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A Soldier and a Conscientious Objector: Two U.S.-Born Israeli Citizens on the War and Campus Protests

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A listening outpost somewhere in Israel - photo courtesy User EternalSleeper at Wikimedia Commons. Marked for public domain.

This past semester, pro-Palestine protests erupted on college campuses across the United States. University administrators faced institutional turmoil, attempting to appease alums, donors, and Congress while defining the bounds of free speech and hate speech. With over 2,000 students arrested across multiple campuses, the portrait that emerged of today’s college students is that they are unabashedly passionate about the war and opposed to Israel. This impression is misleading.

Low participation in campus protests

Axios reported on a Generation Lab poll that found only 8% of students participated in campus protests. Additionally, respondents ranked the war as the least important issue “facing them” from a list of nine issues. Instead, healthcare reform and educational funding were ranked as the most important. While 81% of respondents believed in holding protestors accountable for property damage and occupying campus buildings, 45% of students said of campus protests “that they support them either strongly or a little bit.”

The conscientious objector

One student involved with campus protests was Aharon Dardik, a 23-year-old American-Israeli dual citizen born in Oakland, California. On his 14th birthday, Dardik’s family moved to Neve Daniel, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, about a 35-minute bus ride from Jerusalem. Dardik said his father fell in love with Israel after his year in Yeshiva (a school of intensive Torah study). Both his parents always knew they would one day move to Israel.

Oakland, “self-described as the most progressive city in the world,” in Dardik’s words, differed greatly from the politics in Neve Daniel, where the right-wing Likud party holds sway.

“The question was ‘are you vanilla right-wing, are you serious right-wing, or you spicy right-wing?’” Dardik recalled. He went in the other direction.

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At a meeting with his youth group, a part of the Bnei Akiva movement, his peers discussed a recent terrorist attack and their desire for violent retaliation. “I realized more and more that here I was the bleeding-heart liberal,” he said. By the time he graduated from high school, Dardik knew he didn’t want to be involved in any sort of combat.

“If you say, ‘I don’t want to do the IDF,’ and they ask me why, and then you say, ‘because I think that what they’re doing is messed up,’ then you get immediately attacked.”

Refuses to fire when ordered

After two years in Yeshiva, Dardik was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces. He wanted to secure a “useless” job (“I’ll feed the goldfish”), but because he was tall and scored well on intelligence tests, he was told that would be a waste of his profile. Dardik explicitly told his superiors that he refused to engage in combat, so he was assigned to a combat support role instead. He was trained as a munitions technician for F-16 fighter jets at the closest operational combat air base to Gaza. When the army began mobilization for “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in 2021, Dardik was instructed to load bombs onto planes to be dropped on Palestinian targets.

After repeatedly refusing the direct order, he was court-martialed and put in a military prison. He spent four months in and out, offered chances to change his mind and complete his service, but he refused to return to his post. Eventually, he received legal representation from Mesarvot, the Israeli Refusers Network. Put before a “conscientious committee,” Dardik sat before six army majors, a police major, and a professor of ethics, where he was classified as a pacifist and conscientious objector. If he had expressed his political opposition to the war, there would have been a different outcome. “You say, ‘I don’t want to fight because of our politics.’ That’s not a conscientious objector. That’s a traitor.”

Organizer of campus protests

After returning to Yeshiva, Dardik began college at Columbia University. This past semester, he organized Columbia’s chapter of Jews for Ceasefire, modeled after a group at Brown University. The group resolved not to sign onto the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) coalition’s demands, established by Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, because they didn’t “feel comfortable” demanding that Columbia cut ties with Tel Aviv University and end the TAU Columbia dual-degree program. Students in the program spend two years at each school and graduate with degrees from both universities.

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Dardik said that he would be interested in supporting a plan to phase out the program but not to shut it down immediately, leaving current students without support. The approach Jews for Ceasefire took towards CUAD was to be “the best sort of friends and allies CUAD could have,” but maintaining enough distance that they were “friends, not family.”

After Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota visited the Columbia encampment, (where her daughter was arrested) a video of Dardik and another man wearing a yarmulke shaking hands with the congresswoman was posted to her social media accounts. “I want more people like Ilhan Omar, who care about Jewish people, who care about Jewish experiences, who want to foster strong connections with their Jewish communities and are still politically opposed … to the Israeli government, to the active war, and massacre, and plausible genocide happening in Gaza,” he said.

But isn’t Ilhan Omar an antisemitic Muslim?

When asked about Omar’s past antisemitic comments, Dardik said that she made “some early mistakes on that front where she played into antisemitic tropes,” but after being taught what she did wrong by the Minnesota Jewish community, she made a public apology. “She’s been a fierce critic of Israel, but she has not been antisemitic,” he insisted. That’s not exactly a universal view. The reaction the video got from some friends and family was quite painful for him

“People got very mad at me. Other people said very hurtful things. Extended family, especially.” Regarding antisemitism at the encampment, Dardik said that he was working on implementing a program to educate participants on a nuanced understanding of antisemitism.

“The same way that we attack patriarchy and not men, that we attack white supremacy and not all white people, right? We are attacking a system of apartheid and occupation. We are not attacking Israelis. We are not attacking Zionists.” Dardik was disappointed that the encampment was shut down before he had a chance to further address the encampment’s problems, as he worked to make it the most “pro-Jewish, not explicitly Jewish, space on campus.” Dardik said the protests aren’t going away and that they will be back in the fall.

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A Soldier’s Heart

Another dual citizen, 20-year-old Shayna Kagan, was born in New York and grew up in Maryland. She went on trips to Israel with her family, camp, and school, which she described as “a pretty Zionistic school.” Whenever she saw soldiers on the streets, she “felt a very big appreciation towards the soldiers and also just towards the land itself.”

During a camping trip in 10th grade, Kagan participated in “army week,” where campers slept outdoors, ran drills, played paintball, did push-ups, and didn’t have their phones. When she returned home she not only realized that she wanted to move to Israel, but that she gravitated toward military service.

“I always felt such a connection, and I didn’t feel that connection to America,” she said. She applied to college in the U.S. and considered going to college in Israel, but she felt wrong “taking without giving back.” She asked herself, “How could I, an 18-year-old girl, go live in Israel, go to college and start my life here when I know everyone else my age is in the army?”

Joining the IDF was a way of serving her new home country while also learning the language and culture, as well as making connections with more Israelis. These connections came easily for her, and culturally, Kagan feels much more connected to Israelis than to Americans.

The bonds of love – which campus protests don’t illustrate

“I think from the outside Israelis are harsh and have no patience,” she said, “but Israelis have such a warm and welcoming heart. Anytime I speak to Israelis, no matter who it is, they’re like ‘come to me for Shabbat [the sabbath]! Come over!’ Israelis just have a care and love for each other,” which she said is missing from American society.

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Today, Kagan is a part of the tanks unit stationed just outside Gaza and organizes the logistics of bringing ammunition, food, water, gas, and other supplies into Gaza. She said that during the war, “You can’t really think of a future.” She is upset by the political climate on college campuses. She said that in Israel, everyone has a general sense of how others around them feel because the public is experiencing the war together. On American campuses, Kagan said, “it’s like you’re more alone … not able to wear a Jewish star necklace, or all of a sudden you had a really good friend and now she’s pro-Palestine or hates you all the time because you’re Jewish.”

Internal Israeli politics

In addition to the campus conflict she sees on the news, she is concerned by political conflict in the Knesset. When it comes to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, Kagan said that every day he makes decisions that impact her daily life. She worries that Netanyahu gets bogged down in the exigencies of partisan politics and loses sight of the fate of IDF soldiers in the field – people like her. Netanyahu, she said, is trying to show “how strong we are, but like how strong are we, you know? We’re losing soldiers by the day, people are dying, like hostages, we’re finding bodies instead of human lives. It’s not fair.”

Kagan said the army is very grateful for the U.S. support, but she thinks it’s “weak on our part” to rely heavily on the U.S. government. She sees many Americans online directing hatred towards Israelis, so even if President Biden supports Israel, she doesn’t feel the support from the American people. Kagan is one of 3,840 Lone Soldiers (soldiers without family in Israel) currently serving in the army, according to the IDF. Some 686 of those soldiers are American.

Has Netanyahu lost trust?

In a poll conducted by The Institute for National Security Studies in late May, only 28% of Jewish Israeli respondents and 9% of Arab Israeli respondents “expressed a very high degree and a high degree of trust in” Netanyahu. On June 9, Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz announced his departure from Netanyahu’s emergency wartime coalition. Also this week, U.S.-backed ceasefire negotiations faltered as Israeli officials told Axios that Hamas had effectively rejected the latest proposal. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Hamas “waited almost two weeks and then proposed more changes, a number of which go beyond positions it has previously presented and agreed to. As a result, the war will go on and more people will suffer.”

Friction in the Knesset amplifies the wartime strife. “There’s a war going on with Gaza, with Hamas, but like, there’s also a war going on in Israel in terms of political[ly], socially,” Kagan said. “It’s sad to see that. Why are we fighting two wars right now?”

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This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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Gabriella Fine is a rising senior at Brandeis University and an intern with RealClearPolitics.com.

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