It’s Israel Apartheid Week and the Israeli veterans and student activists of Reservists on Duty are reporting to campuses across America. Their mission is fighting back against the lies and the hate.
The annual anti-Israel campus events have become notorious for anti-Semitism and assaults on Jewish students. Posterboard walls rise on quads depicting Israel as a racist apartheid state. Fake checkpoints manned by anti-Israel activists dressed in the uniforms of Israeli soldiers pop up around the country.
Meanwhile Jewish students tuck their Stars of David into their shirts. Distinctive Jewish clothing is put away. Most Jewish students just try to keep their heads down until the ugliness of the week passes.
It’s a tough time to be pro-Israel. But the Shillman Fellows of Reservists on Duty are used to challenges.
Reservists on Duty was co-founded by Amit Deri. A major in the Israeli Defense Forces, Deri hadn’t paid much attention to politics during his decade in the military. While in the IDF, he didn’t know “what was happening outside the military”. And once he did, he was determined to fight back with the truth.
Deri had lost one of his best friends in the fight against terrorism. And he and other IDF vets founded and staffed Reservists on Duty to ensure that those sacrifices in the War on Terror would not be in vain.
On American college campuses, Deri saw for the first time just how ugly the lies were.
At the University of Houston, a school that Deri describes as one of the worst, alongside UC-Berkeley and UC-Irvine, a girl told him, "You’re taking organs from Palestinians and putting them into Israelis".
Like American soldiers during the Vietnam War, Israeli soldiers are demonized and spat on. There is no bizarre atrocity and no impossible horror, too implausible or unlikely to attribute to the men in green.
Reservists on Duty challenges the prejudices and lies by bringing actual Israeli veterans to campus.
Every Israeli Apartheid Week, they call up the ‘reservists’ who jump into action.
“We’re sending our guys there during Apartheid Week to engage with students exposed to these carnivals of hate,” Deri says.
In 3 weeks, they’ve hit over 30 campuses. The University of San Diego is one of them.
The University of San Diego isn’t holding an Apartheid Week, but Jonathan Elkhoury showed up anyway to tell his story. The Arab Christian refugee was only nine years old when he came to Israel. Like many of Israel’s Jewish refugees, his family came to Israel fleeing Islamic violence and built a new life in Israel.
Now, while working on his degree, Jonathan Elkhoury is challenging lies and preconceptions by telling his story. On campuses where no ugly smear or conspiracy theory about Israel is too extreme, he brings his own experience of both sides to bridge the gap and tell the truth about Israel and its people.
It’s not easy.
He’s been called an Uncle Tom and was spat on at George Mason University for waving an Israeli flag.
At UC Irvine, he was told that Haifa is an apartheid city with a separate transportation system for Jews and Arabs. Elkhoury, who had lived in Haifa laughed and replied that it was the most diverse city in Israel. As a child, he had grown up attending a school with students of different of religions and backgrounds. He knows better than anyone else that the apartheid myth is really a big lie.
And now, at the University of San Diego, Elkhoury had achieved a breakthrough.
It was an “amazing moment,” Elkhoury told me. Usually the anti-Israel activists heckle, yell and refuse to participate. But this time, he had convinced a Muslim student from the West Bank to hold a dialogue. As their conversation evolved, the student agreed that the ‘Palestinian’ leadership was the problem.
The amazing moment was just another day for an amazing organization and its Shillman Fellows.
Deri, along with Elkhoury, had been spat on at George Mason University. Elkhoury has been at UC Berkeley. At UC Irvine, one of the women with Reservists on Duty was pushed and another spat on.
But some of the activists have seen worse in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. It’ll take a lot more than spitting and shoving to stop them. Instead, the members of Reservists on Duty go on the offensive.
When anti-Israel activists hold a ‘die-in’ at Berkeley to protest Israel, Reservists on Duty show up in IDF medic shirts with medical equipment, and announce, “We are IDF medics, there’s been a Hamas terror attack, and we are here to treat wounded regardless of their race or religion.”
The creative disruption is part of what Deri calls a ‘chutzpah’ strategy.
“Chutzpah is something that is missing among American Jews,“ he chuckles. “You have to be in Israel for three or four years.”
The other side, he says, has plenty of it. And he’d like to teach American Jews some chutzpah and pride.
At fake checkpoints where anti-Israel activists dressed up as IDF soldiers abuse and humiliate anti-Israel activists dressed up as Arab civilians, the real deal show up with signs warning that the scene is a lie.
"I am an actual IDF soldier, ask me questions,” they announce.
And there are many takers.
When an anti-Israel activist dressed as an IDF soldier puts his hands on a pregnant woman, an actual veteran intervenes. “Male soldiers are not allowed to touch women,” he points out.
Reservists on Duty challenge the lies of the campus ‘Apartheid walls’ with their own displays. But instead of just defending Israel, they go on the offensive, telling the truth about the treatment of Christians, women and gays in the territories under terrorist control. Feminist students are told about honor killings. Gay students are warned that Islamists would happily throw them off the nearest building.
And Elkhoury, the leader of The Minorities Projects at Reservists On Duty, tells his story.
He’s one of over a dozen members, Christian, Druze, Bedouin, and Muslim, who confront campus intersectionality with the truth of Israel’s diversity.
Elkhoury, whose family built a new life in Israel, wants students to know that “Israel is more than the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
“Diversity is the story of Israel,” he says. And Reservists on Duty represent that diversity.
With Christians disappearing from the Middle East, the Christian refugee sees Israel as a model for the region. The same fanatics who had kicked out Jews in the 40s and 50s are now expelling his people.
His work with Reservists on Duty is an opportunity to protect the country where his family found safety.
Deri agrees that Christians are natural partners in the ugly culture wars of campus politics. “As Israelis and Americans, we share the same values and the same way of life, they will come to attack you.”
Some might be daunted by the hostility of the contemporary campus, but the brotherhood of the reservists, forged in the toughness of adversity, sees victory where others can only envision defeat.
“UC-Irvine is the most a dangerous place for Jews today,” Deri mentions. And pauses. California campuses are “the most hostile and violent.” At SDU and UC Irvine, they encounter the same activists every year. "They never graduate from college," he observes. His mission is reaching the actual students.
And that can be challenging.
When Students for Justice in Palestine and members of the Muslim Students Association see them, they become more aggressive. But that also brings out the hateful and violent nature of their opponents.
“I'm optimistic because a lot of people get it,” Amit Deri tells me. “They've been on the attack for 30 years, you have to pick specific battles, and we chose Apartheid Week.”
And he has his own shining moments and success stories.
At Columbia University, one student told Deri that he had spent three years going to Students for Justice in Palestine meetings. “All I ever saw was Israeli apartheid week,” the student told Deri. “I'm in shock, I never knew this. And next time I go to an SJP meeting, I'll have some questions for them."
Reservists on Duty, generously funded by Robert Shillman, was founded in 2015. After four years of hard work, its members have turned a brotherhood into a movement to take back the campus. They travel together, they advocate together, and they want to pass down their esprit de corps to pro-Israel students on campus.
“One of our missions is to give people pride,” Deri tells me. “Many people deep inside are pro-Israel, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, but they're too afraid to be active because of the harassment.
The activists of Reservists on Duty want students to feel that they’re fighting for the right thing.
“I want them to feel,” Deri concludes. “Yeah I'm proud, I'm pro-Israel.”
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.