Wounded IDF veterans tour US colleges as campus climate sours

NEW YORK — On a dark night in July 2014, Ohad Roisblatt was leading his troops to a Hamas objective as the IDF rolled into the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge.

Roisblatt, a platoon commander with the Golani Infantry Brigade, was directing his team’s armored personnel carrier toward Shejaiya, a stronghold of the terrorist group, when the vehicle stalled on a road between a two-story building and a lemon grove.

He dismounted, surveyed the area with night vision, and ordered his troops to abandon the vehicle. Then a rocket-propelled grenade shot out of the darkness and hit the transporter.

rose leaf flew. Three bullets slammed into his legs, shrapnel lodged in his hand and back, and another massive explosion rocked the vehicle as the troops’ explosives inside detonated. He was lying on his back, fearing terrorists were on their way to kidnap him. He had lost his rifle in the blast and was clutching a grenade to his chest, his only weapon left.

“I screamed and screamed and nobody answered me,” Roisblatt told a group of students at New York University late last month. “All I knew was that I was all alone.”

Seven of his soldiers were killed, including Oron Shaul, whose remains are still being held by Hamas, and American Max Steinberg.

Roisblatt told his story to Jewish students amid a spate of anti-Semitic incidents on US campuses and as polls indicate an increasingly hostile atmosphere for Zionist students. He visited seven US colleges during the week-long tour alongside Dana Ofir, who was seriously injured while serving in a high-profile terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

The meetings empowered the Jewish students, helped wounded soldiers recover from ongoing trauma, and forged bonds between the two groups.

The tour was part of a program by the New York-based nonprofit group Belev Echad, which provides service and support to wounded IDF veterans.

Dana Ofir (left) and Ohad Roisblatt (right) speak to US college students during a campus tour in October 2022. (With kind approval)

The couple described their experiences in small, informal meetings to the students. At NYU, they spoke to about a dozen enthusiastic students for about an hour at the on-campus Chabad Center. New York’s universities have been a battleground for anti-Semitism and pro-Palestinian activity, regular protests by young people have taken the streets demanding the destruction of Israel, and the city’s Jewish population has reported near-daily harassment throughout the five boroughs this year.

“Students need to see and have answers to claims that are being made about them, what the Israeli soldiers are doing, what’s going on in Israel,” said Rabbi Yisroel Kievman of the NYU Chabad Center.

“We see so much on the news and people come to them on campus [about] what’s going on on the Palestinian side, and that gives them information that they can use in conversations and know what they’re talking about,” Kievman said. “I keep getting students who say, ‘I want to talk to these people, and sometimes I don’t know all the information.'”

Ofir was a fitness trainer in the military, she told the students. “Every day I woke up and had a purpose in my life,” she said.

In 2017, during an officer training course, she caught up with her comrades on Jerusalem’s scenic Armon Hanatziv Promenade during a tour of the capital. A terrorist driving a truck sped into the group, killing four of her close friends and seriously injuring her.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits IDF soldier Dana Ofir at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, January 9, 2017 after she was injured in a truck ramming attack. (Kobi Gidon, GPO)

She showed the students video of the attack, X-rays of their injuries and photos of herself in the hospital and rehab. The attack had fractured her pelvic bones, vertebrae, tibia and nose, ruptured her liver and caused severe internal bleeding. In the ICU, she could only consume ice cubes because her condition was so unstable, she said.

After the attack in Gaza, Roisblatt crawled into the lemon grove and found his only surviving soldier. The pair saw a group approaching them and he turned off his radio and told his soldier to stop firing so as not to reveal their position. He then noticed that the leader of the group was limping and realized it was his commander, who had injured his leg days earlier.

He was evacuated to a hospital and spent a year in convalescence. Ofir completed her officers’ course in a wheelchair.

However, they still had to deal with their trauma.

“It’s like a monster on your shoulder,” Ofir said of her PTSD, which she says could be triggered by the sound of trucks, news of terrorist attacks, and other memories.

“I came home and my soldiers didn’t. I didn’t know how to deal with it,” said Roisblatt. “I was a kid, 22 years old, and suddenly I had to face seven mothers and seven fathers.”

Zehava Shaul, mother of Oron Shaul, speaks during a press conference at her home in Poria Illit, December 13, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

“Who taught me how to come to a mother who lost the most important thing in her life and tell her it’s my fault? I didn’t know how to react to that,” he said. “The PTSD came, the guilt, the physical rehab, all those things together. I was at a really bad moment in my life and I didn’t know how to get out of it.”

Both returned to military service after their injuries to give themselves structure and purpose, and said that speaking to the groups about their experiences helped them cope with the ongoing effects of the violence.

After telling their stories, the students showered Roisblatt and Ofir with questions about their accounts of the events, their military service and life in Israel.

The mostly religious students also shared their experiences of anti-Semitism and helped the two sides to overcome their difficulties related to the conflict. Some of the students spoke to the soldiers in shaky Hebrew after the event, saying they were taking a college course to learn the language.

One student said he was harassed near campus during the Simchat Torah holiday.

“We danced hakafot around the block and people came out of a corner restaurant and started yelling at us,” he said.

Ohad Roisblatt, far left, and Dana Ofir, far right, chat with NYU students in New York City, October 19, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“When bad things happen in Israel, you are the ones who get all the rejections and you are the ones who get all the hate,” Ofir said. “It’s not just Israel, it’s not just Gaza, it’s not just combat soldiers on the front lines.”

“To do what you do, to oppose things like that, is very inspiring for us,” Roisblatt said.

During a previous campus tour in Kentucky, Roisblatt said protesters interrupted his speech.

“I started talking, four or five pro-Palestinian students just stood up with Palestinian flags and shouted ‘murderers,'” he said.

“After that I was shocked for days because we don’t live it, we just hear about it,” he said. “Anti-Semitism is always connected, but when you live in Israel you don’t feel it because we are the majority.”

“When I saw it, I immediately thought, ‘I want to do it again, I need to do it again because I want to meet people like you who are facing this,'” he said.

Last month’s low-key tour drew no protesters.

Roisblatt is finishing law school and Ofir is working as a fitness trainer. She wrote a book about her experience entitled 28 Seconds, the Duration of Armon Hanatziv’s Terrorist Attack.

Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists burn an Israeli flag on May 15, 2021 in New York City. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

US campuses have seen a slew of anti-Israel activity in recent years, with Jewish students saying the incidents often degenerate into anti-Semitism. Jews have been excluded from sexual assault support groups, vandals have dragged swastikas across a number of campuses, student groups have banned Zionists and Jewish buildings have been attacked with eggs, anti-Semitic flyers and vandalism, among other things.

A report released Wednesday by the AMCHA Initiative, a pro-Israel group, said on-campus Jewish identity threats had emerged in the past year on 60% of U.S. campuses, which were most popular with Jewish students. Threats included bullying and intimidation, defamation of pro-Israel groups and Jews, boycotts and attempts to ostracize Zionist students and groups.

The survey recorded 254 incidents, which it defined as attacks on Jewish identity. The threats doubled after last year’s war between Israel and Hamas, and the faculty and far-left anti-Zionist Jewish groups played significant roles, the report said.

The report surveyed 109 campuses most popular with Jewish students by compiling data from incident reports, media reports, social media and other records online.

Illustrative: Anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian activists in New York City, May 15, 2021. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League announced that it had counted over 350 anti-Israel incidents on US campuses in the last school year and said the activities had negatively impacted Jewish students and were part of a growing trend toward Zionist ostracism.

The incidents ranged from harsh criticism of the Jewish state to the harassment and exclusion of Jewish students because of their supposed attitude towards Israel.

The report highlighted what it called a growing movement to make opposition to Israel and Zionism “core elements of campus life or a prerequisite for full acceptance in the campus community.” Most U.S. Jews believe that caring about Israel is important or essential to being Jewish, although a 2020 Pew poll found those 18-29 year olds were slightly less likely to share this attitude .

A survey by Hillel and the ADL last year found that a third of Jewish students on campus experienced antisemitism, primarily through verbal harassment in person and online, as well as vandalism.

Federal investigations examine antisemitism at the University of Vermont, the State University of New York at New Paltz, the University of Southern California, and Brooklyn College.