The main student thoroughfare at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), was transformed into a Middle Eastern street festival last week as hundreds of students from diverse backgrounds gathered for iFest, a celebration of Israel organized by Anteaters for Israel, the campus’ pro-Israel student group, and other Jewish student organizations.
The weeklong program showcased Israeli culture while highlighting the country’s contributions to the world. Live music, belly dancing, a free hookah lounge and a Moroccan tent offering free henna tattoos punctuated the lunch hour each day, while local Jewish vendors sold Israeli art, jewelry and other wares in a mock Ben Yehuda Street reminiscent of the famous Jerusalem shopping bazaar. An estimated 600 students turned out for the first day’s activities, which included a free barbecue. Evening events included Israeli nightclub-themed parties. The week culminated in a Shabbat dinner at the student center that brought local dignitaries to campus.
Now in its third year, iFest traditionally occurs shortly after Israeli Apartheid Week, the annual program sponsored by UCI’s Muslim Student Union that casts Israeli’s policies toward the Palestinians as racist and genocidal. On a campus that has seen its share of provocative, anti-Israel activity, iFest leaves politics aside and sheds a bright light on Israel. Students with little or no knowledge about Israel are taught facts about the Jewish state through exhibits boasting Israel’s achievements in technology, the arts and humanitarian aid, receiving prizes when they answer questions correctly.
“We definitely saw a need to humanize Israel on campus and to bring culture, to show that Israel is not a war zone,” said Jackie Hartfield, a third-year student who coordinated iFest’s marketing initiatives. “It was a reaction [to Israeli Apartheid Week] but not a direct reaction. It was more a reaction to campus in general.”
Hartfield said she was amazed at how little some students know about Israel.
“I heard one student say, ‘I didn’t know Israel was a democracy,’ ” she said. “The students have been learning a lot. It’s been great.”
This year’s event was marked for the first time by a community day on May 26 that brought hundreds of Jews from Orange County, Long Beach and Los Angeles to campus. The widespread desire to support UCI’s Jewish students, particularly among those previously uninvolved with campus life, was sparked in large part by the repeated heckling of Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, by anti-Israel protesters during his Feb. 8 speech at the Student Center, organizers said.
“Especially because of what happened with Michael Oren and Israeli Apartheid Week, it was important for us to show the [Jewish] students that they have a strong community to back them up and to show the chancellor that there is a large community that really cares about what happens at UCI,” said Orly Glick, a member of the Women’s Council of Hillel, a grass-roots group that formed in the aftermath of the Oren event for the purpose of supporting UCI’s Jewish students.