By Carl Zebrowski
“Their questions were better than what I hear at colleges,” Israeli emissary Shay Rubenstein said after speaking to Lehigh Valley students at Temple Beth El on November 20 about the crisis in Israel.
Take, for example, the rhetorical question of one student who appeared to be in middle school. “What if Israel didn’t exist?” he asked, regarding the long-standing tensions in the Middle East that exploded on October 7. “It would be worse without Israel.”
Rubenstein flashed the smile of a proud parent: “That’s what I’m saying.”
The students brought with them to TBE a curiosity about and familiarity with the subject matter, clearly nurtured by teaching at home and possibly in school. They understood Rubenstein’s message.
The program opened with Jeri Zimmerman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, sponsor of the event, welcoming the audience and thanking them for their dedication. “You must be the students who are really interested in learning about Israel,” she said.
Rubenstein, who first got involved in what he called “Jewish public diplomacy” as a teenager, began by giving the group his goal for the program: “I hope that after this talk, you’re able to talk more about Israel.” He offered his personal take on the October 7 attacks on the Israelis at the music festival near Gaza. “These people were celebrating peace and love and life,” he said. “Hamas was celebrating death.”
He told the students he is friends with an Israeli who went missing in the attacks, Omri Ram. He recalled being with Ram in France. “He would just eat French cheese and enjoy life in Paris,” Rubenstein said. At the time of the Talking Points for Teens event, Ram was among 40 people listed as missing. “Nobody knows where they are.”
Rubenstein filled the students in on the 20th-century background of the land that is now the State of Israel. He explained that in 1947, the international community voted to create two states there, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jewish people accepted that. The Arabs did not.
When Israel declared itself an independent nation the following year, Israel was not present in Gaza and remained out for almost two decades. “It was Egypt that controlled it, against international law,” Rubenstein told the students.
Control of Gaza changed hands over the decades, with Israel controlling it in 2005, when it pulled out and abandoned its settlements. In 2006 Gaza held elections, and its people voted to put Hamas in charge. That choice was unfortunate, Rubenstein said. “Hamas doesn’t care about their people,” he continued. “They care about their goals, which are the destruction of Israel and its people.”
This eventually brings us to 2023 and the October attacks and current crisis. Rubenstein mentioned a slogan heard more and more often these days: “Free Palestine!” He was not opposed to the words themselves. “I think we all support freeing Palestine — from Hamas.”
Bad things happen when people of Gaza turn against Hamas. It’s a terrorist group, after all. Some Palestinians were brave enough to air their beliefs in public since October 7. “Most people who went out into the streets to protest found themselves dead,” Rubenstein said.
“Hamas is bad for everyone. It is bad for Israel. It is bad for Palestinians.”
Despite that truth, the initial surge of support for Israel in the United States soon gave way to protests against Israel and in sympathy with Palestinians. Rubenstein said a lot of the problem is based on misinformation spread by certain news and online outlets. “What we learn today on social media is not sticking to facts,” he said. “It’s fake.”
Rubenstein said turning against the Jews has been a recurrent theme through history. “In every generation there’s someone who’s against us,” he said. “People use the current conflict as an excuse to attack us.”
That doesn’t mean he’s converted to pessimism. “The fact that you’re here today means a lot,” he told the teens. “We are one of the oldest civilizations in the world. Our 5,000 years of tradition and Jewish values are stronger that hate.”
Even after briefly lamenting the waning support for Israel from other nations, he wrapped back to optimism, concluding that there’s still the backing of the substantial U.S. Jewish community. Israel may be outnumbered, he said, “but we have you. We have our family in America.”
After the talking points portion of the night ended, the students moved into the auditorium to pack gift bags with toys and other surprises to be shipped to children in Israel.
“There is so much power in collective good,” said Amy Golding, former head of school at the Jewish Day School and organizer of the packing effort. “Our youth had the opportunity to learn together tonight and then found a way to give back to their brothers and sisters in Israel. It is our hope that these goody bags can help lift a spirit, make a child happy and comfort the youth as they grieve. We send these bags with love and prayers.”