These days, Sharon is a 24-year-old Israeli law student who continues to serve in the reserves of the Israel Defense Forces. But seven years ago, in the midst of the Second Lebanon War, she was an interception officer in the Arrow Missile Unit in the Israeli Air Force.
It was her job to monitor Israel’s airspace via high-tech equipment and notify military and civilian authorities as soon as she spotted an incoming rocket.
Sharon — whose last name has not been disclosed to the media due to security concerns — spoke about her war experiences in two presentations on Feb. 26 at the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University.
Sharon, and another Israeli law student who served in the military, Yishai — whose last name was also withheld — spent the last two weeks traveling through the Midwest and along the East Coast, speaking at two or three colleges a day.
During the monthlong Lebanon conflict in 2006, Hezbollah fired more than 100 missiles each day at sites in northern Israel.
One missile in particular stands out in Sharon’s mind, she told her audiences — the one that was fired at her childhood neighborhood in Haifa. She did what she had done hundreds of times before and alerted civilian officials who then sounded the alarm.
“I basically saved my dad’s life,” she said in an interview, noting that he was actually out on the streets and, because of the air raid siren, was able to seek shelter in time.
“After the shift, I went outside and saw that he called me seven times and I was a bit concerned. He just told me that he wanted to thank me for activating those sirens,” she said, adding that her father knew she was involved because “the only time I won’t answer my dad is if I am on a shift.”
The soldiers’ speaking tour was put together by StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to presenting Israel’s side of the story in the Middle East conflict. The idea is to give students a personalized look at the Israeli army and the dilemmas faced by soldiers.
The battle for public opinion on campus has long been a contentious one. Yishai, 25, who has served in the counterterrorism unit of the IDF and is also now a reservist, estimated that about 5 percent of the students they have encountered in campus settings have been solidly pro-Israel. “There are about 5 percent that are very against Israel and there are about 90 percent in between that doesn’t know very much about Israel,” he said. “Those 90 percent are pretty much the reason we are here.”
Both Sharon and Yishai said that, after they finished their regular military service, they were looking for a new way to serve their country. Before coming here to speak, each went through an intensive training process with StandWithUs, where they learned how to respond to potentially hostile questioners.
Sharon said it was important to reach American college students because “they are the future leaders of America.”
In addition to his work with StandWithUs, Yishai has also founded an organization that helps underprivileged Ethiopian youth prepare for their service in the Israeli army. Partly because of this, the African-American Resource Center at Penn co-sponsored the StandWithUs program, along with the student group Penn Friends of Israel.
While a strong anti-Israel presence was expected at the Temple event, it was at Penn that three students affiliated with the student group Penn for Palestine walked out in the middle of the presentation, their mouths covered with black tape, according to several witnesses.
About half a dozen pro-Palestinian students attended the Temple event, but all of them stayed and had a “respectful” exchange with the soldiers, said Avi Gordon, East Coast campus coordinator for StandWithUs.
“It was a pleasure to have them and ask questions,” he said, adding that the group promotes frank and open dialogue. Both Israeli speakers addressed how the Jewish state takes extra measures not to harm civilians. Yishai recalled an incident in 2008 when he and his team were ordered to kill a terrorist in the West Bank. It turned out the man was surrounded in his home by his wife and children. Yishai told his commander and the mission was aborted.
“For me, life is something that is holy,” said Yishai. “I respect innocent people’s lives.”