Above: Josiah the camel patiently poses for student selfies.

By Rebecca McCarthy

The day was sunny, and so was the attitude of the University of Georgia students celebrating the second week of Israel Peace Week with Israel Fest on Wednesday, April 6.

Students from university organizations such as Sigma Delta Tau and UGA Hillel volunteered to help Dawgs for Israel serve traditional Israeli food, play Israeli music, and showcase the beauty and culture of the country. A camel named Josiah patiently endured mugging, camel-style, for an album of selfies from passing students.

Robert Cohen of Marietta staffs an Israel Fest handout table.

Robert Cohen of Marietta staffs an Israel Fest handout table.

“It’s been great,” said Emilie Vainer, 23, whose Israeli father moved the family from Canada to Sandy Springs when Emilie was 5. She’s the head of Dawgs for Israel. “We wanted to give people a taste of Israel.”

With family scattered throughout the country, she has visited Israel often and even ridden a camel resembling Josiah. Sharing information about Israel comes easily to Vainer. She estimated that more than 2,000 people from across campus stopped at the display tables April 6 to learn about Israeli cities, don some blue beads or take a T-shirt, while others wandered over to a Bedouin tent in the makeshift Negev.

There was also information about the charities and disaster relief groups in Israel that travel the globe to help those in need. In the Tate Center Plaza, so many people gobbled up pita and hummus that the hummus ran out before the pita. Music played, and some people danced, including Meirav Goldhour and her baby.

Israel Fest coincided with Israeli Apartheid Week, staged from April 4 to 7 by the UGA groups Athens for Justice in Palestine and Christians United for Palestine.

Vainer had heard rumors that those groups were going to construct a wall, symbolizing the separation fence between Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Israel, but a wall was nowhere to be seen on campus April 6. Some students thought university officials had prohibited the construction, but officials in student affairs said they hadn’t heard about a wall.

“We had no idea there was going to be an Israeli Apartheid Week,” Vainer said. “We planned this Israel Fest long ago and wanted it to be outside for people to enjoy the day.”

Numerous emails, texts and phone calls failed to connect with anyone at either pro-Palestinian group who would comment. But the groups are active. There have been movies on campus about Palestinian struggles, and Palestine Solidarity Day is planned for the Tate Center Plaza on Friday, April 15.

But on April 6, the morning and afternoon were all about Israel for those enjoying food and friendship.

Ashley Siegel, a 19-year-old student from Dunwoody, said she spent six weeks in high school in Israel. An early childhood education major, she said she wouldn’t mind teaching at the Davis Academy in Sandy Springs when she graduates.

“I think (building a wall on campus) is crazy,” she said. “They’re talking poorly about a country I feel passionate about. I don’t like it.”

Israeli Nadav Aud, 26, came from Atlanta to volunteer at Israel Fest. He said he is an emissary who tries to bring Israel closer to the Jewish community, and he loved the UGA event.

“People showed a lot of interest,” Aud said. “I liked introducing people to Israel.”

Staffing a table of swag was Robert Cohen, 19, a finance major from Marietta. He attends services at Hillel and wanted to volunteer at the festival.

His first experience “was just great,” he said. “We gave away a lot of stuff, and I think we reached a good group of students.”

Ilana Sturisky, 19, a communications disorders major from Sandy Springs, plans to spend 15 days in Israel this summer. “I’m so excited about it,” she said. “We’re going to go everywhere and see everything.”

Photos by Rachel Lewack