Ofir Dayan is president of SSI – Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University. Ofir describes the group’s primary mission statement as ‘Israel’s right to exist.’
Ofir describes it as an ‘all-encompassing club.’ It is not left or right/ liberal or conservative; all are welcome regardless of their stance on other issues (abortion/gay marriage/ immigration etc.) as long as they are interested in Israel itself, eliminating the need to form splinter groups.
All aboard on the bandwagon, they have a diverse set of members including social liberals, conservatives, Trump-fans, Warren fans, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Ofir insists that non-Jews are particularly welcome to participate because they believe that a liberation movement such as Zionism should be an example for all groups out there who believe in making a homeland.
SSI is registered as a ‘cultural group’ by Columbia University and Ofir disagrees that it is political – even if they do get wound up in politics!
For example, biggest event – Hebrew Liberation Week, focuses on Israeli culture. They talk about the various diaspora communities who came into Israel and also focus about diverse topics such as archaeology in the region.
Ofir says it should be therefore considered something along the lines of say an Indian, French, Chinese or say any other ethnic or cultural interest group – where different people can just put aside petty differences and come together for a cultural cause. After all, they also have done ‘Israeli food events.’
Columbia has recently been ranked as one of the most anti-Israeli campuses by many media outlets – Algemeiner, Jerusalem Post etc. Ofir admits that it is very tough for them given this environment of hostility.
Ofir however believes that this hurdle only makes her work “rewarding” since overcoming such a challenge only gives the group more meaning;
The ranks of SSI has grown in numbers over the last 2 semesters regardless of this intense anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
In addition to Israeli culture, the group is committed to fighting such anti-Semitism overall on campus.
When I asked Ofir which spectrum is the biggest threat in this regard, her response was that both extreme right and extreme left both agree on one thing – the destruction of Jews and Israel, so they both need to be addressed.
Couple of instances where swastika graffiti was seen on campus is definitely from the extreme right. Extreme left on the other hand, is seen everyday and more prevalent.
This is because the students on campus tend to be more left leaning overall.
SSI maintains good connections with many clubs (Except of course the pro-BDS ones).
A group that they have particularly good ties with is Aryeh, another pro-Israel club.
SSI also maintains ties with other clubs, not necessarily just the Jewish groups.
Many SSI Columbia members are also active in other clubs and societies. Unfortunately, there are instances where they face hostility for belonging to a Zionist group – recently, one member wasn’t allowed in a hip-hop club because of affiliation to SSI.
The club itself has a very active online presence. In terms of social media, they share a lot of articles and content that they have made themselves. They feel it is very important to do so.
In the beginning of semester, they had Muslim and Druze speakers come and talk.
They also did a movie screening about the life of Tamar Ariel, a religious female combat navigator.
They had other events planned such as a debate about a peace deal, but sadly they were cancelled because the ongoing coronavirus outbreak has put the school on shutdown.
According to Ofir, some in the administration such as the Dean of The School of General Studies are very open minded, some however, are less so. She recounted how some groups broke rules to harass their members and were not reprimanded – highlighting a clear bias.
Despite the many setbacks, Ofir holds an optimistic outlook and likes to believe that there will be change and thinks the school should to do better.
She encourages everyone, Jew or non-Jew to join SSI – “first coffee on us” she says with a chuckle.
To everyone who still insists that Israel is an apartheid/ evil state, Ofir cites data saying that the Palestinian population has grown a lot since Israel’s independence in 1948, dispelling the genocide argument.
There are Arabs/Muslims in the Knesset (parliament) and a Muslim judge put a Jewish president in jail (Moshe Katsav).
She insists that the the facts are ‘right there.’
And Ofir invites people who still disagree to come meet up with them or go to Israel, and just walk around and see the truth for themselves.