A group of IDF reservists had to be escorted out of a Students Supporting Israel speaking event by police following a large protest by pro-Palestinian students at the University of California, Irvine, last week.
The army veterans were visiting the campus as part of Project Gideon – an initiative of Reservists on Duty, an anti-BDS group in Israel in collaboration with the Lone Soldier Center – which enlists American IDF reservists to fight against BDS on university and college campuses across North America.
The five-member delegation – Jewish, Christian and Muslim IDF and National Service veterans representing different sectors and perspectives of Israel society – was on campus to counter Apartheid Week events there.
Leor Golan, who headed the group, told The Jerusalem Post
that at the speaking event held Wednesday evening, some 50 pro-Palestinian activists attended, disrupting and yelling.
“They were provoking with whole speeches about how bad Israel is and finishing with an antagonizing question and cheering and yelling and interrupting,” he said.
“They were warned a few times by university officials that they were interrupting and not playing nice, to the point where they got kicked out, but then they waited outside after we finished,” he added. “We went out [of the room] and the cops escorted us out for protection, because they were really getting in our faces and there was a lot of tension and fights almost broke out.”
In a video obtained by the Post
, the lone soldiers (that is, they live in Israel without close family that can help them) are seen being escorted out of the event holding an Israeli flag and surrounded by pro-Palestinian activists holding signs and shouting.
Golan, who was born and raised in New York before making aliya some 10 years ago and volunteering for the IDF, said the tension did not deter him or his group from pursuing their pro-Israel activities.
“We have a lot of passion for this issue,” he said. “There is nothing more annoying than to see people back at home spewing lies and hatred based on lies or exaggerations – it gets you riled up and we want to do something about it.”
According to Golan, as part of their Apartheid Week activities, the anti-Israel students at the university erected a fake wall, held mock funerals for babies, handed out eviction notices and engaged with students passing by.
He said his group set up a booth nearby, handed out flyers, held up signs and also engaged with students and passersby about Israel.
“There is a lot of tension because we are standing right in front of the fake wall,” he said. “It is interesting to see how annoyed they get that we are standing there and talking to people, telling them the truth or offering another side to the story – they thought they had free reign and essentially we are ruining it for them.”
Other than his group, and one Christian student who supported them, there was no pro-Israel or Jewish student group countering the pro-Palestinian events on campus, Golan said.
“Our presence here has such a big impact and just being here is a big deal, since there is no opposing voice,” he said. “I’ve talked to many [Jewish] students who told me they are afraid – if they stand for what they believe in then they sacrifice their social status and even their safety.”
Golan said his group was subject to insults and name-calling by the some 40 pro-Palestinian supporters participating in the week’s events.
“We are outnumbered, but I think that we are doing really good work,” he said. “It is different when you are just a local Jewish student, we are much more effective at getting our messages across because we can say: ‘I was there [in Israel] and that didn’t happen and I can show personal pictures of me in the army and share my stories.’”
Jonathan Nizar Elkhoury, another member of the delegation, told the Post
that Apartheid Week at the university is “not pro-Palestinian” but rather “pro-hate.”
“There is nothing talking about what to do to help the Palestinians, the students are just promoting hate against Israel, Jews, the IDF and everyone that works with Israel,” he said.
Elkhoury, the son of a former South Lebanese Army officer, fled to Israel with his family in 2001 and today works as an advocate for Christians and other minorities.
“For the past few years, I’ve been really outspoken about the situation, about Christians as a minority and about life in Israel in general, and it hurts me to see all these lies spread about Israel,” he said.
Elkhoury, who has spoken on more than 40 campuses throughout the US and the UK, explained that he wants to offer a “different perspective” and share his personal stories as a Christian and Arab living in Israel.
“Some people didn’t even know that there are Arabs living in Israel – they had no idea that 20% of Israelis are minorities, they think that only Jews can live in the country,” he said.
The group’s role is to “make the students think more and not take what is being said at face value; once they are open to learning more, then I think we did our job,” Elkhoury said.
Amit Deri, CEO of Reservists on Duty, told the Post
that Project Gideon participants are determined to continue to support Israel on campuses across the US and that the hostility at the California university did not deter them.
“We do not apologize for defending Israel and we will continue to arrive at any campus or event that invites us without fear or concern,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to silence us; we want to confront the lies about Israel and refute them from firsthand experience.
“Reservists on Duty is here to strengthen the students and encourage them to take a proud stand for Israel,” Deri said.
The university issued a statement regarding the events after an inquiry from the Post
: “Each year, UCI student groups hold a variety of events on campus to encourage diversity, understanding and dialogue,” it read.
“On Wednesday, May 10, Students Supporting Israel sponsored a discussion session featuring a panel of Israeli veterans. During the question-and-answer period, in the final 30 minutes of the session, a group of approximately 40 people entered the venue to ask questions. The discussion became heated, with shouting and chanting for several minutes. A UCI administrator, who was on the scene throughout the event, coordinated an orderly flow of questions and notified the UCI Police Department. The group of 40 left before the police arrived and the session continued without incident. Police officers escorted the panelists safely to the parking lot at the end of the event. No arrests were made.
“UCI campus leadership immediately met to discuss the situation. The Office of Academic Integrity & Student Conduct is reviewing the incident and will make a recommendation on the appropriate course of action, if any. There is no outcome at this time and the review process is ongoing.
“UCI actively supports diverse views and civil discourse. We stress thoughtful, respectful dialogue with the idea that unfettered speech is more powerful when accompanied by respect for others. We also believe members of our campus community have a right to meet peacefully and express ideas in a safe environment. The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our utmost priority."