As we crouched against the stone wall, rocks whizzed over our heads at terrifying speeds. I took stock of our situation, and realized there was a legitimate danger that we could be overrun. Slowly, I lifted my head above the wall to take stock of our situation. A split second after my eyes had cleared the wall, a rock the size of an orange slammed into the front of my helmet, stunning me, and knocking me straight onto my back. Had I come up a few milliseconds quicker, the rock would have hit my face rather than my helmet.
My teammate grabbed my vest and pulled me back against the stone wall, which was all that separated us from an angry group of Palestinians that had followed us for the past 2 miles and seemed hell bent on stoning us to death. As my senses came back to me, the first thing I heard were the sounds of a crowd chanting in Arabic.
Six years and 2 weeks later, a crowd of Palestinian supporters was again chanting. This time I could make out their words, which were clear and forceful: “Vivé Vivé intifada,” alluding to the armed terrorist uprisings that took the lives of over 1,000 innocent Israelis during the early 2000’s. The scene was York University in Canada, where I had been asked by Reservists on Duty to speak with four other former soldiers about my experiences in the IDF.
Hundreds came out to protest our presentation. They demanded that the University ban Israeli soldiers from speaking on their campus. Given mandatory inscription in Israel, what they were effectively requesting was the silencing of an entire group of people on the basis of their country of origin.
The protestors alleged genocide, occupation, and apartheid, and refused all attempts at dialogue, preferring to chant slogans and wave flags. Intermittent acts of violence marred the event; as we spoke, we could hear the protestors shouting outside the doors of the auditorium. Thanks to the presence of 20 armed police and several anonymous groups that stood between us and those seeking to disrupt the event, we were able to address an audience of about 100 people about our experiences in the IDF, and the truth about many of the false claims being shouted by the crowd. We engaged in honest dialogue with several well-meaning Palestinian supporters and shared our experiences with an engaged crowd.
Throughout the evening, I and the four other soldiers approached people waving Palestinian flags and tried to facilitate dialogue. Three times during our presentation, protestors who had hidden themselves within the event stood up and began chanting “End the occupation.” In all cases we tried to have a conversation with those that had sought to disrupt our event- not a single one of them even acknowledged our presence. They continued chanting as they were escorted out by security. The only person that evening who responded to my question, “What occupation?” shouted back confidently: “The Israeli military occupation of Gaza!” Israel pulled all of its citizens and the military out of Gaza in 2005; I wondered how many others in the crowd were equally uninformed. Ironically, while the protestors chanted slogans demonizing Israel, they had nothing to say about the Hamas government, which forbids homosexuality upon pain of death, stifles freedom of speech and expression, and redirects supplies intended to help build Hospitals and schools towards building terror tunnels into Israel. But informed dialogue is not the only thing that appears to be missing at York University. Equally troubling is the absence of the Administration’s condemnation of incitement and hate speech.
In the year 2019, nearly 75 years after the Holocaust, in a Democratic Country, it is once again dangerous to be Jewish. In an event organized by a Jewish student group, less than a dozen students turned up among the nearly 100 attendees – we were informed by those that came that the other students were scared to be seen at the event and be labeled as Jewish, or as Israel supporters. One student told us that though he wore a kippah to classes, he was often scared for his safety.
In one of the many skirmishes that occurred that evening, I was shoved sideways, and as my head was contorted down towards the ground, I saw a book that must have been dropped by a student, which was promptly trampled by the crowd. I watched as several pages were ripped out of it before the surging crowd moved me once again, and it fell out of view. As I struggled to regain my footing, all I could think about was Heinrich Heine’s chilling 1823 prophecy: “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
While no books were burned on Wednesday night, freedom of speech was unapologetically attacked while the administration did nothing to stop it. If history has taught us anything, it is that if hatred is left unchecked, it will not stop at words. Hillel refused to support the event, citing security concerns. To the leadership of the organizations – I fear that you, too, have forgotten the lessons of history.
From the ashes of the Holocaust, the Jewish people rebuilt, and re-established their historic homeland in the land of Israel. They fought off six invading armies on the first day of their independence, and have never stopped standing up to those who threaten their right to exist. Israel did not refrain from declaring statehood because of security concerns. The thousands of men and women that took up arms to defend their new country made a conscious decision that the right to live freely in a Jewish nation was worth whatever it might cost.
Reservists on Duty came to York to represent that ethos. We did not come to campus to recruit; we came to give first hand accounts of our experiences in the IDF, dispel false accusations, and to remind the Jewish community of our proud history of standing up for what we believe in, even when it’s not easy, and even when it’s dangerous. Hillel’s actions fly in the face of the very ethos on which Israel was built. As Ben Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
To those that seek to silence our voices – know that we, as proud Israelis, will speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. We will not hide, and we will not be intimidated.