WEST HARTFORD, Connecticut — The questions come fast and furious for Israel Defense Force reservists Keren and Haitham, who goes by the nickname Tom.
“How do you show your support for Israel on campus?” “How does training and combat affect you?” “Do you have to live in Israel to show your love for it?”
About 40 students sit inside the book lined beit midrash, or study hall, of Hebrew High School of New England (HHNE). They have more questions than time allows. Still the pair does their best to answer each one clearly, concisely and completely.
This is the second to last stop on a nearly three-week long Israeli Soldiers Tour, or IST, through New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Along the way the two, whose last names have been withheld for security reasons, met students at University of Hartford and cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“This is something very important to us. The students here have a variety of views and it’s really important for us to show them the complexities of Israel. The reality on the ground is more complicated than what they might know,” said Rabbi Jeremy Bruce, HHNE’s head of school.
IST, sponsored by the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, is just one of several such tours to crisscross the United States, Canada and Europe each year. While each organization differs, they all seek to put a “human face” on the IDF. Additionally, they work to counter misconceptions about life in the IDF and push back against anti-Israel activists.
The IST dispatches six teams of pairs on campuses, in high schools, synagogues and churches throughout the US. The reservists who take part in the IST speak with students about their backgrounds, what it’s like to serve, and how life changes after leaving the IDF.
Born in Israel, Keren and her family moved to East Brunswick, New Jersey, when she was two. She moved back to Israel at 16 and enlisted in the IDF — just as her parents and grandparents had done.
“I never took the fact that I was free for granted or that Israel was there as a homeland for Jewish people for granted,” she said, adding that all four of her grandparents survived the Holocaust. Her grandmother hasn’t cut her hair since the end of the war “because they cut your hair in the camps.”
Keren served as a basic training commander and then after knee and back problems sidelined her, she served as an assistant to a company commander with a Paratrooper unit near Gaza.
Tom, 30, comes from Bir al-Maksur, a Bedouin village in northern Israel. Like all Bedouins, he wasn’t required to serve in the Israeli army. Yet, like most of the men in his family and village, he joined. He was drafted into the Israeli Air Force in the Iron Dome unit.
He told the students about arresting a Palestinian man in his home. The young man didn’t resist and on the way to jail, Tom asked him why he was doing what he did since they were both Muslims and their religion forbids murder.
The man’s answer surprised Tom.
“‘You are free, you have a decent life in Israel. We don’t have that, no one from the Palestinian Authority cares how we live or what we need. I did this for my family,’” he recounted.
He’s repeated this story often these past few weeks as a way to show American students that not just Jews, but Muslims and Christians also serve in the IDF.
“I want them [students] to have another voice and face of Israel,” Tom said, explaining his reasons for joining the tour.
Now in the reserves, Tom is getting his degree in law, government, and management at the Academic College for Science and Law. He also works for Acharai, or Follow Me. The non-profit prepares teens for their military service and encourages them to become socially involved and responsible.
The school’s Rabbi Bruce said he hopes students might consider doing a gap year in Israel, or spending a semester there after hearing the reservists’ stories.
Where the reservists taking part on the IST seek to engage with students in close settings, other organizations, such as Reservists on Duty, take a slightly different tack.
“Our group is built like a unit. Rather than having new people each time, we work with the same core group of reservists. We are also more activists than speakers. We are not coming to apologize for the air we breathe. We are coming during Israeli Apartheid Weeks,” Amit Deri, the group’s executive director, said in a phone call with The Times of Israel.
Deri, the former director of the pre-military college Tavor, founded the NGO in 2015 as a way to engage with university and college students.
When members of the group show up they might wear blue sweatshirts emblazoned with the words “Defending Freedom from Hate.” Some hold signs saying “I was an Israeli soldier: don’t listen to the lies. Ask me anything.”
Beyond speaking about the ethics of the IDF soldier, the group talks about how Israel treats its minorities. Many of the organization’s members are Druze, Arab, Muslims, Christians, and Bedouin.
Beyond fighting BDS, Deri said his organization strives to get Jewish students to engage with Israel and their Jewish identity.
“We care a lot about Jewish students and pro-Israel students around the world. I see them as brothers,” he said.
That’s also the guiding philosophy behind Our Soldiers Speak.
OSS has sent IDF and Israeli National Police officers to more than 400 campuses across North America and Europe where, according to their website, they engage with “the pro, the anti and the undecided.”
The Boston-based CAMERA on Campus, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, has sent speakers abroad since 2006; not all of them are IDF reservists.
It recently sponsored Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov on a trip to the UK to speak about diversity in Israel’s Knesset. It also sponsored presentations across the US by Israeli photojournalists Gil Cohen Magen and Noam Bedein.
Not all CAMERA-supported groups are led by Jewish speakers, Lia Lands, campus communications for CAMERA on campus, said in an email. Its student activists include Christian and Muslim students. Additionally, CAMERA-supported groups will co-host events with other groups on campus, such as the Indian Students Association or the Persian Club.
Protest too much
While most events go off without a hitch, given the current campus climate, they aren’t immune to protests.
The night before Keren and Tom arrived in Connecticut they spoke at Northeastern University in Boston. They had to remain inside the hall where they spoke until campus security cleared about 30 protestors connected with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
And last year during a CAMERA on Campus event at University College London, protesters surrounded a room where reservist Hen Mazzig spoke. Mazzig was eventually escorted out of the room with a police jacket over him to make his escape safer.
“But again, this was an extreme case,” Lands said. “On rare occasions, anti-Israel protesters disrupt events by heckling the speaker, which is what happened when we co-sponsored a talk by Danny Danon at City College New York in May.
“Their message is consistent and clear: anti-Israel student groups such as SJP aren’t interested in learning from someone who contradicts to their own beliefs. Their only goal is to prevent speakers from sharing the truth. Oftentimes negative incidents are covered by the press, but it is not representative of the majority of events,” Lands said.
Now with less than two days left on their tour, signs of fatigue are showing. Keren is fighting a cold. Tom can’t wait to get home and see his nephews. And both are sick of eating on the road, especially fast food.
“They didn’t even have a tomato for the bagel and cream cheese at Dunkin Donuts,” Keren, 24, said.
Still, the pair would do it again.
“This is the first step of what I want to do for my life. I want to do Israel advocacy. This is something very important to me,” Keren said. “A lot of people don’t know we live happily in Israel.”