No topic was off-limits when an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier visited Binghamton University Monday evening to share the stories and opinions he developed while serving in the army.
Yishai Goldflam served as a paratrooper and is now the director of Presspectiva, an organization whose goal is to ensure accuracy in reporting by Israeli news outlets covering events in Israel and the Middle East.
Addressing a packed multipurpose room in the Chenango Champlain Collegiate Center, Goldflam explained that he did not come to argue for one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the other, but instead to facilitate a thoughtful conversation.
“I know there are people who like to call themselves ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestinian,’ but I think that those are bad terms,” Goldflam said. “Because if you are ‘pro-Palestinian’ or ‘pro-Israeli,’ it’s like you’re looking at a football match with two teams where one loses and one wins.”
He added that the key to finding a solution to the conflict lies in finding an agreement both sides can live with.
“If you want to compromise, you need to take a step back; you need to let the other guy also win something. There needs to be some sort of middle ground,” Goldflam said.
He advised the audience to be careful about what they read in the news coming from the Middle East and what they believe, saying that stories about either side are not representative of the whole.
Goldflam told the audience about a situation that arose when he and his battalion were advancing through a section of Gaza that was completely abandoned. They stayed in the empty home of a Palestinian family for several days.
One member of the battalion took several cans of Coca-Cola from a nearby abandoned grocery store, but when he brought the looted goods back to Goldflam and the other paratroopers, he was scolded and told to return them.
“We have to realize that there are assholes everywhere, including in the Israeli army,” Goldflam said. “Our guy did something wrong that he shouldn’t have done. But, on the other hand, there were 11 of us who felt that what he did was completely uncalled for and wasn’t the right thing to do.”
He said that seeing the news reports about Israeli soldiers committing terrible crimes made him want to focus even more on his behavior.
“I didn’t choose to be there. I was drafted. When I found myself in that situation, I figured that the least I could do was be a mensch about it,” Goldflam said.
Goldflam, who moved from Israel to Miami Beach with his family when he was 6 years old, then back to Israel at the age of 10, explained that the country of his birth was a much different place when he was a child.
“For me, it was very natural to just get on a bus or get in my parents’ car and just drive back and forth wherever we wanted to go,” he said. “There was no barrier. There was no fence. There was no wall. There was absolutely nothing. In fact, it wasn’t just me who could drive back and forth; the Palestinians could, too.”
He said that relationships were so amicable that his parents even hired Palestinians to do work.
“When my parents did renovations on our house in Jerusalem in 1989, the contractor was an Arab-Israeli. All the workers were Palestinians; they lived in various villages around Jerusalem. And they just got up in the morning and they came to our house and they worked and it was all very natural.”
After sharing his experiences with the room, Goldflam accepted questions from students.
Several students suggested that Goldflam was being partial to Israel and brought up the fact that Israel’s most recent campaign against Hamas, a Palestinian Islamic organization, resulted in many more Palestinian deaths than Israeli deaths.
Goldflam said he did not believe that casualty numbers have an impact on moral standing. He compared it to the fact that Germany suffered many more casualties than the Allies in World War II.
“The fact that a lot of Israelis don’t get killed does not mean that the Palestinians are right and the Israelis are wrong,” he said.
Another student asked Goldflam about his other pursuits, which included becoming a licensed tour guide in Israel.
Joshua Seed, an undeclared freshman, said he admired Goldflam’s composure when answering questions about touchy subjects.
“You could tell that there were disagreements at different times, but he was very calm and he spoke his mind in what I think was a very respectful way,” he said.
Tyler Albertario, the president of Students for Justice in Palestine and a senior majoring in political science, said he did not believe Goldflam was accurate in the way he explained things to the audience.
“What we got was an overly rosy picture — to say the very least,” Albertario said. “To say the worst, it was offensive. It was very offensive to compare the atrocities going on in Gaza and the West Bank to the looting of a couple of Coke cans.”
Shehryar Qazi, a graduate student studying sociology, said he didn’t believe Goldflam could speak fairly about the topics at hand.
“I do not believe the speaker could ever portray the IDF accurately no matter how sincere he might be simply due to the fact that he is part of a belligerent military in an ongoing conflict,” Qazi wrote in an email. “Such events that are put together with the goal of portraying well meaning individuals with self-righteous anecdotal accounts only serves to whitewash the violence that Palestinians and Arab Israelis suffer from day to day at the macro-level.”
Goldflam said he was impressed with the different queries he received.
“The questions were very intelligent, and students were varied in the topics that they asked me about,” he said. “I love doing this, I love generating conversation and getting people to talk about Israel.”
Zoe Liebmann, a sophomore majoring in political science, said she thought Goldflam handled the crowd well.
“I thought he was great; he knew who his audience was. He addressed the people who are pro-Israel, who are pro-Palestine, who are pro-two-state solution,” Liebmann said. “He defended Israel. He had great answers for every question. Even people who were, in my opinion, disrespectful in the way they asked the question — he addressed them very well.”
The event was organized by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained several errors. A sentence about speaker Yishai Goldflam’s residence contained an inaccuracy: He moved back to Israel at age 10 after moving to Miami at age 6. The article also misstated Goldflam’s touring activity. He is a licensed tour guide, but did not start a touring company.