US universities plan campus celebrations

Jewish student organizations are planning a creative array of large-scale Independence Day events to appeal to both Jewish and non-Jewish students and guests.

Boy with Israeli flag  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Boy with Israeli flag
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK On the eve of last year’s Independence Day celebration at Cornell University, a small group of protesters used chalk to mark up sidewalks on the New York school’s campus with anti-Israel slogans.
By the next day, a rainstorm had washed away the messages, and the event – one of the largest campus events in the country – proceeded without a problem.
Last year’s experience at Cornell, recounted by Hal Ossman, executive director of the local Hillel chapter, reflects the expectations of Jewish organizations at many of the most prominent colleges and universities in the United States.
While they are bracing for routine protests by pro-Palestinian groups, Jewish student organizations surveyed by The Jerusalem Post said they are planning a creative array of large-scale Independence Day events to appeal to both Jewish and non-Jewish students and guests.
In light of the April shooting at Jewish centers in Kansas City, several universities, including Princeton University in New Jersey, have notified campus security departments about their plans. But no schools contacted by the Post said they will curtail their events in response to the tragedy, in which a white supremacist allegedly shot and killed three people.
The events planned at Cornell, dubbed “Cornell Israel Day,” traditionally draw more than 1,000 students, professors and community members for music, food, dancing and camel rides, according to a statement by Rachel Medin and Claire Blumenthal, copresidents of the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee.
The celebration at Cornell comes at a particularly sensitive time for relations between pro- and anti-Israel groups on the Ivy League campus.
In April, the student government withdrew a resolution calling for the divestment of university assets from companies that “profit from the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
The student government’s decision drew an angry response from Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine, which sponsored the resolution and said in a statement that “we cannot consider this as anything but a deliberate effort to intimidate student representatives and prevent them from voting with their consciences.”
The organization did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would protest Independence Day. Organizers said they anticipate a small protest.
At nearby Ithaca College, the campus Hillel has hosted a series of film screenings and talks throughout the spring semester that “culminate in a Independence Day celebration at the central campus location,” Igor Khokhlov, executive director of the Ithaca Hillel, said in an email.
That culminating celebration is called “IndepenDANCE,” an evening event featuring campus DJs.
“Last year, we decided to change up Israeli Independence Day by making it an event that attracts more of the campus,” said Rebecca Levine, student president of the Hillel, in an email.
“We realized that the day should not only be for Jewish students, but a celebration for all,” she added.
The Students for Justice in Palestine group at Ithaca did not respond to a request for comment.
At Brandeis University, a non-sectarian Jewish-sponsored school, students plan to celebrate “Brandeis Israel Week,” encompassing both Independence Day and Remembrance Day.
Rachel Mayo, president of Brandeis Hillel’s student board, said the group is planning Israeli Zumba, an a cappella concert and film screenings.
At Princeton University, the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel plans to host its annual barbecue at the center of the campus, said associate director Marni Blitz.
Katie Horvath, a former president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine, said the student group is discussing whether it will commemorate Nakba Day, the Palestinian observance of the “catastrophe” that marked Israel’s independence.
The Hillel at Tufts University is also to host a barbecue, scheduled to take place on the roof of the campus library, said Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, Hillel executive director. It plans to include Israeli music and a fund-raiser for Save a Child’s Heart, an Israeli NGO.
The Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine said it has no plans for protests.
The University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel is planning a scaled-back celebration this year, given the timing of final exams, said Alon Krifcher, student president of the group. It is planning to host a study break with Israeli snacks.
Similarly, Yale University’s Center for Jewish Life is planning a Independence Day event ahead of the actual holiday, to avoid conflicting with the university’s final exam schedule, said Rabbi Leah Cohen, the center’s executive director.
Columbia University in New York will host a carnival celebration, including an inflatable bounce house, Israeli food and music, according to Brian Cohen, executive director of the Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life.
Columbia’s event is part of a three-day celebration in New York’s Upper West Side that is to include a street fair, Krav Maga lessons and games for children.