By Jacob Schaperow, editor-in-chief, @jschap1
A group of about 22 people marched onto McKeldin Mall waving Palestinian flags and chanting against what they claimed are the crimes of the Jewish state during the Jewish Student Union’s Israel Fest event Tuesday. The group stayed for about a half hour and left after University police told them they were not allowed to protest there.
JSU hosts Israel Fest, a celebration of Israeli culture with games, food and giveaways, each year. The festival is the climax of Maryland Hillel’s Israel Week, an event which this year included a discussion on Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, a seminar on the history of Israeli fashion and an “Israel Shabbat Dinner” featuring Middle Eastern food. About 1,000 students participated in Israel Fest this year.
Israel Fest was in full swing around noon, with volunteers from dozens of Jewish student groups staffing tables and games set up on either side of the well-trafficked sidewalk on the east side of the mall, when the protesters arrived. They started their demonstration across the mall, near the library, but chose to disrupt Israel Fest by moving into the center of the festivities.
Because it takes place on the mall, Israel Fest is one of the most visible Israel-related programs that this university’s Jewish student groups and Maryland Hillel put on each year. Hillel Assistant Director Maiya Chard-Yaron said Hillel keeps the safety of students in mind and frequently makes arrangements with campus authorities and police to ensure safety at its larger events.
“I would appreciate having a more meaningful dialogue than disrupting a peaceful event like this that isn’t explicitly about anything other than Israel existing,” junior mechanical engineering major Gedaliah Knizhnik said.
Chard-Yaron said that although she doesn’t think there is one right answer for how students should respond to protests such as these, she encourages students to engage in dialogue proactively, in a calmer setting.
“We want to encourage students to engage in conversation about what’s going on around them,” Chard-Yaron said. “I think there were a lot of students there who might not be educated or informed about what’s happening in Israel or in the Palestinian territories, and I think there is an opportunity for students to have, you know, not screaming and shouting protests, but to have real conversation.”
This was the largest protest that occurred at Israel Fest in recent years, JSU President Julia Ring said.
Dozens of Israel Fest attendees gathered in a circle to watch the protests. One of them started singing the Zionist song “Am Yisroel Chai.” JSU leaders asked the individual to stop.
“We didn’t want to be blatantly combating them,” Ring said. “We wanted to be above that, not just fight back. We didn’t want to fight fire with fire.”
Aside from the protests, Ring said she was pleased with the event this year.
“We feel that we still had a great event despite what happened,” she said.
Junior criminology major Emma Keswick, who attended Israel Fest last year, said the day’s protests had an effect on her.
“I just feel kind of sad, that we have this wonderful day set aside to show our love for eretz yisroel, and for everyone to come together,” Keswick said, “yet these people thought that that would be the perfect time to spread hate. It really upsets me that they took this wonderful day, and kind of, I don’t want to say they ruined it, but they did put a damper on it.”