The Israel Engagement Committee of Cong. Ahavat Torah in Englewood, recently sponsored a screening Jerusalem U’s Beneath the Helmet, a film that follows the lives of five young men and women from high school into the IDF. “People have different perceptions of what it means to be an Israeli soldier, risking his or her life to protect the Jewish people,” Anne Gontownik, the committee chair, said. “When you leave the film, you’re not just watching someone else’s story and thinking about how great they are—you’re recognizing that this is your story too—these soldiers are doing this not just for themselves and not just for those in Israel and not just for the state. It’s for the future and strengthening generations to come. When you walk out you think, ‘what responsibility do I have? What can I do?”
Gontownik said we can all take a stand in the battle for public opinion. “From 1948 on the Arabs had a plan to destroy Israel. Over time they recognized they had to change their approach. Traditional war didn’t work. Terrorism didn’t work. The political war is working.”
Two college students from Englewood who served as lone soldiers in the IDF participated in a panel discussion after the film. In an interview with JLNJ prior to the event, they talked about their experience in the army and how they are adjusting to life on campus, where anti-Israel rhetoric is a fact of life—but so is Israel advocacy.
Jonathan D said that being a soldier in Israel made him appreciate “the gritty, in the mud work necessary to make sure the country’s safe.” He also came away with a strengthened sense of Jewish identity. “To participate in the story of the Jewish people, in such a grueling way, is much more real than learning about it; it takes sacrifice. I now have a personal stake in the Jewish People. And the army taught me a lot about the diversity of Am Yisroel. I met different types of people and was inspired by the beauty of different Jewish traditions from all around the world.”
Now a freshman at Columbia, he said the student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is “against dialogue and their tactics include using other human rights causes. While most people do not necessarily identify with their cause, there is a feeling of understanding for innocent victims of a tragic situation in the West Bank. But this really isn’t a big deal on campus. The overwhelming feeling towards Israel-Palestine is indifference and a desire not to touch such a toxic subject. The notion that our campuses are being overrun by 1930s style mobs chanting ‘death to the Jews’ is untrue.”
Jonathan is a member of Aryeh: Columbia Students Association for Israel. His experience as a soldier doesn’t come up often and when it does, most people are interested and not hostile. He helped Hillel bring Beneath the Helmet to Columbia.
David Moed didn’t talk about his experience as a soldier in his first semester at New York University; he didn’t want it to define who he was. With 8,000 Jewish undergraduates, he notes NYU has strong support for Israel. He said SJP tries to present itself as the underdog and Israel as the aggressor, but they have been less active since a Jewish student interrupted a meeting holding an Israeli flag and making the case for Israel. He is aware that some professors have an anti-Israel bias, including a professor teaching “The Foundation of the Modern Middle East” who has signed petitions saying Israel should be indicted for war crimes.
Moed wants to bring Beneath the Helmet to NYU and thinks it would be well received. “The film is a realistic, accurate portrayal of life in the army. It shows the duality of 20-year-olds giving much of themselves to defend their people and yet how the army could be amazing and fun. I think less informed students who want to dialog will see the human side of the army—five faces and five names makes it more real. Kids who are not affiliated, not educated about Israel and Judaism, will go to see a film like this. It doesn’t discuss conflict. It humanizes the army.”
Another film produced by JerusalemU, Crossing the Line 2: The New Face of Anti-Semitism on Campus, premiered February 25 at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. David Coleman, Director of Distribution and Strategic Partnerships at JerusalemU said, “Activities on campus are emotional and they sway opinion. Kids go to schools like Columbia and hear things that pull at the heartstrings. They need education going in. You don’t need a uniform to defend Israel.”
By Bracha Schwartz