Israel Defense Forces veterans studying at Harvard say that they have encountered a diverse array of American perspectives on Israel since coming to college in the U.S. At a panel at Harvard Hillel Wednesday night, four Harvard students who served in the IDF spoke of the importance of engaging in open discussions on issues surrounding Israel.
“It is important to go abroad to see things from a new perspective, tell people how you feel about Israel, and listen to what people are saying about Israel,” said Tom Dan ’13, who served in an IDF intelligence unit.
Dan said that he is glad to be at a campus with diverse student groups and perspectives.
“Some of the most amazing conversations I have had here were with pro-Palestinian students who understood the history, facts, and also the human side of it,” said Yoav B. G. Schaefer ’15, who was born in California and chose to move to Israel in 2006.
Dan said that he decided to come to the United States to realize his dream of studying at Harvard.
“My commanders were very understanding,” he said. “They gave me two weeks off to study for my SATs.”
Zaki Djemal ’15, who worked as a journalist for the IDF radio station, said he came to Harvard because of the unique academic opportunities that Harvard offered.
He said that in Israel, he would have likely worked a full-time media job while going to school.
“I wanted the chance to learn, develop, and study,” Djemal said.
Schaefer, who served in a combat unit and fought in Southern Lebanon and throughout the West Bank, said that some Americans fail to appreciate the nuances and complexities of the situation facing the IDF.
“I really do think the IDF is the most moral army in the world,” Schaefer said. “That being said, I really struggle with my army service. The situation is complex and difficult. War is never nice, no matter how we want it to be.”
Yael Bar-Tur, who is currently studying at the Harvard Kennedy School, served in an IDF spokesperson unit and also spent time working at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.
Panelists noted discrepancies between American conceptions and the reality of the IDF, in which all Israeli citizens must serve, aside from some special exemptions.
“People don’t always understand that the army is a lot more than a fighting force,” Djemal said. “It was founded from a social dream of creating a melting pot, which is why the army has an education course.”
Schaefer seconded Djemal’s sentiments.
“Culture, language, and identity from the years that Israelis spend in the army are very much a part of what defines the Israeli identity,” Schaefer said. “The military is a much less rigid form than you would expect.”