Israeli ex-soldier accused in assault on Columbia students

Columbia University student Gal Raif in his Israeli army uniform, in a picture posted on Facebook in October 2012.

Last Thursday afternoon, members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were taking down the mock apartheid wall their group had put up on the Columbia University campus as an educational tool during Israeli Apartheid Week.

As they were doing so they say they were assaulted by a fellow student, a former Israeli soldier, in an incident that has left them shaken and more concerned than ever over their ability to safely speak out on campus.

SJP had put up the wall, made of three wooden frames covered in fabric, on Low Plaza, a busy campus thoroughfare, from about 10am to 4pm each day that week. Their allies Jewish Voice for Peace also had a table nearby.

The group Students Supporting Israel put up its own display nearby for part of the week, showing what many students felt was bigoted propaganda, though it was not there on Thursday.

As The Electronic Intifada reported last Wednesday, student leaders feared that the imagery and rhetoric Students Supporting Israel was displaying created an unsafe environment for Arab and Muslim students, or those who are vocal in supporting Palestinian rights.

Students Supporting Israel at Columbia is also run by a former Israeli soldier, Rudy Rochman, who participated in Israel’s November 2012 assault on Gaza dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense.”

“I was terrified”

The day after The Electronic Intifada published the report airing student concerns about the atmosphere on campus, members of SJP say they found themselves being assaulted for no other reason than their advocacy for Palestinian rights.

At around 4:20pm on Thursday, N. and Y., two undergraduate members of SJP, had just taken down the first panel of the mock wall and were getting ready to bring it to the building where it is stored overnight, a short walk away.

“Y. and I were carrying the first panel and someone came up from behind and grabbed my arm and asked snarkily if we needed help,” N. told The Electronic Intifada. “We said no thank you, we’re fine.”

But the alleged assailant – who has been identified as Columbia general studies student Gal Raif – did not back off, according to students’ accounts. “He continued to ask us aggressively if we needed help and then grabbed the panel and tried to flip it,” N. said.

The Electronic Intifada has decided to use only initials to identify the victims of the assault.

Y. told The Electronic Intifada that before physically assaulting them, Raif had been verbally abusive toward students. At first, Y. says, Raif came up as if he wanted to have a discussion.

But he quickly lost his temper and started yelling when students tried to explain their views.

“Why are you lying? Why are you insulting the six million of my brothers and sisters?” Y. recalls Raif saying, in an apparent reference to the victims of the European genocide of Jews during the Second World War.

Mock apartheid wall erected on campus by Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine.

Shezza Abboushi Dallal

The SJP wall makes no mention of Jews or the Nazi holocaust, and focuses on Israel’s occupation and well-documented denial of Palestinian human rights.

“Why don’t you just fuck off,” Y. recalls Raif saying.

“At that point I decided to disengage,” Y. said, and he and N. went on with dismantling the wall. It was after this that Raif grabbed N.’s arm.

But that was not the end of the incident. After touching N. and trying to wrestle the panel, Raif charged over to a third student, D., who was about to take down another panel of the wall.

“He came up to the panel I was standing behind and he pushed it over,” D. told The Electronic Intifada.

“He was really aggressive,” D. said, “I was terrified, honestly.”

N. also says she saw Raif push the panel D. was standing by “very aggressively.”

As Raif’s behavior attracted attention, other students and members of SJP began to gather around their peers who were under apparent assault.

A witness who is also a member of SJP told The Electronic Intifada she saw Raif approach D.

“It looked like their chests were touching and he was stooping down yelling at her,” the witness said. At that point the witness became so concerned she called the campus police.

The witness also said that more people became involved to separate Raif from D.

One woman who tried to calm him had been seen earlier by several witnesses arriving on the scene of the incident with Raif and appeared to be a friend of his.

Witnesses began to take out their phones to take pictures or video. This video, recorded, witnesses say, after Raif had assaulted the students dismantling the wall, shows Raif denying he touched anyone:

Campus police came to the scene and took Raif back to their office for questioning, according to witnesses. They also took statements from the victims of the assault.

Raif did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Earlier encounter

Raif’s aggressive behavior on Thursday was not his first encounter with the students.

On Monday afternoon, D. was standing near the apartheid wall display. She was wearing a keffiyeh – a traditional checkered scarf – and a T-shirt with the word “Gaza” on it.

Raif came up to D. and began asking her questions. “Why do you sit here telling all these lies? Why do you have Gaza on your shirt as if it’s some kind of paradise?” D. recalls him saying.

“I asked him if he was recording me,” D. recalled, “and he said, ‘yes of course, because all you do is spew bullshit.’”

“I was a little nervous but wasn’t thinking too much of it until he started putting his hand very close to my chest and then I felt very uncomfortable,” D. told The Electronic Intifada. “Then I saw him again Thursday and knew not to engage.”

Family firm

Gal Raif is a former Israeli soldier who, according to social media postings, began his military service in 2011.

On his Instagram account, he identifies himself with Shlomo Group.

This is a major Israeli holding company founded by his grandfather, Shlomo Shmeltzer, with interests in numerous industries including real estate, telecoms and shipping. It also runs Shlomo Sixt, Israel’s largest car rental and leasing company and a franchise of Germany’s Sixt Group.

The Israeli military leases thousands of vehicles from Shlomo Sixt.

Since Shmeltzer died in 2014, the Shlomo Group has been run by Israel Raif, who is married to Shmeltzer’s daughter, Ofra. The couple are Gal’s parents.

Israel Raif is also chair of Afcon, another Shlomo Group company that manufactures electronic equipment, including for the Israeli army.

According to Afcon’s website, “the world’s most advanced perimeter security system,” made by one of its divisions, “has successfully completed testing by the IDF’s [Israeli army] technology unit” and has now “been installed along Israel’s southern border.”

Who Profits, the research group that monitors corporate complicity in Israeli occupation and human rights abuses, states that Afcon supplies the Israeli military with equipment for its checkpoints in the occupied West Bank and the Erez crossing with Gaza.

The company also supplies other services to the Israeli army, Israeli prison service and the Israeli police.

In a direct sense, the occupation and violence the mock wall put up by SJP represents are the family firm’s bread and butter.

Lacklustre response

On Monday, campus police gave D. a redacted copy of their report into Thursday’s incident, but neither D. nor any of the other students involved say they have been given a clear indication by university officials of what actions will follow or how they will be protected.

The report, seen by The Electronic Intifada, lists Gal Raif as “Suspect/Arrested” and describes the complaint as “harassment” and “physical contact.”

The report also describes the status of the case as “closed” and “referred to dean.”

In response to a query from The Electronic Intifada, the university indicated it is treating the case as a disciplinary matter and declined to provide any details.

“Although we cannot comment on any specific investigation, we take very seriously any complaints of student behavior that may violate our rules of conduct,” the university said.

“The safety of all our students, regardless of their political views, ethnic or religious identity, is always our first priority,” the statement added.

D. also reported the incident to the Columbia University Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. She received an acknowledgment email informing her that “the appropriate follow-up will be determined.”

Students say this low-key reaction contrasts with the university’s speedy and proactive response to alleged incidents of anti-Semitism or criticism of Israel.

Last week, for instance, the Barnard-Columbia Socialists found themselves under a secret police-style investigation because they had posted the slogan “Long live the Intifada” on the group’s Facebook page.

Barnard-Columbia Socialists see the investigation as the result of complaints by Zionist groups whose goal is to “marginalize and intimidate anyone standing in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle.”

They term it another example of what Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights have called the Palestine Exception to Free Speech on campuses across the country.

Columbia University did not respond to a request from The Electronic Intifada for comment about the investigation into the socialist group.

While failing to protect students who speak out for Palestinian rights, some universities have colluded in aggressive police prosecutions of students or members of the public accused of “disrupting” speeches by Israeli officials.

Jews critical of Israel are another group who say they experience harassment on campus. As The Electronic Intifada reported, a member of Students Supporting Israel has referred to Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights as as “kapos,” the word used to describe Jews who collaborated in the Nazi genocide.

This prompted even several pro-Israel groups at Columbia, including Hillel, J Street and Aryeh, to jointly condemn the use of the word.

Students have also noted an increase in anti-Palestinian rhetoric since a campaign calling for the university to divest from companies complicit in Israeli occupation was launched earlier this year. Despite this, the number of Columbia faculty endorsing the campaign has risen to nearly 70.

Some students feel the Columbia University administration does not take seriously the safety of Arab and Muslim students, or those who speak out about Palestinian rights.

“I see an institutional silence,” one of the witnesses to Thursday’s incident told The Electronic Intifada about the university’s lacklustre response.

“When it comes to an actual act of violence committed against SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace, I’m not really convinced there’s going to be much movement,” the student said.

That means that students speaking out about the abuses by Israeli soldiers in occupied Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip, have found themselves under assault from a former Israeli soldier on a US campus, and they have no clear idea what the university plans to do about it.

Dena Shunra contributed research.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated that Rudy Rochman participated in Israel’s summer 2014 assault on Gaza, in which numerous war crimes and other serious violations have been alleged by human rights investigators. In fact, according to Rochman’s own social media postings, he participated in Israel’s November 2012 assault on Gaza, in which numerous war crimes and other serious violations were also alleged by human rights investigators.

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Thanks, Ali. Unfortunately, there will be those in Columbia University's administration whose first response will be to blame the students for "inciting" this IDF soldier's aggressive actions. Please follow up on this story as details become available.

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This story reminds me far too much of my own campus in the US. We have several pro-Israel student organisations, including one literally called "[University] Students Stand With Israel."
Yet, we have no organisations specifically for Palestinian students, none in support of BDS, and only one campus group that even facilitates discussion between Israeli and Palestinian students, which is still very biased and expect Palestinian students to simply agree to the compromises presented by our oppressors (as if what we decide on our campus would be implemented anyway). I've had some professors warn me not to take classes with other professors because their biases against me would impact my grade, and of course because nobody deserves to have their humanity questioned in the classroom.
I have one specific incident (out of many subtle and not-so-subtle ones) that comes to mind: I was on a student trip in Belfast, Ireland. My mum is Irish and I also grew up there, and my father is a Palestinian refugee, and staring at those "peace walls" in Belfast, I started to feel so emotional, understanding my own identity in a way I hadn't been able to before. Apartheid walls like this one have shaped my own family into what and who we are. Noticing this, an Israel-supporter in my class turned to me, and practically spitting, said, "You know, walls make great fucking neighbors."
I think that pretty much says it all. SJP Columbia, thank you for standing up for the Palestinians students who aren't allowed voices on our own campuses. I hope those who harass students fighting against injustice are held responsible.

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When Gal freaked out and started shouting and pushing the wall, he yelled "I'll kick you" and other similar things. Me and other people, just 15 metres away, froze because the scene escalated too quickly for us to comprehend what was going on. When this other guy, whom I don't know, took his phone to record the scene, Gal switched his focus to him. He went up close to intimidate him, telling him not to record.

The reason why I arrived at the scene is because I saw a friend of mine, an undergrad who was talking to Gal. They seemed to be having a normal conversation when my friend asked him "What about the Arabs living in Israel?" to which Gal responded "They can fuck off! They have Jordan and Syria.". My friend then -realizing that the conversation was meaningless moved to the side. Gal walked the 15-20 metres to the wall and that's when the rest of the scene took place.

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This means that American citizens are being assaulted on their own soil by the IDF now. How much longer are you Americans going to allow this? They're no longer content to drive bulldozers over American citizens in the middle east...now they are right here attacking you. With impunity. But then again the IDF excels at attacking the weak and unarmed.

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Good question! Perhaps the slumber of MSM propaganda will awaken with this! After all it is appropriate given the "aiding and abetting" of US tax dollars coming back full circle. The US has a tall glass of heinous atrocities to swallow and sadly the slumber and/or purposeful brainwashing of innocent elitist lies, theft, greed, murder and destruction will meet them like a mirror in their face whilst they "vote" for another barbarian to continue down the same dark and endless chasm of evil. Wake Up Americans...your weak and tired fences can't hold your double minded comforts anymore.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.