On July 20, 2014, Amit Zohar, a soldier in the Golani Brigade, was seriously injured in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge when terrorists fired a bomb at his unit and riddled his body with shrapnel. He spent the next few months in rehabilitation, unsure if he would ever recover and with no idea where his life was headed.
Less than a year after his injury, Amit was invited for a Belev Echad (With One Heart)-sponsored 10-day tour of New York City where he was deeply moved by the care, support and solidarity expressed by his Jewish brothers in America and the organization’s dedication to helping physically and emotionally-scarred IDF veterans reintegrate into civilian life.
On the trip, he encountered what was happening on U.S. college campuses and how the BDS boycott movement, antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments have infiltrated the educational scene in America.
He has since joined Belev Echad’s joint initiative with Chabad on Campus, visiting colleges around the U.S. where he meets Jewish students and shares his experiences both as an Israeli civilian and a soldier defending his people and homeland, and exposes them to the truth of what is happening in Israel.
On a weeklong tour in the last week of January that took him down the east coast, Amit visited Brooklyn College, University of Berkeley, Union College, Vanderbilt University, University of Georgia, University of Miami and Florida Gulf Coast University, where he met hundreds of students and spoke about his experiences.
‘The fight for the truth is a daily battle’
“I met students who are so far from the battlefield that they don’t have a clue about what we are fighting 6,000 miles away in Israel,” the young veteran shared.
“The battle I fought in Gaza was against the weapons of Hamas, against grenades and missiles, but now I’m fighting for my country in a whole different type of way—spreading the warmth, light and truth about Israel and the IDF,” he said.
“When these students hear my story and what I’ve been through, I can see the hunger for more knowledge about Israel in their eyes. These students are living in another world. They’re so far from us with their fraternity parties and football games that my mission here has become about fighting a war against nonchalance and apathy,” he explained.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had to deal with protests, but this only proves to me how badly we have to fight for these college students and their thirst for more knowledge of Israel,” he added.
In the past few years, American college campuses have become a breeding ground for rabid antisemitism, BDS activists, and anti-Israel sentiments that cause Jewish students nationwide to feel marginalized and insecure, several reports have shown.
Bombarded with constant negative information and misinformation about Israel and the Middle East, even those with Jewish pride and strong Jewish identities can hesitate and wonder where they stand on critical socio-political issues closely related to their heritage.
“The fight for the truth is a daily battle and a constant struggle. Unfortunately, our enemies continue to lie and spread false stories about Israel and its soldiers,” said Belev Echad co-founder Rabbi Uriel Vigler.
“Our IDF soldiers who used to fight Hamas with weapons, tanks, missiles and machine guns are now fighting the battle against lies, falsehoods and world opinion. We’re seeing wounded soldiers and veterans constantly rising to the battle and performing outstandingly,” he said.
Ambassadors of truth and hope
Dana Ophir is another IDF soldier who participated in the tour co-sponsored by Belev Echad and Chabad on Campus. Back in January 2017, Dana had been working hard to become a combat trainer officer in the IDF and was days away from landing the coveted job when she was the victim of a terrorist car-ramming attack that left her with a shattered pelvis and confined to a wheelchair.
“From someone who could run ten miles without losing my breath, I became totally incapacitated. The doctors didn’t know if I’d ever walk again, but I refused to succumb to fate and with titanium in my body where my bones had once been, I taught myself to take one baby step at a time. After four months, I was walking again on my own feet,” she recounted.
Dana did not surrender her dream and was committed to returning to the army and combat training. “It was a long, arduous process, but today, I’m relearning how to be a trainer and am advancing at an amazing pace.”
“I’ve also joined Belev Echad’s initiative to engage, connect and educate college youth about the reality and truth about Israel and the IDF, and this is very meaningful for me,” she added.
Belev Echad co-founder Shevy Vigler explained that “campus tours are not only beacons of light, truth, and Jewish pride in a place that needs it most, but they’re also opportunities for our soldiers to become empowered as givers. These tours grant our soldiers incredible motivation and courage, allowing them to be ambassadors of truth and hope.”
‘I never had an experience that moved me like this’
Ryan Bauman, a sophomore at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University, was touched and inspired by his meeting with Amit and Dana.
“This was one of the most influential experiences I’ve had here so far—talking to two IDF soldiers, hearing how they were injured, how they went from lying in a hospital bed and not knowing what the future would be,” Ryan shared.
“From giving their lives, their injuries and service to the State of Israel to what they are today—fluent in English, interacting with us as students, sharing their stories, and trying to present Israel from a different perspective,” he said.
He pointed out that “so often, we get the political view, we get the business view, but this is a more human perspective.”
“Personally, I went to a Jewish day school. I’m very fluent in Hebrew. I know a lot of Israelis, and I’ve been to Israel a lot, but I’ve never had an experience that moved me like this has, and it’s one of the things I will remember and cherish for a long time,” he said.
“The college campus visits are incredible because the soldiers make an indelible impression upon students and provide a new appreciation for the struggles and challenges Israel faces every day,” says Rabbi Yossy Gordon, CEO of Chabad on Campus International.
“Over the course of 10 days, we visited seven campuses on the East Coast where we met hundreds of Jewish students who are thirsting to hear first-hand about what’s happening in the country that’s so dear to their hearts,” related Bentzi Sasson, who escorted Belev Echad’s delegation on their campus tours.
“The stories that they heard from Amit and Dana give them a different perspective on the narrative that they watch on the news and hear daily in college,” he said