Rochman first experienced antisemitism at the age of seven, during a visit to London with his mother and brother, when he and his family were kicked off a bus after the driver asked if they were Jewish.
“That did two things for me: One, it made me realize that I have to stand up to injustice when I see it. And the second thing is that it taught me who I was, because I wasn’t kicked out based on where I was born, lived in or traveled through,” he recalled. “It had to do with my identity that comes from 4,000 years of history.”
That experience eventually led Rochman to move to Israel and join the IDF as a lone soldier in the Paratroop Brigade. Today he faces a different battlefield: the campus of Columbia University in New York City.
Rochman transferred from UCLA a year ago and is currently in his third year of political science studies. Almost immediately after arriving, he founded a chapter of the grassroots group Students Supporting Israel, whose 600 members actively push back against the BDS, or Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement.
“I purposely chose Columbia because I knew it was one of the most anti-Israel schools, and my goal was to come here and be able to sort of change things, which would then inspire other campuses to do the same,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
But for many Jewish students, including Israelis, becoming a pro-Israel activist on campus is not an obvious choice. Rochman, who spends much of his time organizing and promoting anti- BDS events, believes the American Jewish students just don’t see the need, as only a very small percentage of those at Columbia get involved.
“They kind of come from families that are pretty wealthy, so they had it easy their whole lives. Everything about being Jewish was always easy, so they never had to feel threatened in their identities,” he said. “They don’t feel a need to defend it because [Columbia University] is a great place for them. It’s welcoming. They have Jewish theology, the Hillel. Everything is good.”
In addition, Rochman believes many Jewish parents advise their children to keep a low profile on campus and focus on getting good grades.
“It’s very comfortable to have that mind-set because then you don’t have to face reality,” he said.
“They are absolutely in a bubble and in many ways sometimes choose to be in that bubble.”
Israeli-born Shiran Khanukaev, a 24-year-old computer science student at Columbia, avoids Israel advocacy on-campus to escape the Israeli-Arab conflict in which she has been immersed since birth.
“For me and for the people like me, coming here meant a few years of escaping the conflict, a few years of peace before going back to living the ongoing terror,” she wrote in an unpublished op-ed.
According to Khanukaev – who describes herself as a Zionist – most Israelis are really not interested in getting publicly involved with the campus struggle for their country, but are happy to discuss the issue if asked.
“When you say you are Israeli, people already ask you a million questions about the conflict and human rights, etc., and I had enough,” she said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Yes we are Israeli but each one of us is also an individual. The conflict does not define us.”
Nevertheless, the de facto role of ambassador that Israelis abroad are given is “logical,” Khanukaev said. “You can’t lose your identity, but everyone can do it in their own little piece of the world on a personal level.”
When Rochman is asked why he does not stay out of the battle against BDS and simply enjoy the college experience, his answer is very clear: “That equation in the past has led us to the Inquisition, the destruction of the temple, pogroms and the Holocaust. When there is a growing, strong anti-Israel movement, which calls to destroy our people, we are not going to pretend that it’s not there and duck our heads. It’s our generation’s responsibility to make sure it never happens again.”
He is particularly disappointed with Israeli students who stay out of such efforts.
“The reason why I take it more personally with them is because they know the situation in Israel, they know the facts, they know how important it is and they choose not to get involved,” Rochman said. “They just don’t understand how bad the situation is here and what this leads to.”
More than 1,600 km. away at the University of South Florida in Tampa, recent graduate Ralph Herz, who served on the student senate and dealt regularly with the BDS movement, made the same observations as Rochman.
“At USF the Jewish community is actually larger than you would think. But the surprising thing is you don’t see a lot of them involved or speaking out,” he said. “So when BDS does come up – and it has pretty actively over the last several years at USF – you only see a small handful of Jewish students trying to actively bring out the truth. And it’s usually always the same Jewish students.”
Herz said that while each person has their own reason for avoiding the fray, he believes much of the avoidance comes from fear. Some are afraid to let others know they are Jewish, he noted, and many are intensely intimidated by pro-Palestinian activists, including those student journalists on campus who write about the conflict.