Students supporting Palestine protest UMD’s Israel Fest
Laila, a Freshman Biology student, tears up while shouting "I'll never see my family again" on McKeldin Mall today, as University Police officer Mary Payne ushers her away from the fountain.
Carrying signs and megaphones, students supporting Palestine protested Israel Fest for about an hour Tuesday afternoon on McKeldin Mall, eventually leading University Police officers to intervene.
The group of more than two dozen University of Maryland students gathered at about noon in front of McKeldin Library and marched down the mall to the site of Israel Fest, an annual event featuring free food and entertainment celebrating Israeli culture.
Police arrived at the scene to keep protesters from blocking walkways, but they did not make any arrests.
Chanting, “Viva, viva, Palestina,” the protesters carried Palestinian flags and signs reading “Zionism kills” across the mall to the bottom of the fountain, where about 22 protesters lay down on the concrete.
Senior biology and philosophy major Mohammad Soltanmohammadi, with a Palestinian flag tied around his neck, stood among the protesters and spoke into a microphone as students who were not protesting shouted, “This is not political.”
“Not every Zionist is Jewish, and not every Jew is a Zionist,” Soltanmohammadi said to the crowd. “We have nothing against the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. We have something against the Zionist apartheid.”
Soltanmohammadi is involved with Students for Justice in Palestine, though the group did not organize the protest.
University Police Lt. Lisa Payne, who responded to the area with Master Patrol Officer Min Pak, pulled Soltanmohammadi aside.
“You need to get up off the ground; that’s what you need to do,” Payne told Soltanmohammadi. “They are blocking the pathway. Listen to me: You are not allowed to protest here.”
Protests, while permitted on the campus, may not block bicycle or pedestrian traffic or infringe upon the rights of others, according to this university’s guidelines for demonstrations.
While noting their right to protest, Soltanmohammadi acknowledged that the students could move off the concrete to the grass and joined the officers in asking them to do so.
Several of the protesters held their flags up to Payne’s face, screaming.
“I will never be able to see my family. I will never be able to go to where I’m from. No you don’t understand. You don’t understand. You don’t,” Laila, a freshman biology major who did not want to provide her last name, screamed at Payne.
Payne grabbed Laila’s shoulders and pushed her toward the grass.
The handbook also states that “Persons shall not obstruct, disrupt, interrupt or attempt to force the cancellation of any event or activity sponsored by the university or by any users authorized to use university facilities.”
Israel Fest “is not a political event at all,” said Sara Goldstein, a junior American studies major and cultural affairs vice president of the Jewish Student Union. “This is a cultural event, and they have every right to protest but not to disrupt an event that we’ve put on.”
Goldstein organized the event and reserved the space from the university. The Jewish Student Union partners with other clubs and organizations, including Maryland Hillel, to host Israel Fest every year.
“This is our event,” said Maiya Chard-Yaron, Hillel assistant director. “It seems that some people came who weren’t in spirit of being a part of this event, and we’re dealing with it now, but we’re here for Israel Fest.”
Most of the protesters left the mall, chanting, at about 12:55 p.m., but Laila stayed behind to tell passersby about what had happened.
“She just continued to push me to the grass, and I didn’t really want to cause any issues,” she said. “That basically signifies the whole Palestinian-Israeli struggle. … The more you fight, the more likely you’re going to get in trouble, so you just comply, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Senior staff writer Grace Toohey contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this story misspelled the names of Maiya Chard-Yaron and freshman biology major Laila. The article has been updated.