Wounded IDF veterans tour US colleges as campus climate sours

Former soldiers describe experiences with war and terror to Jews coping with collegiate anti-Zionism; new report claims increasing attacks on Jewish student identity

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

IDF veteran Ohad Roisblatt speaks to a group of New York University students in New York City, October 19, 2022. (Courtesy)
IDF veteran Ohad Roisblatt speaks to a group of New York University students in New York City, October 19, 2022. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — On a dark night in July 2014, Ohad Roisblatt led his troops toward a Hamas target as the IDF rolled into the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge.

Roisblatt, a platoon commander in the Golani infantry brigade, was directing his team’s armored personnel carrier toward Shejaiya, a stronghold of the terror group, when the vehicle stalled on a road between a two-story building and a lemon grove.

He dismounted, surveying the area using night vision, and ordered his troops out of the vehicle. Then, a rocket-propelled grenade hurtled out of the darkness and struck the transport.

Roisblatt went flying. Three bullets slammed into his legs, shrapnel embedded in his hand and back, and another huge explosion rocked the vehicle as the troops’ explosives inside blew up. He lay on his back, fearing terrorists were on their way to kidnap him. He had lost his rifle in the blast and hugged a grenade to his chest, his only weapon left.

“I was shouting and shouting and no one answered me,” Roisblatt told a group of students at New York University late last month. “I just knew that I was all by myself.”

Seven of his soldiers were killed, including Oron Shaul, whose remains are still held by Hamas, and American Max Steinberg.

Roisblatt told his story to the Jewish students amid a stream of antisemitic incidents on US campuses and as surveys suggest an increasingly hostile atmosphere for Zionist students. He visited seven colleges across the US during the weeklong tour alongside Dana Ofir, who was severely injured during her service in a high-profile terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

The meetings bolstered the Jewish students, helped the wounded soldiers recover from lingering trauma and forged connections between the two groups.

The tour was part of a program by the New York-based nonprofit group Belev Echad, which provides services and support to wounded IDF veterans.

Dana Ofir, left, and Ohad Roisblatt, right, speak to US college students during a campus tour, October 2022. (Courtesy)

The pair described their experiences to students during small, informal meetings. At NYU, they spoke to around a dozen rapt undergraduates for about an hour at the campus Chabad center. New York universities have been a battleground for antisemitism and pro-Palestinian activities, regular protests by young people call for Israel’s destruction on the streets, and the city’s Jewish population has reported near-daily harassment in the five boroughs this year.

“The students need to see and have answers to claims that are said about them, what the Israeli soldiers are doing, what’s going on in Israel,” said Rabbi Yisroel Kievman of the NYU Chabad center.

“We see so much in the news and the people come to them on campus [about] what’s going on on the Palestinian side, and this gives them information that they can use in conversation and know what they’re talking about,” Kievman said. “I get students all the time who say ‘I want to converse with these people and sometimes I don’t know all the information.'”

Ofir was a fitness instructor in the military, she told the students. “Every day I woke up and I had meaning in my life,” she said.

In 2017, while she was on an officer training course, she gathered with her comrades on Jerusalem’s scenic Armon Hanatziv promenade during a tour of the capital. A terrorist driving a truck plowed into the group, killing four of her close friends and causing her severe injuries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits IDF soldier Dana Ofir after she was injured in a truck-ramming attack, at the Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem on January 9, 2017. (Kobi Gidon, GPO)

She showed the students a video of the attack, X-rays of her injuries and photos of herself in the hospital and going through rehab. The attack had fractured her pelvic bones, vertebra, tibia and nose, torn her liver and caused heavy internal bleeding. While in the ICU, she could only consume ice cubes because her condition was so unstable, she said.

After the attack in Gaza, Roisblatt crawled into the lemon grove and found his one surviving soldier. The pair saw a group approaching them, and he turned off his radio and told his soldier to hold his fire to avoid giving away their position. Then he noticed the leader of the group was limping, and realized it was his commander, who injured his leg days before.

He was evacuated to a hospital and spent a year in recovery. Ofir went on to graduate from her officers course in a wheelchair.

They still had their trauma to deal with, though.

“It’s like a monster on your shoulder,” Ofir said of her PTSD, which she said could be set off by the sound of trucks, news of terror attacks, and other reminders.

“I came home and my soldiers didn’t. I didn’t know how to deal with that,” Roisblatt said. “I was a kid, 22 years old, and suddenly I had to face seven mothers, seven fathers.”

Zehava Shaul, mother of Oron Shaul, speaks during a press conefrence at her home in Poria Illit, December 13, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

“Who taught me how to come to a mother that lost the most important thing in her life and tell her that it’s my fault? I didn’t know how to respond to that,” he said. “The PTSD came, the guilt, the physical rehab, all of those things together. I was in a really bad moment in my life and I didn’t know how to get out of it.”

Both returned to military service after their injuries to give themselves structure and purpose, and said speaking about their experiences to the groups helped them cope with the lingering effects of the violence.

The students peppered Roisblatt and Ofir with questions about their accounts of the events, their military service, and life in Israel after they told their stories.

The students, who were mostly religious, also shared their experiences with antisemitism, helping the two sides connect over their hardships related to the conflict. Several of the students chatted with the soldiers in faltering Hebrew after the event, saying they were learning the language in a college course.

One student said they had been harassed during the Simchat Torah holiday near campus.

“We were dancing hakafot around the block and people came out of a restaurant on the corner and started shouting at us,” he said.

Ohad Roisblatt, far left, and Dana Ofir, far right, chat with NYU students in New York City, October 19, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“When bad stuff happens in Israel, you are the ones who get all the rejections and you are the ones who get all the hate,” Ofir said. “It’s not just Israel, it’s not just Gaza, it’s not just combat soldiers on the front lines.”

“Doing what you do, standing against that kind of stuff, it’s very inspiring for us,” Roisblatt said.

Roisblatt said on a previous campus tour in Kentucky, protesters had interrupted his speech.

“I started talking, four or five pro-Palestine students just stood up with Palestinian flags and they shouted ‘murderers,'” he said.

“I was shocked for days after this because we don’t live it, we just hear about it,” he said. “Antisemitism, it’s always connected, but when you live in Israel you don’t feel it because we are the majority.”

“When I saw it I thought immediately ‘I want to do it again, I have to do it again because I want to meet people like you who are facing it,'” he said.

The low-key tour last month did not draw any protesters.

Roisblatt is now finishing up a law degree and Ofir is working as a fitness instructor. She wrote a book about her experience titled “28 seconds,” the duration of the Armon Hanatziv terror attack.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

US campuses have seen a slew of anti-Israel activities in recent years, with Jewish students saying the incidents often veer into antisemitism. Jews have been excluded from sexual assault support groups, vandals have drawn swastikas on a number of campuses, student groups have banned Zionists and Jewish buildings have been targeted with eggs, antisemitic flyers and vandalism, among other incidents.

A report released on Wednesday by the AMCHA Initiative, a pro-Israel group, said threats to Jewish identity on campus had occurred on 60% of the US campuses most popular with Jewish students last year. The threats included bullying and intimidation, vilifying pro-Israel groups and Jews, boycotts and attempts to ostracize Zionist students and groups.

The survey recorded 254 incidents it defined as attacks on Jewish identity. The threats doubled following last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, and faculty and far-left anti-Zionist Jewish groups played a significant role, the report said.

The report surveyed 109 campuses most popular with Jewish students by collating data from incident reports, media reports, social media and other records online.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League said it had tallied over 350 anti-Israel incidents on US campuses during the last school year, saying the activities had negatively impacted Jewish students and were part of a growing trend of ostracizing Zionists.

The incidents ranged from harsh criticism of the Jewish state to harassing and excluding Jewish students due to their perceived stances on Israel.

The report highlighted what it said was a growing movement to make opposition to Israel and Zionism “core elements of campus life or as a prerequisite for full acceptance in the campus community.” Most US Jews believe that caring about Israel is important or essential to being Jewish, though a Pew survey from 2020 found those aged 18-29 were slightly less likely to share the sentiment.

A survey by Hillel and the ADL last year found that one-third of Jewish students experienced antisemitism on campus, mainly via verbal harassment in person and online, as well as property damage.

Federal probes are investigating antisemitism at the University of Vermont, the State University of New York at New Paltz, the University of Southern California and Brooklyn College.

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