explaining.” If we stop explaining, then it is not merely that we need to deal with the UN resolutions condemning Israel daily, the stabbing attacks in the streets, the entire world thinking it has the magic solution to the problem and “why can’t we all just get along.” If we stop “explaining,” we might lose our legitimacy to exist. When Israel was established in 1948, and although I’d be the first to say the Holocaust might have been an accelerator to the process but not the ignition, the world understood what it meant to not have a home for the Jewish people. The world may not have liked the idea of a Jewish state, but it understood its necessity. With Holocaust survivors seeking refuge all over the world, and a small core of Jews in the land of Israel pushing for sovereignty, it sure was not an easy claim to make, but at least most understood that it was time for the Jews to self-govern. Today, that same need has not changed one bit, but as criticism rises on policies in Israel and issues regarding the conflict (as justified as they may be), the question of Israel’s mere legitimacy is again rising, shamelessly even.

And how does all that feel to a 28-year-old Israeli, living in the US, working on college campuses every day in the field of Israel education? On one hand, I am relieved that we have stopped explaining. Explaining always felt a little insecure to me. Now we educate, we engage with Israel, we help American Jews and every American for that matter, to form their own nuanced and genuine relationship with Israel. We understand that relationships are the only thing strong enough to endure the constant criticism, questioning and turbulence these young American Jews will go through in their lifetime regarding Israel. And all of that is fine – I prepared myself for a rocky road, for difficult questions, for those who see things totally different than me. Those difficult conversations are actually my favorite, because they allow me to reconsider my own standings, challenge my perceptions, engage in a different outlook. But I could never be prepared for the discourse around “Israel’s right to exist.”

Jewish organizations such as IfNotNow remain intentionally ambiguous on the “question of statehood” (I, for one, didn’t realize my legal ID and identity were even a question). With those voices increasingly becoming louder and more dominant in the conversation around Israel in the US, something in me is cracking. For almost three years on college campuses in America I have seen it all — from speakers blatantly lying about Israel to a cheering crowd, through protests against “baby killing soldiers” like myself, and people, sometimes close to me, unable to recognize and empathize with Israelis being murdered because “you put yourself in that situation.” I, along with my fellow Jewish agency Israel Fellows, have found a way to separate our own feelings, and really be there as educators and facilitators in those difficult conversations. I have been doing that for so long that I was almost able to disconnect my “Israeliness” from it all. But when Natan Sharansky envisioned this program, not only was he seeking great educators or ones that can throw the most incredible Yom Ha’atzmaut parties; he wanted us to be first and foremost — Israelis.

As “Americanized” as I’ve become (meaning a little more politically correct and a little less hot blooded), there are still moments where my Israeli stomach is twisting and turning. Normally, I bite the bullet, choosing the high road that I know allows me to reach more students in my work, to have more of those difficult conversations. But there are fractions of moments where I have to just be Israeli. When the conversation, far too often, revolves around the question of Israel’s right to exist, it becomes personal, whether I like it or not. When articles in the most widely read American newspapers are published, calling to “speak out” against Israel, I’m sure their ivory tower doesn’t shake one bit, but the people they are talking about, like myself and my friends on Shlichut, feel invisible. Most of these articles, these catchy titles, this discourse on the “question of statehood,” may feel strictly political to those who engage and perpetuate it, but, on the ground, it is awfully personal.

Israel is the only home I have ever had, and to be honest, it is a great one. It has faults, wrongdoings, even some concerning political trends, but it is still my home. And for the past two and a half years, I have had a front row seat to the conversation around it here in the US. Somewhere along the way, the strong voices legitimately raising criticism of Israel and the conflict have stopped pushing for justified change, and started creating a dangerous conversation, suggesting that my home, my country, has no legitimacy.

The Jewish Agency sent me here to do an almost impossible job — to be an Israeli in America. To engage in political conversations with young passionate minds, to challenge them, and to challenge myself to see other perspectives; and yet, to always remain proud, to be fearless, to be Israeli. To balance those two approaches, I found myself often telling the Israeli in me to take a back seat, as ironic as that may seem. But as the world around me continues to entertain itself with the question of Israel’s right to exist, there’s nothing I am prouder to be than Israeli.

About the Author
Linor Stein is a 3rd year Jewish Agency Israel Fellow to Hillel. For 2 years Linor served as the Israel Fellow at Boston University Hillel, and now works at Georgetown University and Hillel International's Israel Engagement Group. Linor was born in Ramat Gan, served as an intelligence officer for 6 years, and completed her B.A in Communications and Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before embarking on her Shlichut journey.
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