Jeremy Etelson, ’18, was standing in the middle of a concentration camp when he first felt a deep connection to his Jewish roots.  He observed the Polish neighborhoods, where life continued to proceed normally, as it had for hundreds of years, with the exception of the historical monuments that happened to be concentration camps situated in the midst of everything. He thought about his family, who had immigrated to the United States from Poland in the early 20th century, and what life might have been like for them if they had stayed. 

Growing up, Etelson always had a strong affinity for Israel, but traveling to Israel and Poland with his high school class helped him realize that after more than 2,000 years of Jewish individuals fleeing from one place to another, seeking autonomy and security, having a state is vital for those of his faith. “While the existence of an Israeli state is a divisive issue for a lot of people, and understandably so, having the perspective and awareness of why this state exists in the first place is very powerful for me,” he said.

When it came time to look for an internship for the summer before his senior year at Richmond, Etelson, a philosophy, politics, economics and law (PPEL) major, was reminded of his time in Israel and looked for an organization where his work could have direct relevance to the security of the Jewish people. That led him to apply to the Embassy of Israel in Washington D.C., where after 9 months of interviews, background checks, and security clearance paperwork, he was able to spend six weeks working alongside Israeli diplomats, with the help of a Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) Burhans Fellowship. 

Etelson worked for the Embassy’s Public Diplomacy Division, a sort of Israeli welcoming committee for all U.S. citizens, whose work specifically focuses on reaching marginalized communities. “One of the main goals of the division is to make sure that the citizens of the US know that Israel is a friend to them, and is a place that supports liberal values of equity and of personal liberties,” he said. “It was about extending a hand, building a relationship, and that was really wonderful to be a part of.” 

He spent the majority of his time going to community events to represent the Embassy. For instance, the Embassy brought a transgender pagentress from Israel to be a keynote speaker at D.C.’s LBGTQ Pride celebrations. Etelson was also involved in the execution of the celebration the Embassy hosted recognizing the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in the 1967 War. “We held a large party at the Capitol, with House Speaker Paul Ryan as the keynote speaker, and Prime Minister Netanyahu joining us by Skype,” Etelson said.

Etelson also spent time conducting research for the staff. “I was doing a lot of research for the division on community members from different minority and disparaged groups, as well as on anti-Semitism in political movements and the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S.,” he said. “All of these issues are important to Israel, which has a lot of Muslim citizens, so I was happy to contribute to their work.” 

His research for the Embassy connected nicely with a scholarly project he is currently working on with political science professor Andrea Simpson. The pair have been writing a paper looking at the recent rise in anti-Semitism and distrust toward the state of Israel in the United States from both the alt-right and the far left. “We’re researching how those movements are playing into an inability for people to appreciate the special relationship that Israel and the United States have enjoyed for the last 70 years and trying to figure out what intellectual movements are necessary for people in the United States to get behind the support of all peoples in that region,” Etelson said.

Etelson’s biggest takeaway from his internship experience was the Embassy’s sense of community; having conversations with the diplomats and staff added another dimension to his understanding of his roots. “I’ve done two internships previously on Capitol Hill, and the atmosphere was cordial, but very competitive,” he said. “When I got to the Embassy, I expected a similar environment, but once you get past the layers of security and get inside, it’s like a little Israel in the middle of Washington D.C.; they treat each other like family.”

“In a high intensity professional setting, people can still be good friends who care about one another, and that was beautiful to experience because it let me know it’s possible,” Etelson said. “I’d love to work there again someday.”