Rudy Rochman, 24


Every day, Rudy Rochman wakes up to the faces of Israeli leaders like Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir looking down at him from their frames on his bedroom walls. One day, he hopes to be counted among their ranks.

“I want to be a character in Jewish history,” said Rochman.

Rochman seems to be on his way, having served as president of Students Supporting Israel (SSI), one of Columbia University’s clubs, before graduating in May. Having spent his early years in France and moving to the United States as a child, Rochman says he went through an identity crisis trying to introduce himself and his story to new people. That crisis turned him into an ardent Zionist, prompting him to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. After serving as a paratrooper, he went on to enroll at Columbia University, which he chose in part for its tense atmosphere around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As the head of SSI, Rochman has tried to promote a narrative that differed from the standard pro-Israel talking points proffered by some of his peers. Noticing the dominance of intersectional politics in campus dialogue, Rochman promotes a narrative of Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, returning a displaced people to their homeland.

“I want to be a character in Jewish history.”

“Intersectionality is the new game and we’re playing with chess pieces on the backgammon board,” said Rochman. “I realized that we have to talk about Israel’s story in a way that the audience we’re speaking to will understand.”

That approach seems to have resonated, with hundreds of students joining SSI, forging partnerships with other minority groups on campus, and running counter-programming during Israel Apartheid Week, an annual advocacy event run by pro-Palestine groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

“When you talk about Israel in that story, you are no longer the evil white force that came from Europe to take [land] away, but you’re actually an empowerment model for other minorities around the world,” said Rochman.

Banned from Malaysia: Rochman was banned from Malaysia after posting a photo of himself in the country with his Israeli passport.