CORRECTION 11/08/2017: This article has been updated to remove IDF Reservist Itamar’s full title for security purposes.
Members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) visited University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) Oct. 30. Two IDF soldiers met with students and staff in the Student Services Classroom Building to speak about their lives in Israel.
The StandWithUs (SWU) “Israeli Soldiers Tour” started its tour of the U.S. Oct. 22 and concluded its visit on Nov. 5. Turning Point USA (TPUSA) partnered with SWU to promote support for Israel.
TPUSA is a nationwide organization with more than one a thousand chapters on college campuses. Through non-partisan debate, dialogue and discussion, TPUSA believes that every young adult can be enlightened to true free market values. Its mission, as stated on the website, is to educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets and limited government, by building the most organized, active and powerful conservative grassroots activist network on college campuses across the country.
“I’m hoping more people support Israel and that people will listen with an open mind, just willing to hear what they have to say,” said Kayla Strzelecki, president of the UHCL student chapter of TPUSA. “It’s hard to have perspective on an issue that’s a world away.”
SWU is a non-profit, pro-Israel education and advocacy organization based in Los Angeles with a second location in Dallas. The SWU “Israeli Soldiers Tour,” visit college campuses, high schools, synagogues and churches to share soldiers’ experiences.
The IDF reservist’s stories have never been heard before. Their last names are withheld for security purposes. The event kicked off with a unique perspective, Kayla (not Kayla Strzelecki), a former IDF soldier, spoke about her experiences as a young, American girl leaving her hometown in Seattle. She first visited Israel during the summer when she was 15 years old and decided that she wanted to deepen her connection with her Jewish roots. After graduating high school, she bought herself a one-way ticket to Israel.
Kayla started out as an IDF volunteer and eventually joined a co-ed combat infantry unit that specializes in search and rescue. Kayla’s service ended at one year and nine months after she was injured and had to have open-back surgery. She is now studying counter-terrorism and holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Israel.
“When they realized that I was a lone soldier, meaning I had no family there, people would always step in, buy me lunch, invite me over for dinner,” Kayla said. “They really wanted to help me fill that void of not having my family there and me struggling. In the end, it wasn’t that difficult at all to adjust, they welcomed me really quickly.”
The second former IDF soldier, Itamar, was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Pardes Hana-Kar Kur, a town in the Haifa District of Israel. Itamar described growing up in his hometown as a peaceful time.
“I could ride my bicycle freely; I went to school by myself, everything was super safe and secure for me and my friends,” Itamar said. “My mom never had to drop me off at school.”
Itamar said all that changed when the second Palestinian uprising against Israel, known as the Second Intifada, began in 2000. During this period, Israeli–Palestinian violence intensified. In 2002, when Itamar was 10 years old, the Islamic Jihad Organization, an Islamist terrorist organization, bombed a bus five minutes away from his home.
Itamar joined the IDF in 2010 and served in the intelligence department. The unit specializes in reconnaissance and rescuing Israeli civilians. Itamar finished his military service in 2014 and now works as an educator for a youth program in a Kibbutz.
“In Israel, once you turn 18, male or female, you are enlisted in the military,” Strzelecki said. “I think it is very important to hear how the other side of the world does things.”
Despite the violence surrounding the country, SWU and TPUSA believe that with proper education, people from around all over the world can gain a better perspective of the current state of Israel.
“Israel is the only place in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown in the last 100 years, the only place in the Middle East where there is a gay pride parade; you would never see that in any other country that surrounds Israel,” said Jesse Stock, Texas associate director of SWU. “In Israel, you can be who you are.”
After the event, students and staff stuck around to speak one-on-one with the IDF reservists.
“The news, of course, tries to highlight not so much the good things but more of the bad things in Israel,” said Maria Martinez, secretary of the UHCL chapter of TPUSA. “It was really great that they could tell their story and get more people informed of what’s actually going on in Israel, in case people might not know about the everyday life out there.”
TPUSA will be hosting a second event in November called the “Free Speech Ball.” This event will allow attendees to take a sharpie and write whatever they want on a giant beach ball to help promote and practice free speech on campus.