It takes nerve to stand in the middle of a college campus during Israeli Apartheid Week — the anti-Israel protests held annually at schools across the country — hoisting a sign that reads: “I was in the Israeli army. Ask me a question. I’m nice.”
Kayla Wold can get pretty nervy.
After spending two years in the Israel Air Force and, before that, advocating for Israel throughout her time as a psychology major at San Francisco State University, holding up that sign at the University of Houston was a piece of cake.
Wold, 25, an L.A. native who graduated from SFSU in 2014 before moving to Israel, recently completed her IDF service and is now visiting American campuses to share her experiences. It’s part of the Gideon Project, a program that brings former soldiers to the U.S. to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. It’s sponsored by the Israeli organization Reservists on Duty.
“It was perfect timing,” Wold told J. this week when she was visiting UC Berkeley as part of the tour. “I had just gotten out of the army. They were sending a delegation of 50 soldiers to different campuses. They put us through training to combat anti-Israel sentiment. But nothing can prepare you.”
She was referring to the students in Texas who shouted at her, “Why do you kill babies in Gaza?” and “How dare you do this to us?” Students for Justice in Palestine, which organized Israel Apartheid Week at the Austin campus, even called the campus police to have her removed (the cops left Wold alone, citing her First Amendment rights).
On the other hand, Wold says, some students were kind and curious. “I had amazing conversations,” she noted. “Christians came up and said thank you for your service. We spoke at Hillels, at churches. I hope I changed a few minds.”
Though raised in an Orthodox home in Los Angeles, Wold did not hold strong political views about Israel until she got to the SFSU campus. There she found well-organized anti-Israel groups regularly holding rallies, die-ins, demonstrations and other forms of activism. One pro-Palestinian student even posted a photo of himself clutching a knife, with a caption explaining he dreamed of using it to kill IDF soldiers.
Being a Jew, I was often confronted and targeted as a baby killer.
Wold wasn’t having it. She organized a group of her own she dubbed I-Team, which booked speakers, did outreach on the quad and made sure a pro-Israel presence on campus took hold.
“When I went to university, I was exposed to this anti-Israel bias, “ she recalled. “I was very confused and taken aback. Being a Jew, I was often confronted and targeted as a baby killer. Everything from anti-Israel to anti-Semitic, I heard it all. I had a Jewish identity but I was trying to find my connection. I started to learn more about Israel.”
She became determined to do her part to help the Jewish people.
“I realized there would not be an Israel without the IDF,” Wold added. “I felt selfish waking up in my bed safe. I wanted to protect and serve the people in the only Jewish country. No one told me that was a good idea. My Israeli friends said get a job. My parents wanted me to get married and have kids. For me, there was no other way I was going to spend the next years of my life than serving the Jewish state. For me it was joining the army.”
Wold made aliyah, studied for a year, then joined the air force. She landed in a technology unit that launched Habimah (Hebrew for “platform”), a kind of digital suggestion box for the Israeli military. It’s been quite successful, according to Wold.
She cites the example of a private who watched military aircraft take off and land at a remote Israeli airstrip. This woman noticed that the base kept the lights on 24 hours a day. She went online to suggest putting the lights on timers.
The suggestion made it all the way up the chain of command, and the change was made, saving the IDF millions of shekels a year.
Wold will return to Israel after completing the Gideon Project tour and spending some downtime with the family in L.A. Then she will consider her next step. But whatever it is, it will happen in her new homeland of Israel.
“In your day-to-day life, you become part of something bigger than yourself,” she said, looking back on her service. “You walk onto the base every day, look around and say, we are the Jewish people and we have our own military.”