Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who campaigns in the U.S. for Muslim women’s rights by raising awareness of female genital mutilation and violence against women, was honored in December by American Friends of the Open University of Israel at the Pierre Hotel in New York.

Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, Hirsi Ali was raised in exile in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya as her father was a political opponent of the Somali dictatorship. She said, “I come from a culture that has young people saying we love death more than you love life.”

As a critic of the way women are oppressed under Islam, Hirsi Ali has become a target of Islamic extremists. Death threats forced her to flee the Netherlands, where she had served in the Dutch parliament, and find safe haven in New York as an American citizen.

“I love life,” she declared. “Those who love life hate to take the life of others. But I am not a pacifist. I believe if your life is threatened, you should go after them.”

She said she visited Israel and loved it. “If only all the Middle East could be like that. Israel is the only state that sets out to educate our enemies. They send medicine to the Syrians and the Palestinians. It makes me the most passionate Zionist.”

There are currently 48,000 studying at the Open University, more than at any of the other seven universities in Israel. Ingeborg Rennert, board president of the American Friends, and her husband, Ira Leon Rennert, have raised more than $20 million for scholarships. Among the guests at the benefit dinner were Senator Joseph and Hadassah Lieberman, Nina Rennert Davidson, Randy and Tamara Winn, Pernilla and David Avital, Rebecca and Edward Sugar and board chair Mimi Hass-Perlman.

“Thanks to Open University,” Consul General Ido Aharoni said, “every kid in the country gets a chance for higher education.”

Tim Boxer was a columnist at the New York Post for two decades. At the same time he has been a columnist for The New York Jewish Week for 35 years, and editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com for 16 years. He is the author of Jewish Celebrity Hall of Fame, interviews of Hollywood stars about their Jewish roots.