UCI’s reputation for allowing inflammatory rhetoric is not a secret. Each year, the Muslim Student Union (MSU) brings speakers to campus for a week-long diatribe of hate directed at the state of Israel. The event, often termed “Anti-Israel Week”, has drawn numerous condemnations from all over the world, including UC system President Mark Yudoff. Recently, though, a group of students on UCI’s campus took it upon themselves to stand up in defense of the Jewish state – without delving into the ever-tense realm of politics and controversy.
Anteaters for Israel (AFI), UCI’s pro-Israel club, started the annual celebration of Israel in 2008. Deemed “iFest,” the weeklong event celebrates Israeli culture, humanitarian aid, technological innovations, contributions to humanity, and much more. The event – slated for May 24 to 28 – is 100-percent student-run and apolitical, usually following the MSU’s derogatory Anti-Israel Week in May. Jewish Federation Orange County’s Rose Project has been the largest iFest funder.
AFI’s iFest has inspired pro-Israel clubs across the nation to follow in its stead, creating iFests of their own in order to allow people to experience a small taste of what Israel has to offer without becoming mired in politics. Indeed, during iFest one walks past countless booths on Ring Road with the smell of falafel wafting about him and the sound of Israeli hip hop pulsing through the air. In the months preceding iFest, the excitement racing through the Jewish community is nothing less than palpable.
Moran Cohen, the current president of AFI, couldn’t agree more.
“When iFEST comes around, the Jewish and pro-Israel students come alive. It is the time of the year when students are excited and attendance increases. They want to get involved with such a happy and positive event that shines a spotlight on Israel and on its thriving culture. Students are constantly [creating] new ideas, talking about iFEST, and becoming leaders,” she says.
There is much to be excited about. The past two iFests have featured a long, handcrafted wooden tunnel – known as the “iFest iPod challenge”– the inside of which is coated with facts about Israel. UCI students are given sixty seconds to walk through the tunnel to look at the facts, and answer a quiz at the end. Whoever answers the most right is awarded an iPod at the end of the week (AFI members, obviously, are not allowed to enter the contest). iFest also features a mock Ben Yehuda Street. Modeled after the famous shopping venue in Jerusalem, the “street” covers a portion of the Ring Road with a number of different vendors selling anything from shawls to shawarma to jewelry to handbags.
This year’s iFest will have a community day on Wednesday, May 26. From noon to 2 p.m., members of the Orange County Jewish community are invited to show their support for the students and enjoy the food and festivities.
Each iFest culminates with a venue party on Thursday and a Shabbat dinner on Friday. Last year, DJ extraordinaire Steve Aoki spun the music for the iFest party at the Sutra lounge in Newport, and the rumors for who will headline as the party’s DJ/singer have already started to fly around. The party last year far exceeded its maximum guest capacity, and students had to form a long-reaching line outside to wait to enter. The party is meant to be a reflection of the famous Tel Aviv nightlife and a way for wilder UCI students to relate to Israel.
“There is a lot of positive feedback and applause in the UCI community for the way that this student-run program is executed,” says Ilana Zelener, external vice president of AFI. “A lot of students appreciate the [lighthearted] environment it brings to campus.”
Acclaim for iFest in the UCI community may be due in part to how it contrasts with the divisive and hate-breeding nature of the Anti-Israel Week directly preceding it.
“iFest is the complete opposite of Anti-Israel Week’s negative message and programs,” Cohen states. “It’s completely non-political and is always focused on the positive aspects of Israel… It attracts and appeals to people as opposed to pushing them away with bloody images and propaganda.
“Students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are much happier on campus when they see iFest,” Cohen continues with a smile. “A lot of students even vocally express their gratitude for bringing such an amiable atmosphere to our campus.”
iFest is not an event put on solely by AFI. It is the result of months and months of collaboration between all the Jewish organizations on campus. As much as everybody enjoys the end result, the work that iFest requires is nothing to sneeze at.
“Planning for iFest entails the work of numerous committees and committee leaders on the educational aspect,” Cohen says. “There’s also the work of contacting the Ben Yehuda vendors; budget and grant writing; logistics and volunteers; weekly committee meetings; outreach and marketing; and the hard work of all the students on a daily basis to create the end product, iFest.”
Students must also design an iFest T-shirt, flyers, and banners. They also devote much of their free time to setting up the booths and posters early in the morning and working at the booths throughout the week. Informational posters about Israel, which explore everything from its environmental accomplishments to its religious freedoms, fill in the spaces between booths. Games like Spin the Wheel are incorporated in order to engage passing UCI students to learn about Israel and win prizes. Greek students can sign up to help their fraternity or sorority win a free pizza party, as well as their own private bus to the iFest party.
“iFest targets average college students who know little or nothing about Israel outside of what they see in the media,” Cohen explains. “It engaged over 1,500 students the first year, and over 3,000 students the second time. Students are engaged through educational panels, pamphlets, games and prizes, and much more.”
Asked what her favorite part about iFest was, Cohen replies, “Definitely seeing so many students dedicated and enthusiastic working together towards a common positive goal.”
Zelener begs to differ. “My favorite thing about iFest is listening to Israeli music on my way to class, and not wanting to leave the booth to hang out with other pro-Israel students.”
Doubtless, there is much to look forward to this May. AFI and the Jewish students at UCI are striving to make this year’s iFest even bigger and better than last year’s. Considering the waves iFest made in 2009, it’s a sure bet the fun and celebration will only increase at iFest 2010.