NEW YORK — In September 2007, Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech at Columbia University in New York. Exactly a decade later, Ofir Dayan, a freshman at the school, asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if he’d be willing to do to the same.
“I told him, as I am sure he knows already, that the anti-Israel movement on American campuses, and especially at Columbia, is really influential and strong, and that we should not allow this to happen, and that we should do something about it,” Dayan said.
Speaking to the prime minister during his recent visit to the Big Apple, she urged him to help her and her fellow pro-Israel campus activists present a better image of Israel to students and faculty at the venerated Ivy League university.
How did Netanyahu react? “He was receptive,” Dayan responded diplomatically. “He said it’s possible.”
Dayan, 23, is the only daughter of Israel’s consul-general in New York, Dani Dayan, who before becoming a diplomat was an outspoken advocate for the settlement movement.
Standing next to her dad at the tarmac at JFK Airport, she was one of the first Israelis to shake Netanyahu’s hand when he arrived last month to address the United Nations General Assembly.
She pitched her idea of him speaking to Columbia University at a second meeting during a Shabbat dinner the prime minister hosted in his New York hotel.
Dayan enrolled at Columbia after three years of service in the IDF Spokesperson’s unit. She is currently taking in courses on Islam, American politics and math, hoping to major in Economics and Political Science.
“I decided to go to college in America because, first of all, with my experience in the IDF Spokesperson’s unit I felt that the international community and international media are not aware of Israel and its positions on many things,” she said, sipping a Starbucks coffee just outside Columbia’s Journalism School. “And I felt that this was a situation that needed to be fixed, especially in Ivy League universities.”
As opposed to most young men and women hoping for an academic career in the US, Dayan only applied to one university. Had Columbia not accepted her, she would have gone to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“To be honest, I never saw myself living anywhere else on the globe than Israel. But that was a great opportunity. The minute I get my diploma I am on a plane back to Israel. I still miss Israel,” she said.
“I felt it was a really important opportunity for me to come here, and both study in a really good place and do what I believe needs to be done — and do some pro-Israel advocacy on campus.”
Even before she landed in New York, Dayan, who grew up in the West Bank settlement of Maale Shomron, had joined Students Supporting Israel, a group that seeks to “provide a clear and confident Pro-Israel voice on college campuses, and to support students in grassroots Pro-Israel advocacy.”
During Israel Apartheid Week, we do react. We do Hebrew Liberation Week
Founded at the University of Minnesota in 2012, SSI currently has 40 active chapters across North America. Dayan has since been elected a member of SSI Columbia’s general board and is responsible for the group’s external relations.
“What we do is we show the Israeli side on the connection of the Israeli people to Israel as a country and a land. We don’t do counter-Palestinians protests,” she explained, only to correct herself a moment later. “During Israel Apartheid Week, we do react. We do Hebrew Liberation Week,” she said. “We try our best not to go places attacking or reacting to someone else’s things. We try to show people the good sides of Israel and how Israel truly is as a country.”
SSI calls itself nonpolitical. Since the fall 2017 semester started, its Columbia branch has hosted MK Erel Margalit — who considers himself a proud leftist — and famed law professor and pro-Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz.
Dayan is energetic, smiley, polite, but she does not shy away from a passionate discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On one of her first days on campus, during a club fair, she approached the table of the dovish Jewish Voice for Peace group, which supports the anti-Israel boycott movement known as BDS.
“I came with the true intention to listen. To my disappointment, though not to my surprise, the first thing they said was a lie,” she said. A long discussion about whether Palestinians are allowed to drive on Israeli roads in the West Bank ensued.
“Most people on this campus don’t know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict well enough. So when they hear lies, they believe it,” she said.
Currently living in the consul-general’s official residence, Dayan is reluctant to discuss her prominent dad. “My father is a consensus in Israel for a reason,” she said hesitantly, referring to the fact that politicians and pundits from left and right spoke out on his behalf when his bid to become ambassador in Brazil was blocked because of his pro-settlement credentials.
— Dani Dayan (@AmbDaniDayan) September 15, 2017
“I grew up in a political home. It’s our hobby to talk politics,” she offered, adding that her parents got married at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Does she agree with her dad’s well-known hawkish views? “I’ll give you a hint: my father is the leftist in the house,” she replied, laughingly.
“I’m kidding. I consider myself a true liberal on most subjects,” she went on. “But I think that liberalism became a leftist value, and that’s really an unfair situation. I think you can really be both a liberal and right-wing. And that’s how I consider myself.”