By Zane Moses
Tuesday marked the end of the University of Maryland's Israel Week — an educational eight days that allowed people to recognize Israel's culture. It started April 12 and culminated at Tuesday's Israel Fest.
Israel Week was hosted by Jewish student groups including Terps for Israel, J Street UMD, the Jewish Student Union and Maryland Hillel, and involved a series of activities and speakers to focus on the country and its people, said Jordan Burt, a sophomore communication major and member of the Israel Week planning committee.
"It is a tool to educate the student body on Israel as a country, as a culture, as a people," Burt said.
The week of events was not intended to advocate or take a stance on current events in Israel, Burt said, but it was designed to educate the campus community about country and the culture.
"Israel Week is a week to get away from the notion that all we talk about Israel is the Israel-Palestine conflict," Burt said. "There is more to Israel as a country, as a people, than war and violence."
Burt said learning about Israel is important because it is the only democracy in the Middle East, it is a U.S. ally and the U.S. is in league with Israel on several projects, such as the Iron Dome, Israel's missile defense system. The Israel Week committee wanted students to explore Israeli culture and try to learn something new.
On April 12, a former manager of the Iron Dome project, Chanoch Levin, spoke about his experiences with the project, and on April 13, there was an exploration into Israeli fashion with a fashion blogger visiting. Thursday brought a screening and discussion of A Borrowed Identity, a Romeo and Juliet-type story between Israelis and Palestinians; Friday night was a Shabbat meal; and on Sunday, the committee hosted a Krav Maga lesson on McKeldin Mall.
The week concluded with Israel Fest, hosted by the Jewish Student Union. The event was set up on McKeldin Mall with stations and games aimed to let people have fun while learning about Israeli culture, said Samuel Fishman, a junior government and politics major and the vice president of JSU.
"This event is really to celebrate Israel's culture, society and geography," Fishman said. "We have several stations meant to give people a taste of what Israel is like."
The event featured Israeli food, a lounge for people to discuss birthright trips, a rock-climbing wall, an inflatable basketball game, an ice cream truck, a dunk tank and camel rides. There were educational components at each station using posters and activities.
"Our message is just to highlight the diversity and uniqueness of Israeli society and culture," Fishman said.
This event is generally the Jewish Student Union's largest event, and it's a yearlong planning process, Fishman said. He said the Jewish Student Union is not a political organization and the event was not meant to advocate for anything political — it was purely about education and culture.
"A large amount of Jewish people feel a deep and profound connection with the state of Israel, and we all believe it is important that other people learn about Israeli society," Fishman said.
During Israel Fest, however, pro-Palestinian protests began in front of McKeldin Library and continued onto the mall. About 20 students walked through, chanting, "Free, free Palestine, free, free Gaza." One person in the group, senior biology and philosophy major Mohammad Sajjad Soltanmohammadi, said he took issue with the event's celebratory image of Israel.
"It's a celebration of what has built, founded and [is] continuing apartheid and racism," Soltanmohammadi said. "You can't celebrate something like that when it is so prevalent to the intrinsic nature of it."
Fishman, on behalf of the JSU, expressed his disappointment that the protests occurred.
"We strongly advocate for an open, civil dialogue, but there is a time and a place for learning from one another," Fishman said in a statement.