By Angela Jacob and Laura Spitalniak
This year's Israel Fest coincided with the Israeli Independence Day, as both Jewish and non-Jewish students gathered to celebrate Israeli culture on McKeldin Mall Tuesday, while students gathered to boycott the event hundreds of feet away.
Rachel Greenberg, the vice president of cultural programming for the Jewish Student Union, said the event is important to her because she lived in Israel for a year, and she feels a close connection to the culture.
"Israel is a hugely integral part of Jewish culture," Greenberg, a senior government and politics major, said. "To me, it's a way to represent [the Independence Day] on our campus, to show this giant celebration and try to mimic what happens in Israel."
The event has been held every year for more than 10 years, Greenberg said. The JSU and other organizations and clubs, such as Maryland Hillel, host Israel Fest each year, and most of the funding comes from the Student Government Association, including money for police officers, she added.
Talia Hoch, a junior behavioral and community health major, said she also lived in Israel for a year, and she said celebrating Independence Day in Israel is "what American Independence Day should be," with dancing and including everyone in the festivities. Having an event like Israel Fest allows people to come together and celebrate the holiday, despite not being in Israel, Hoch said.
"It's a cultural celebration without being too political — to show people what the culture is really like without the politics involved," she said. "Everyone knows it's when the Jews have the weird camel, but I think it's very important to understand that Israel is more than just the headlines of 'this person was bombed today' or 'sanctions.'"
JSU increased security at the event this year after protests led by Students for Justice in Palestine were held at last year's Israel Fest. Last year, students protested on McKeldin Mall with megaphones and signs. University Police arrived at the scene to keep protesters from blocking walkways. No one was arrested, but an officer did push a student toward the grass, The Diamondback reported last year.
Greenberg said they weren't prepared for those protests. This year, however, JSU had discussions with SJP about how both groups can express themselves respectfully in an effort to avoid a repeat of last year's Israel Fest. The festival and boycott remained separate, and there was no police intervention.
"We're having our event here; they're having their event there," JSU President Sam Fishman said. "Neither is getting in the way of anything. It's been very peaceful."
Hundreds of feet down the mall, more than 100 students gathered in front of McKeldin Library to boycott the event. Several student groups endorsed the boycott, including Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Political Alliance, the Organization of Arab Students, Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society, the Student Labor Action Project, the Prison Resistance Project, Community Roots and the UMD International Socialist Organization.
Members of SJP chalked "Boycott Israel Fest" all over the campus in the week preceding the festival, advertising a teach-in instead. The teach-in outside McKeldin Library officially started at 3 p.m., but some people were there from 10 a.m. when Israel Fest started, said Sarah Eshera, president of Muslim Political Alliance and a boycott participant.
SJP and the Muslim Political Alliance released a statement coinciding with the boycott, which was distributed to attendees and students walking by and read aloud.
"The University of Maryland does not stage an annual celebration of any country except for the country of Israel," the statement read, "and we find this not only unnecessary, but insulting to students and faculty who come from the occupied territories of Palestine and Gaza and who have suffered a great deal of loss and pain as a result of a brutal occupation."
This university does not hold Israel Fest. Instead, JSU and other organizations and clubs, such as Maryland Hillel, host the event each year.
Members of JSU and SJP had discussions before the event, but Eshera said the union wasn't compliant with some of the suggestions they proposed, such as changing the name of the event to "Jewish Culture Festival." She added the protesters don't have a problem with Judaism, but they have a problem with Israel. JSU declined to change the name, Eshera said.
"A lot of times people will say it's a cultural celebration, not a political one, but the reality is that you can't separate the two, especially when it comes to this region," Eshera, a junior mathematics and philosophy major, said. "Israel is a very oppressive country to many people, and we don't see a reason to be celebrating it."
The current Israeli–Palestinian conflict centers on land ownership and control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While Palestinians control the West Bank, it is under Israeli occupation. A proposed two-state solution would establish Palestine as an independent state but leave remaining land to Israel, while the one-state solution advocates all land to go to one nation or the other.
Mandy Stussman, a junior sociology major, organized and participated in the boycott, calling it "a demonstration of what Israel really means to a lot of people."
Stussman, who is Jewish, said she grew up as "more of a Zionist" — Israel's national ideology that moves to create a Jewish state in the Middle East — but changed her perspective as she researched the issue.
"The more I learned about the conflict, the more my opinions about Israel have shifted," she said, noting it wasn't primarily a religious debate. "Really, this is a human's rights issue."
About 100 people — including Jewish students — came to the boycott and listened to the talks, which focused on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the aggression and human rights violations committed against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel Fest saw no physical confrontations.
For senior physiology and neurobiology major Angela Wu, the main benefit of Israel Fest was the education incorporated into the day — learning about Israeli Independence Day and Israeli culture.
"I think it's critical, especially given the climate that we're living in today," she said. "Having people exposed to different cultures and different aspects of other people's lives just to understand their perspectives, I think that builds a lot for our campus community."