If you’ve been around Rush Rhees or the tunnels lately, you may have noticed some posters for UR Students For Israel (RSI)’s annual Israel Week celebration. This was the first public event hosted by RSI since the club invited former IDF soldier Shai DeLuca to speak on campus. 

DeLuca’s speech on “gay rights in Israel” quickly devolved into a back-and-forth between the speaker and Palestinian students and advocates. Pro-Palestine students expressed anger at DeLuca’s dismissal of the Palestinian land and people, and of his reductive view of gay rights. The speaker and sympathetic students in the audience made a series of targeted and racially charged claims, attempted to minimize and deny the ongoing slaughter occurring in Gaza, and harassed and mocked dissenting students.

RSI seems to wish to put the affair behind them, as any evidence of the event has been scrubbed from their social media, and yet no one in the club nor any of the co-sponsoring organizations nor any of the co-sponsoring organizations has publicly disavowed or apologized for the comments made by DeLuca or the attendees. 

Programming for Israel Week felt tame in comparison, as it emphasized cultural education over discussion of the politics of Israel or its neighbors. RSI held events such as Israeli folk dancing, a trivia night, and cooking lessons. This event sits against a backdrop of genocide — as of the time of this writing, the Israeli government has killed over 34,000 Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip since October 7, according to CBS News. Israel Week failed to acknowledge the blood and destruction that this political project has caused. By keeping the idea of Israel on this campus associated with shakshuka or folk dancing — rather than the death that occurs every day — RSI further insulates the Jewish community on campus from the conflict, instead of working to have more critical and productive conversations.

The purpose and effect of hosting an “Israel Week” is to distract from and distort the historical and contemporary realities of Israeli occupation and apartheid. It is a common tactic for pro-Israel groups to host events with innocent missions like merely “promoting culture” or “learning about history.” Many of us grew up around these kinds of events in our own Jewish institutions, and some members of RSI probably did, too. In reality, there is nothing apolitical about these events. They serve to justify and normalize the brutality against Palestinians which makes the reality of the current state of Israel possible. There is nothing worth celebrating about the fact that Israelis can comfortably dance and cook at the expense of millions of Palestinians who run from bombs and starve.

Take, for instance, the Israeli trivia night held on April 17. A question revealed that Israel is the only country in the world with more trees than it had 50 years ago. While this is an indisputable fact, beneath the benevolent image of a nation dedicated to repopulating its plant life, there lies a more abhorrent truth. As Israel plants trees over destroyed Palestinian villages, Israeli settlers continue to destroy hundreds of thousands of Palestinian olive trees. 

These olive trees have for generations been a foundation of the Palestinian economy, ecosystem, and culture, and their destruction and replacement by Israeli tree-planting projects are part of a wider effort to expel Palestinians from their homeland. 

Another question prompted students to identify Israeli politician Benny Gantz. No discussion was had of Gantz’s 2014 campaign boasting that “parts of Gaza were sent back to the stone age.” 

Yet another question referred to the Golan Heights as an Israeli landscape; the Golan Heights region was annexed by Israel in 1981, and as of today, the United States is the only nation in the world to recognize it as Israeli territory, while Syria continues to demand the land be returned. To recognize it as Israeli land is inherently supportive of the Israeli expansion effort. Other seemingly innocuous questions indicated the continued homogenization and erasure of the unique and vast Jewish identity, instead embracing a single narrative that positions Israel as the sole authority on the Jewish experience. 

While these questions may seem banal, they reflect RSI’s ongoing dedication to not only promoting Israeli culture and identity but also pushing a colonial and genocidal political project as it continues to unleash unending destruction on the people of Gaza and the West Bank. RSI is a political group, not a cultural one. No other cultural student organization bears the name Students for ____. This name signifies a specific nationalist position, not simply a group of students who share a particular culture or heritage. Events like Israel Week aim to blur this distinction and mask RSI’s blatantly political agenda. 

In many cases, purportedly traditional elements of Israeli culture are appropriations of Palestinian existence, taken without credit or acknowledgment of the brutality that made the appropriations possible. 

For instance, Israeli “folk” dancing featured by RSI on Monday night emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and incorporates steps taken from Arab debke, according to a New York Times interview with choreographer Hadar Ahuvia. So too with the cuisine RSI cooked on Thursday. As told by Palestinian chef Reem Kassis in the Washington Post, Jewish immigrants arriving in historic Palestine before the establishment of Israel encountered Palestinian falafel and incorporated it into their cuisine. “Israeli salad” was also adopted from Palestinian farmers. RSI Trivia night featured an Israeli food category which repeatedly labeled staples such as Za’atar and Halva, which have existed across massive swathes of the Middle East for centuries, as Israeli dishes. 

This exploitation of Arab cultural fixtures is a manifestation of Israel’s targeted erasure of the Palestinian people. It is also a dismissal of the already existing history of Jewish cuisine — a history that tells of our willingness to persevere through years of persecution. Not to say that cultural exchange is a bad thing, but when the existing culture is exploited and then erased by a colonial power, culture is expropriated, not exchanged. Celebrating it without acknowledging its origins further contributes to the myth of a “land without a people.” 

Even without running overtly political events, RSI’s choice to run their culture week still presents a selective retelling of history. RSI’s choice to market the event as apolitical while ignoring the context in which it occurred reflects the organization’s ongoing goal of spreading misinformation and apologetics for the destructive and colonial actions of the Israeli government. We hope the University community can recognize these forms of propaganda when they arise, and see them for what they truly are.

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