As tension in the Gaza Strip increases, headlines can give a grim representation of events. Yet, behind these stories are real Israeli people, fighting to defend their Jewish homeland.
One of those soldiers from the Israeli Defense Force spoke to students about his time spent in the force and his relationships with his fellow soldiers Monday, Jan. 31, at the University of Pittsburgh, organized by the Pittsburgh Israel Public Affairs Committee, Panthers for Israel, Hillel Jewish University Center, Chabad and the College Republicans, Sgt. Benjamin Anthony, a heavy machine gunner in the IDF, spoke to a crowd of Pitt students at the William Pitt Union. The sergeant is a speaker for Our Soldiers Speak, a nonprofit organization not affiliated with the government of Israel.
He entered the room nearly 45 minutes late due to an assortment of groups of protesting Palestinian supporters. The event, initially open to the public, was then restricted to Pitt students only.
Anthony removed his blue hooded jacket and prepared to speak, but several protestors with blue tape over their mouths and signs written in Arabic on their chests confronted him. They sat down quietly, but left about 15 minutes into the speech.
Anthony asked that maybe if the protestors would remove the tape on their mouths to ask reasonable questions they could have a civil discussion. The soldier, though, didn’t come to speak about Israeli politics.
“I’m here to transport you to the human side of warfare,” said Anthony.
He talked mainly about the men in his squad that he was personally responsible for, and the cruel and difficult decisions that are made by them every day.
The sergeant posed a situation to the audience where a soldier has to decide what to do when being fired upon by an enemy using a child as a shield.
He said that his 18-year-old fellow soldiers are “making that decision when you (the university students) are deciding what college to attend.”
It is Israeli policy that all Israeli citizens over 18 years of age must serve in the IDF, men for three years and women for two.
One senior student attending the speech, Micah Toll, the business manager for Panthers in Israel, plans to move to Israel and join the IDF after his graduation. He intends to work with electric vehicles after his time in the force.
“The IDF isn’t just the Israeli army, it’s the army of the Jewish people,” said Toll.
Anthony commented about the men in his squad being, “really just boys, charged with an incredible responsibility.”
Yet, he continued to reiterate that it only takes, “10 minutes for a boy to become a man.”
After his speech, the sergeant asked for questions. One individual asked how he, as an Israeli citizen, felt about the recent mass uprising in Egypt.
“Whoever ends up standing once the dust has settled … I hope that they revere peace as well as Israel,” said Anthony.
After answering several more questions about his experience with the IDF, Anthony ended his speech, chatted briefly with several audience members, and left hoping to beat the imminent snowstorm.
The event’s organizer, and president of Panthers in Israel, Samantha Vinokor, felt the event was an absolute success.
“Benjamin is amazing. He gives an emotional and articulate glimpse of something that I as a Pitt student have not witnessed firsthand,” said Vinokor.
Major Shawn Gralinski, 36, an Army ROTC officer at the university, was impressed with Anthony, also calling him, “a very articulate individual.”
“It’s obviously nice to hear the experiences and thoughts and feelings of a soldier,” said Gralinski.
Anthony stressed how important advocacy on the behalf of Israel is on a college campus.
“We ask you to defend and protect our names. You are our ambassadors,” said Anthony to the students.
Vinokor felt especially proud of the sergeant’s statement, considering how she plans to work in Israel activism and advocacy after her graduation.
“Something I say to people all the time is that the reason why I’m not at the University of Tel Aviv is that I want to be here defending Israel to the people who need to hear it,” said Vinokor.
(Noah Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)