By Danielle Kiefer
Students celebrated Israel’s 69th year of independence at the Jewish Student Union’s annual Israel Fest on McKeldin Mall May 2.
Israel Fest, co-sponsored by organizations including Maryland Hillel, is held every year to celebrate and educate students on Israeli culture. The event typically offers camel rides and free food including falafel and Aroma coffee, an Israeli-based espresso bar. This year’s festivities included a rock-climbing wall and dunk tank.
“[Israel Fest] is a great way to promote Zionism on campus,” said junior public health major Jess Goldstein, adding that the free food and coffee is also a plus.
Zionism is a movement that calls for the Jewish people to return to their homeland, Israel, according to the Jewish Virtual Library’s website.
“Israel Fest is a time where our community comes together and celebrates what’s important to our people and our culture,” Hillel executive director Rabbi Ari Israel said.
Not all students were supportive of the event. Several student groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Muslim Political Alliance (MPA), led a protest outside of McKeldin Library, calling for a boycott of Israel Fest.
“Israel is an oppressive state to a lot people, so we don’t see a reason to be celebrating [it],” said MPA president Sarah Eshera, a junior math and philosophy double major. “We’re asking people not to participate to show that our university doesn’t support the celebration of an oppressive country.”
Members of SJP distributed “Boycott Israel Fest” flyers around campus in the week leading up to the festival. On the day of the event, they held an official teach-in at 3 p.m. outside the library, although some of these students stayed put throughout the entirety of Israel Fest.
The teach-in included student speakers talking about their experiences and why they boycotted, Eshera said.
“It’s important to recognize that this festival causes a lot of pain and torment for a lot of the students here on this campus, and Palestinians in general,” junior sociology major and SJP member Mandy Stussman said.
Protesters made a conscious decision to hold a less confrontational event from last year’s, by keeping a distance from the actual festival, Stussman said.
Last year, protestors staged a ‘die-in’ demonstration in the middle of Israel Fest, Eshera said. Participants lay along the Mall’s lawn to symbolize human suffering in Israel that they believe the event chooses to ignore.
“That was effective in getting people talking, but we wanted to do something this year where we would get the campus community behind us,” Eshera said.
The University of Maryland Police Department arrived at last year’s protest to keep protesters from blocking walkways, and an officer pushed one student towards the grass, The Diamondback reported in 2016.
During the teach-in this year, members of the organizations protesting lined up in front of a makeshift wall. The wall represented the wall separating the West Bank in Israel, Eshera said, and included representations of graffiti, such as “Free Gaza.”
While the protest did not become violent or move towards the actual festival, students at Israel Fest were aware of the presence of protesters, and some felt that they were misinformed.
“I saw a lot of them that had signs that said, ‘Israel is an apartheid state,’ and that’s something that’s very untrue,” Goldstein said. “It’s unfair that there’s so much propaganda against Israel, but I think it’s great that 90 percent is full of people who are pro-Israel and supportive.”
In a statement on Hillel’s Facebook page, Rabbi Israel wrote, “while we sadly recognize that some of the statements being made and information being propagated may contain bias, factual errors, and spark a strong reaction, we believe that it is in the best interest of our community to be non-confrontational.”
Rabbi Israel encouraged students to educate others without being provocative.
“We are doing our best to keep a positive image,” Rabbi Israel said. “We are asking our constituents to be civil, respectful of others, and to do our best to maintain a sense of belonging in the University of Maryland community, which is about exploring and learning.”
Freshman community health major Rachel Gerstenfeld said she had a positive experience despite the controversy surrounding the event.
“I enjoyed Israel Fest, and I liked walking around and seeing lots of familiar Jewish faces in the community,” freshman community health major Rachel Gerstenfeld said.