Meet the Movement: Columbia University

Gabriella Davoudpour: Tell us a little bit about yourself — where are you from, what are you studying?

Ofir Dayan: I was born in a small community in Israel called “Maale Shomron”, and was an instructor for 13 years in the “Betar” movement; I did a year of volunteering in “Betar” before joining the army. I was then drafted into the IDF Spokesperson Unit, where I served for nearly 4 years. I was the spokesperson for Operation Protective Edge (a military operation launched by Israel on July 8, 2014 in response to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel), after which I went through the officers course and was the spokesperson for the 80th division. In March of 2017, I decided to finish my service and came to the University of Columbia, where I started in the fall 2017 semester as a political science major.

GD: What was your position in Operation Protective Edge?

OD: I was a spokesperson for the 188th Brigade and handled everything that had to do with media, both Israeli and international. I explained to journalists what was happening, and informed them accurately about what Israel was facing.

GD: How did you get involved with Students Supporting Israel – SSI?

OD: So, I posted on Facebook that I got into Columbia, and 2 days later I got a Facebook message from this random girl (The VP of SSI at the time) asking me if I wanted to get involved with SSI of Columbia; 2 years later, and here we are.

GD: When did you get involved with SSI?

OD: I joined SSI about 2 weeks before I started school because of that Facebook message. In the first semester, I was an ambassador on campus, and by the second semester, I joined the board as an external relations chair where I did everything that had to do with media and communicating with organizations. Last semester, I was the Vice President, and this is my first year as president of SSI.

GD: What motivated you to get involved with SSI?

OD: Firstly, I’m Israeli, so from the beginning I felt like I had a responsibility. During Operation Protective Edge, I was speaking with a U.S.  journalist, and told him that no questions were allowed to be asked in the briefing room, and said that if he had any questions, now would be the time to ask. The journalist asked my commander if he had any kids, and my commander said yes. Immediately after, the journalist said, “okay how do you feel about the fact that you’re killing kids the same age as your kids?” I was shocked at how misinformed he was, and in that moment I realized that if a senior reporter has such a twisted view of what is happening in Israel, then it must be much more construed in the minds of people who don’t spend their entire lives covering Israel, and are less knowledgeable. In terms of SSI, I felt compelled to join because of the fact that it is non-partisan. I don’t think we have the privilege of dividing ourselves into right-wing or left-wing camps; we should be focusing on working together to advocate for Israel, and showing that it has the right to exist. After we reach that point, then people can start focusing on splitting into smaller organizations and becoming more political. Another thing that motivated me is the fact that SSI of Columbia is not a Jewish organization. Many of the members are not Jewish, many of my board members are not Jewish. I really believe that if we want to make this a just cause, it cannot be confined to the Jewish community. Considering the fact that Zionism managed to achieve self-determination for the Jewish people, I believe that we have an obligation to help other minorities and aide them in achieving the same thing.

GD: How is the climate at Columbia University?

OD: Columbia is consistently one of the worst campuses to be a Jew on. I would even say that here, being pro-Israel is worse than being Jewish. We have many tenured professors and non-tenured professors that are very anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. These are professors that get backing from the University with everything that they say. We have a professor teaching a book called “The Invention of the Jews” and the university doesn’t care. We have a professor who wrote on his Facebook page something along the lines of “behind every ugly treacherous act in the world, you can find the ugly word Israel”. BDS passed in one of Columbia’s four undergraduate colleges, with 70% of the student body voting yes. It was not implemented because the president of the college and board of trustees vetoed it, but regardless, it shows the mindset of the students on campus, and where they stand.

GD: Has SSI of Columbia ever personally faced any attacks?

OD: Of course; once a semester we have an event called “People Liberation Week”, and we are regularly being screamed at, being called terrorists and murderers. My first semester at Columbia we were surrounded by a group that started chanting about Israel, and how it was a terrorist state. This happened at an event that was not focused on Israel; but the event was hijacked by this group and used in an attempt to slander our club, and the state of Israel. These are things that we face on a regular basis, but don’t let affect us, because at the end of the day, we know that we are standing up for what is right.

GD: What would you like to see your campus turn into?

OD: I would like to see the campus become more tolerant. Columbia is known as a liberal school, but at the end of the day, they are not liberal because they only accept people with the same mindset as them. I would like to see Israel become bipartisan on this campus as well. Overall, I want Columbia to be a place where people, Jews or non-Jews, feel free to support something that is very basic; the right of the Jewish people to self determinate. I don’t think it’s that complicated or too big of a thing to ask; I want the campus to be an accepting one where we can have constructive conversations without people feeling uncomfortable.

GD: What impact has SSI or pro-activism in general had on you?

OD: For me personally, it gave me a platform to do what I love to do. I’ve been doing this for many years now, even before joining the IDF, and SSI allows me to advocate for what I believe in. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know some amazing people. My board is the most diverse and amazing group of people, and I am really thankful for that.

GD: In your opinion, what is the greatest thing that SSI of Columbia has done in terms of changing the campus and really having your voices heard?

OD: When I came to Columbia 2 years ago, the anti-Israel movements were very very strong. Their events were attended by many students and faculty. After SSI became strong on campus, the number of their events became less and less. The anti-Israel movements know that whenever they have an event, we are going to be there, asking the tough questions, and ultimately exposing to truth to those attending who aren’t fully aware of the situation. As a result, they can’t lie and misinform students and faculty as much, and that is very important.

GD: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

OD: Definitely in Israel, still doing what I do today; advocating for Israel.

GD: If you could give one piece of advice to all members of SSI across the country (and Canada), what would it be?

OD: Be proud of who you are. Don’t apologize when asking for the most basic thing.  I feel that we as a community sometimes feel uncomfortable standing up for ourselves and for justice, but we shouldn’t; we should always stand up for what is right.

*this interview has been condensed.

About the Author
Gabriella Davoudpour is a first year college student and board member of Students Supporting Israel at Santa Monica college. Currently, she serves as an intern for the national SSI Movement as a publisher and blogger. Gabriella is a sociology major with a background in writing and analysis.
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