By Marwa Barakat, Marijke Friedman, Akshaj Gaur and Natalie Weger

As some University of Maryland community members attended Israel Fest Tuesday, other students, faculty and staff gathered in front of McKeldin Library to protest the annual event.

Israel Fest — a five-hour event hosted by this university’s Jewish Student Union near the administration building — saw hundreds of attendees throughout the day. More than a dozen Jewish organizations sponsored the event, which included food and activities to celebrate Israeli culture. On the other side of the mall, hundreds of students chanted in support of Palestine, denounced Israel Fest and called for divestment throughout the day.

University event staff checked IDs, searched bags and scanned attendees with metal detectors at gated entrances for each event — a difference from previous years. University of Maryland Police oversaw both events.

Both events had the same security plan, university spokesperson Katie Lawson wrote in a statement to The Diamondback Wednesday.

“We worked with student leaders in advance to communicate that every measure we put in place had the community’s safety in full focus,” the statement read.

This university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, which co-hosted the boycott event with the Anti-Imperialist Movement at UMD, called the security an “egregious violation” of student privacy and an example of “over-policing” on campus in an Instagram post Tuesday night.

“[This university] created its very own apartheid wall and checkpoints, barricading us inside our protest with fences surrounding us and at each entry and exit point — forcing students to enter Boycott [Israel Fest] through rigorous bag checks and metal detectors,” the post said.

[UMD community members continue sit-in calling for ceasefire in Gaza, divestment]

University president Darryll Pines told The Diamondback Wednesday that the enhanced security measures were to ensure the “safety and security of all parties.”

Terps for Israel president Emma Steinhause said ensuring Israel Fest attendees’ safety was important for the organization.

Students should feel comfortable and safe when celebrating their culture, the sophomore operations management and business analytics major said.

“The university has been amazing at helping us handle that,” Steinhause said. “They’ve been really in touch with us to make sure that each student is kept extremely safe.”

Israel Fest commemorated 76 years since Israel’s establishment.

The various cultural activities at the event showcased the university’s supportive community, Steinhause said.

Rifka Handelman, a member of this university’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, said they attended the boycott event because they disagree with celebrating Israel.

“I really don’t claim the … dark and bloody and violent history of Israel as part of my culture,” the junior environmental science and policy major said. “And I shouldn’t have to in order to be Jewish.”

Omar Sabra, a Students for Justice in Palestine board member who has Palestinian family members, said Israel Fest attendees should “think about what [they’re] celebrating.”

“What is happening on the other side of the mall is not a celebration,” the junior government and politics major said in a speech during Tuesday’s boycott event. “This is a vile propaganda effort meticulously designed to normalize the century-long genocide of the Palestinian people.”

About 700,000 Palestinians fled or were permanently expelled from their homes in 1948 during the Nakba — “catastrophe” in Arabic — because of the Arab-Israeli War, which led to the State of Israel’s establishment, according to the Associated Press.

On Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas killed at least 1,200 people in Israel and took about 250 hostages, according to the Associated Press. Israel declared war on Hamas the next day, and Israel’s military forces have since killed more than 34,800 people in Palestine, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

This academic year has been “really difficult” for many students at this university, according to junior business management major Ari Geller.

Geller said he attended Israel Fest to show his support for Israel and stand in solidarity with students on campus.

“It means a lot to see a community this large on campus show out to support each other through such difficult times,” Geller said.

Eitan Linsider, a junior computer science major, said many people attending Israel Fest have lived in Israel and wanted to bring pieces of their culture to this university. Several activity booths at the event symbolized places in Israel.

A booth with treats represented the Machane Yehuda Market, a famous marketplace in Jerusalem, Linsider said. The event also featured a climbing wall to represent Masada, an ancient fortress that overlooks the Dead Sea, he added.

Senior psychology major Abigail Mor, who helped organize educational programs for Israel Fest, hosted a booth Tuesday that distributed candles in honor of about 100 hostages currently held by Hamas.

“It is important to show that we are resilient as a community,” Mor, a co-president of this university’s Mishelanu, a club celebrating Israeli culture, said. “Even though we’re going through this really hard time, it doesn’t stop us.”

[UMD community members hold sit-in to call for ceasefire in Gaza, divestment]

Several staff and faculty members at the boycott announced the formation of Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine — an independent coalition of university employees who “advocate in support of Palestinian self-determination, full equality and freedom,” according to the organization’s website.

Solomon Comissiong, a member of the organization and the faculty advisor for this university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, expressed appreciation for the newly-formed organization. Commissiong, the Nyumburu Cultural Center’s student involvement and public relations assistant director, applauded students for being “courageous” in supporting Palestine.

The boycott event featured a hand-painted wall displaying messages such as “Long Live Palestine” and “UMD Divest Now.” The wall symbolized the border barrier built by Israel decades ago to separate Israel and Gaza, senior geographic sciences major Iman Akhtar-Smith, Students for Justice in Palestine’s vice president, said.

Israel’s military took control of Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. Israel threatened to launch a wider offensive after ordering 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate parts of the city, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Senior environmental science and policy major AJ Kanakry, who helped organize the boycott event, said it reiterated demands for the university system to divest from “all companies complicit in human rights violations.”

“We come together to say no more,” Kanakry said in a speech at the event. “No more money for death profiteers and warmongers. No more partnerships with companies that fuel oppression and produce death.”

Last month, the Student Government Association failed to advance a resolution that called on the University System of Maryland Foundation to “divest from companies engaged in human rights violations,” The Diamondback previously reported.

The University System of Maryland Foundation, which controls the university system’s financial assets, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.