A few minutes into a public lecture by two Israeli soldiers at the University of Georgia, a young man in the back of the room hurried to the front, yelling, “In 2014, Israel killed more than 500 Palestinian children!”
He distributed some photocopied sheets and left, escorted by a police officer.
One by one, 15 or so other students stood up, denounced Israel and walked out, leaving photocopied pictures of dead children in their wake.
The soldiers, Marc and Ilan, asked the protesters to stay and talk, but they just shouted slogans and kept going. They are involved with Students for Justice in Palestine at UGA, a group that shows up at most pro-Israel campus events to disrupt them.
“Anyone else?” asked Marc, scanning the audience for another protester, and the remaining 75 people broke into relieved laughter. The talk Tuesday night, Feb. 21, continued.
The soldiers’ appearance was sponsored by StandWithUs, a nonprofit, pro-Israel education group. The two men, whose last names were withheld for security reasons, are spending two weeks touring Southeastern colleges, high schools, Jewish community centers and ROTC units in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Five pairs of other soldiers are touring other parts of the country.
“We want the soldiers to provide a direct line of communication with the students,” said Jeremy Lichtig, the program director at UGA Hillel. “They come and bring their stories. It’s a learning tool.”
A native of Russia, Marc told the UGA students he immigrated to Israel with his family when he was 5 and joined the Israel Defense Forces after he finished high school. In his military training, he found “before you can learn to shoot guns and hop over things, you have to learn to be a good human being” and keep human rights a priority.
Through his service, he met Palestinian families, students and government officials and learned that most Palestinians want to have peace, to be able to support their families, to come home from work and eat dinner with everyone.
He became a medic.
On assignment with others to arrest a Palestinian terrorist, Marc was stationed in a parked ambulance, ready should anything happen to one of his team members. In the middle of the night, he saw a terrible car wreck 100 yards away involving two families. He weighed his options: Leave his post or help the injured people?
“You can’t see someone suffering without doing something,” he said, so he contacted his commanding officer and told him he was leaving his post for a while. He stayed with the families and cared for them until another ambulance arrived.
A native of Venezuela, with a grandmother who was a Holocaust survivor, Ilan said he immigrated to Israel when he was 20. As a member of the IDF, he was in the Humanitarian and Civil Affairs Unit, working on projects with Palestinians to improve the lives of families. He was charged with managing social media for Palestinians, even though he didn’t know Arabic.
He said someone posted on social media in Arabic about a terrorist attack set to occur in Jerusalem. His co-workers and he followed up on the tip and prevented the attack.
He praised the poster for putting his own life at risk to save so many others. Afterward, Ilan said, he decided to learn Arabic.
“I wanted to hear what the soldiers had to say,” said Marietta native and UGA freshman Avi Lyons, 19. He is on the Dawgs for Israel board. “I traveled to Israel last year, and it was fantastic.”
The planned protest wasn’t a surprise for Israeli Neta Kanny, a UGA Israeli fellow and a StandWithUs Emerson fellow. SJP protested a similar event last year, she said, “but they didn’t realize that this year the game had changed,” with the number of people wanting to hear the soldiers vastly outnumbering the protesters.
The UGA campus was the only one Marc and Ilan visited with organized opposition, Kanny said, and the only one at which event organizers had to pay to have a police officer present.