This past Tuesday, the University of Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) and Hillel teamed up with StandWithUs to host an Israel Independence Day celebration on campus. The event was advertised as a festival celebrating Israel’s 66th birthday, serving “kosher Falafel”, and offering free henna tattoos to participating students.
Israel was unilaterally established within Palestine’s borders in 1948. Prior to its inception, Zionist Jewish paramilitary forces — which would later form Israel’s military — cleared the way for Israel’s establishment by expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, razing entire villages, and incorporating a “scorched earth” policy to prevent Palestinians from returning to their homes in the future.
By 1949, one year after Israel’s establishment, over 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their homes. This era of history is referred to as the Nakba, or catastrophe, in Arabic.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the University of Chicago quickly arranged a protest to counter the event. According to SJP, the protest sought to unmask the violent history surrounding Israel’s creation that CFI, Hillel, and StandWithUs were celebrating. Events such as these, said one SJP member, push an agenda designed to erase Palestinian people and places.
Student organizers involved in the emergency action held banners naming some of the many villages depopulated by Israeli forces as well as the number of Palestinians forcefully evicted or removed from each village.
The protest presented realities to the student body that directly challenged the Zionist political narrative that Israel was established in an empty land.
On a related level, students on campus found the appropriation of Arab and Palestinian products and cultural elements to be offensive. The event presented falafel as an Israeli dish, improperly attributed the art of henna to Israel, and even featured a taxidermied camel. SJP members and others expressed concern over the blatant orientalization and distortion of Palestinian culture meant to energize these kinds of events.
For what it’s worth, this is not the first time pro-Israel student groups have fetishized camels as part of their celebrations. Last year at the University of California – Riverside, Highlanders for Israel and the campus Hillel chapter gave students a rare “camel opportunity” as part of a “real Israeli experience”.
Organizers with CFI and Hillel reportedly urged campus administrators to put an end to the protest but to no avail.