While across the US, the college scene breeds antisemitism and delegitimizes Israel, IDF veterans have decided to fight for truth by sharing their personal stories of valor, tragedy and triumph—the collective story of Israelis in Israel.
In a Belev Echad-sponsored mission in cooperation with Chabad on Campus, a group of IDF veterans who were wounded in action traveled across US college campuses where they met Jewish American peers and shared their experiences both as Israeli civilians and as IDF soldiers defending their people and homeland.
This past month, Dana Ophir and Matan Rutger, former IDF soldiers that were seriously wounded during their army service, toured close to a dozen colleges on the East Coast, sharing their personal stories with hundreds of students who were deeply impacted by their commitment and sacrifice.
Rutger, of the Kfir Brigade, was run over by a Palestinian terrorist with the intent to kill. He survived, but required multiple surgeries and spent months in intensive rehabilitation.
Ophir was injured in a vicious car-ramming that left four of her friends dead and she herself was later confined to a wheelchair. “I’m a walking miracle. From running ten miles without losing my breath, I became a total invalid," she told the audiences in the US. "But I refused to succumb to fate and with titanium instead of bones in my body, taught myself to take one baby step at a time,” she reflected on her situation.
"I refused to succumb to fate and with titanium instead of bones in my body, taught myself to take one baby step at a time.”Dana Ophir
“When I visit the college campuses, I see young people who are open to hearing us,” Rutger said. “When they hear what I went through, they identify and connect.
"They understand that military service is not about aggression or occupation, but about defending my own family and countrymen and that we’d so much rather live in peace than carrying weapons," he said during his visit. According to Rutger, when he spoke about his personal story, "it opened their [the student's] hearts.”
Tony, a Penn State University sophomore participated in the event where the two former Israeli soldiers spoke. “Meeting IDF soldiers right around my age who’ve experienced so much has inspired me and totally changed my attitude," he said. Tony added that "they know what it means to defend their homeland and people.”
American Jews on college campuses
2020 and 2021 saw an uptick in antisemitic incidents in the US, causing many Jewish students to feel marginalized and conceal their Jewish identity.
“One of the main problems is that, often, these incidents don’t take the form of classic antisemitism,” said Rabbi Uriel Vigler, co-founder of Belev Echad, the nonprofit organization and advocacy group sponsoring the campus mission. “Pro-Palestinian or BDS-affiliated parties proclaim, ‘We’re not against Jews, just against the State of Israel.’ But practically, they object to anything Jewish-related, making every Jewish student feel threatened.”
Rabbi Hershy Gourarie of Penn State Chabad-Undergrads expressed that “Hosting Belev Echad was an absolute pleasure. It’s amazing for students to see true dedication, heroism and what it means to overcome obstacles and really defend your homeland.”
“Using my personal miracle to open eyes to the truth of life in Israel has become my mission!” Ophir declared. “Some colleges we visited reacted with barrages of protests, but I’m not afraid. We’re committed to fighting this war for truth.”