By Sam Fishman
A celebration of Israeli culture at the University of Maryland last month drew an ugly protest but proved that a positive message can prevail.
On Tuesday, April 19, the UMD Jewish Student Union put on its annual Israel Fest, the culmination of a year’s worth of Israel programming on campus, sponsored by a wide array of student groups. As the executive vice president of JSU, I, with the other executive board members, spend months planning the event.
Israel Fest is a celebration of Israeli culture, providing fun activities with educational components on McKeldin Mall in the center of campus. We had a rock-climbing wall to represent Masada and educational posters to explain its significance. We had a Birthright coffee lounge, where prospective participants could grab an Aroma coffee and talk to Birthright representatives about the incredible 10-day experience. JSU also brought a camel to campus, enabling students to take a ride and learn about the Negev desert.
While the issue of Israel is always political, Israel Fest focused on Israeli culture, not politics. But Students for Justice in Palestine and its sympathizers had a different idea.
About two hours into the event, protesters starting waving Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Israel remarks at the other end of the mall. They were attracting some attention from Israel Fest patrons but were not directly interrupting the event.
About a half-hour after they started, the protesters marched down the mall to the center of Israel Fest and disrupted the event. They shouted, “End the Israeli apartheid,” “F–k the police” and “Fight the power.” They even orchestrated a die-in, a form of protest in which all participants lie on the ground, refusing to move, imitating dead bodies.
Campus policy was violated when they blocked pedestrian traffic and infringed on the rights of others. Almost all activities ceased, and it seemed as if months of planning went down the drain.
After about 45 minutes of confronting University of Maryland police officers, the protest dispersed, and Israel Fest continued with its positive celebration of the Jewish homeland. At the end of the day, I would estimate well over a thousand students, faculty and other guests participated in some way at Israel Fest.
The anti-Israel demonstration involved about 25 protesters shouting obscenities, disrupting a cultural celebration and making accusations without considering all the facts. On the flip side, we had more than 40 times as many people at our event getting a taste of Israeli life, whether trying falafel or an Aroma coffee, learning about Eilat, or hearing about the opportunities of the Israeli studies department at UMD.
We tried to educate and provide people with a fun experience, whereas the anti-Israel protesters sought to instill fear in a reactionary protest.
My thoughts should not be taken as being against free speech and protest. However, I believe that a protest could be done in a respectful manner that does not infringe on the rights of others.
The events of that day have great importance beyond the University of Maryland. Pro-Israel activists across the country should learn a few essential lessons.
First and most obviously, there is serious anti-Israel sentiment across the globe, and we should not neglect it. Anti-Israel forces have a serious following, especially in Europe, and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is a serious affront not only to the state of Israel, but to the Jewish people as a whole.
Second, the events of this day provide some insight into how to win the communications battle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is essential that we maintain a positive message. There is room to criticize the other side, but as pro-Israel Jews, it is vital that we take the higher road.
Think about it: If you were a non-Jew who was unfamiliar with the conflict and saw the events that transpired on that Tuesday afternoon, whom would you be more inclined to support? The fearmongering protesters shouting obscenities, or the people who invited you to have fun and learn about something new and interesting?
We win that battle 10 times out of 10.
The conflict we face is not an easy one, but with the right insight and message, we will prevail.