Columbia University student Maya Yechieli Wind organizes campus display depicting IDF soldiers abusing Palestinian students at checkpoints. Israeli students form counter-protest. 'Many think this is what really goes on,' one of them says
struggles to justify its actions to an ever-growing hostile international community, some choose to join the other side – Maya Yechieli Wind, 19, from Jerusalem, is currently studying in New York's prestigious Columbia University and chooses to spend her spare time organizing anti-Israeli displays depicting IDF soldiers beating and humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints.
Wind grew up in Jerusalem and attended religious schools, despite coming from a secular family. When she was 17-year-old, she signed The Shministim Letter – a petition authored by senior high school students who refused to enlist in the army – and was later jailed in a military prison for 40 days.
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After her release, Wind moved to the United States and began her studies at Columbia University. Alongside her academics program, she joined the Columbia University Students for Justice in Palestine organization, which attracts many Palestinian students from Ramallah as well as Arab students.
Recently, the organization launched a display meant to simulate to campus passersby what a Palestinian student wishing to attend school or take an exam in an Israeli university must go through when trying to cross a checkpoint.
While in Israel, Wind refused to don an army uniform, in the display she gladly depicted an IDF sergeant who, according to Wind, regularly abuses and humiliates the Palestinian population at the checkpoint.
As part of the presentation, Wind and three of her friends dressed up as IDF soldiers, stopped random students passing through campus and gave them a green ID card and a kafiya. They then proceeded to bind the bystanders' hands behind their backs, and covered their eyes and mouths with adhesive tape.
Wind took her part very seriously, aggressively ordering students to kneel to the ground while threatening them with a carton rifle.
The "soldiers" then proceeded to check the "Palestinians'" bags, while tossing books and personal belonging onto the floor.
'They stole the show'
The presentation created an enormous impact among students who witnessed it, most of which were not aware of the background, the circumstances or the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinian student Dina Zaveidi recalled her experience as a student in east Jerusalem, telling passersby that "a Palestinian student on his way to class or an exam can be detained for an hour an a half on average, while being subjected to violence and humiliation."
Shortly after the presentation commenced, a group of pro-Israeli students gathered nearby and held a counter protest. The students covered themselves in Israeli flags, carried signs and chanted slogans in favor of Israel.
The pro-Israeli group tried to explain to passersby the complexity of the conflict, and the situation at the checkpoints. "The checkpoints are a necessary evil, but they prevent terror," said one of the students.
The confrontation between the two sides quickly turned noisy, but the Pro-Palestinian activists turned down their fellow students' request to hold a dialogue.
"I think it is important and fair to hold protests," said student Leor Himi, " but what we saw here today was a provocation and a distortion of the facts."
"The pro-Palestinian display was very powerful – something that is not easy for us Israelis to watch," added Tor Tsuk, the Jewish Agency representative at Columbia University, who also organized the counter-protest which drew some 150 students.
"Some of the Israeli students tried to confront Wind and made remarks to her in Hebrew, but she ignored. Our protest managed to convey the message that the checkpoints are there as a result of terror and they are vital for the existence of Israel. We felt as though we managed to balance the picture," she added.
Omer Geller, a 26-year-old Israeli student of Economics said what bothered him most was that "many people – even in this university – don’t know what really goes on, thinking this is what actually happens to a person at a checkpoint.
"Since many of us served at checkpoints, it is especially infuriating – we tried to talk to people and explain to them what really goes on. Unfortunately, they invested a lot in their presentation, and as such it managed to steal the show," he said.
On Tuesday, Wind told Yedioth Ahronoth that it is her right to express an opinion on the occupation, even if she has not personally served in the IDF. "We are doing this presentation in America, because the Americans are directly supporting the occupation both politically and monetarily," she said.
"I spend a lot of time in the territories as a human rights activist, and saw soldiers binding Palestinians' hand with plastic restraints and covering their eyes with black cloths as a method of punishment. What we did here is a symbolic act. I'm used to not being popular in Israel, so I am not surprised by the reactions," she added.