On Thursday, April 23rd, courage, contempt and cowardice collided during a pro-Israel campus event called “iFest” that took place at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). In the middle of the festivities, the president of the student group Anteaters for Israel (AFI), which organized the three-day event, was berated and brought to tears by the president of the Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC), who was among the iFest attendees. According to AFI leadership, the incident affirmed that the organization’s decision to purposefully disassociate from the JFOC due to its years of questionable leadership and interference in AFI’s pro-Israel activism on campus was the right course of action.
UCI’s 8th annual iFest featured the theme “Explore Israel” and was held April 22nd-April 24th. One night of iFest programming consisted of a candlelight vigil and a tribute for members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Israeli civilians killed by terrorists over the years. Students from the campus chapters of Hillel, Chabad and Jewish fraternal/sororal organizations spoke at the vigil. The next day AFI “organized a beautiful festival where students enjoyed falafel and BBQ, learned about Israel and won prizes, painted and created art for charity, raised money for Save A Child’s Heart, and collected 170 signatures for a ‘Solidarity Letter with Israel,’” said AFI president Sharon Shaoulian. Shaoulian also reports that the iFest Shabbat dinner held Friday was attended by more people than the previous two years and that it was the best attended Shabbat of the year, with over 85 students attending. A number of sponsors contributed to iFest, including the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), StandWithUs, CAMERA on Campus, the Israel on Campus Coalition, and Hasbara.
Event attendees attempted to create a barrier of about 20 feet between the anti-Israel protesters and the iFest event by standing near the entrance of the festival waving Israeli and American flags. They also sang and preformed Israeli dances. However, despite the seemingly ample gap between iFest and the protesters, several individuals were witnessed attempting to discourage the flag waving and direct the flag bearers away. Witness Gary Fouse, adjunct UCI lecturer, reports that Lisa Armony, Director of the Jewish Federation of Orange County and Hillel Executive, was among those attempting to move the flag wavers back.
One witness reported that they were “approached and told that it was wrong for anyone holding a flag to be standing facing the MSU/anti-Israel faction.” The witness was told that waving the flags was “antagonizing.” One of the flag wavers, who did not wish to be named, said that students who “seemed to be pressured by someone else” approached him and other flag carriers “and told us that we should not march with the flags since it ‘makes us look bad.’” It was further suggested to him that they move down the street and away from the area.
This witness also saw the far more troubling exchange between a man subsequently identified as Shalom Elcott, Jewish Federation of Orange County (JFOC) president and CEO, and AFI president Sharon Shaoulian. Elcott was seen “getting in the face of” Shaoulian, a third-year student, and screaming at her. As the witness explained, “I did not hear what this man said, but I saw Sharon break into tears,” he recalled.
Shaoulian confirmed that Elcott “advanced on me in a threatening fashion and began screaming at me and berating me” and was “looking down at me two inches away from my face.” He “blamed me..for ‘inciting’ the MSU/SJP to come out to protest,” though the anti-Israel protest happens every year. Elcott allegedly called Shaoulian “derogatory names, a ‘liar’ and a ‘disgrace.’”
Shaoulian noted that last year the anti-Israel protesters rushed through the iFest event, resulting in student injury, which did not occur this year. She further said that last year’s assaults left many students demoralized and caused them to lose faith in the leadership of the JFOC and their influence on the campus when, as witnessed by Shaoulian, a JFOC board member screamed at a girl who called the police after she was physically assaulted by members of the MSU/SJP.
Shaoulian believes that Elcott’s outburst this year and the organization’s other actions with respect to iFest, such as denigrating the event to numerous witnesses, were a reflection of the JFOC’s ongoing campaign to dismantle AFI:
In closed door meetings, numerous witnesses and students reported [Jewish Federation Director and Hillel Executive] Lisa Armony expressing her desire to dismantle the student organization, AFI. The Federation went as far as to plan competing Israel programming, forcing the hands of Hillel students, and resulting in an event that would coincide with iFest Shabbat. The Federation went as far as to forbid Shalom Elcott’s son from participating in the planning of iFest. This is even documented.
The JFOC also threatened to cut off funding for iFest if AFI chose to work with the ZOA on the event, Shaoulian said. According to Shaoulian, the JFOC and its Rose Project “have been constant impediments to the Zionist students at UC Irvine and specifically for Anteaters For Israel, for the past two years.” She said it was “for this reason and for the continued commitment of the Federation to see AFI dismantled, AFI chose not to seek funding from the Federation’s Rose Project.”
AFI’s previous president and iFest organizer Daniel Narvy, who currently serves in the IDF, also encountered problems with the JFOC when he attempted to invite pro-Israeli speaker Nonie Darwish to campus last year. Darwish’s planned speech at UCI was met with extreme hostility from the JFOC and Hillel. Using as an excuse problems of security, both organizations made it known to AFI that they weren’t interested in sponsoring iFest and that funds for a Shabbat dinner would be withdrawn if Darwish’s speech were part of the activities. Narvy alleged Hillel also characterized Darwish as Islamophobic and urged their leaders and other campus Jewish groups to oppose her speech and cancel their affiliations with the event. Darwish’s speech was ultimately cancelled. Narvy also reported that efforts were made to blacklist him from obtaining leadership positions in Jewish and pro-Israel groups on campus throughout his time at the university.
The JFOC was previously embroiled in a controversy when it was revealed the federation had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a campus organization called the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), which arranged a secret meeting between students and a leader of the terrorist organization Hamas in 2009. The OTI’s activities involve taking students to Israel and the Palestinian territories to meet with radical anti-Israel operatives, such as leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and members of the terrorism-supporting International Solidarity Movement (ISM), in addition to pro-Israel speakers.
“It is clear that our power hungry institutions like the Jewish Federation and its CEO Shalom Elcott have failed us and failed the students,” said Shaoulian. She says “Elcott seemed even more out of touch when students reported him going around during the festival trying to convince students how ‘he will do things better next year.’ This seems odd, given that according to the student board of AFI, the Federation tried to dissuade them from putting iFest together in the first place.”
In light of the long history of antagonism and questionable leadership at the JFOC, Shaoulian and AFI embarked on a new approach. Instead of seeking funding from the JFOC, AFI appealed to other organizations, such as the ZOA, CAMERA and StandWithUs. AFI built an impressive coalition of campus support for iFest involving the Irvine Queers, the Bahai Club, the Indian Student Association, Alpha Epsilon Phi and Alpha Epsilon Pi, campus Hillel students who opposed the antagonistic behavior of the JFOC, among others. Shaoulian and others hope AFI can serve as an example of what pro-Israel and Jewish campus groups can do in the face of institutional obstacles.
Community activists, especially those who faced disapproval for waving the Israeli and American flags at iFest, are pleased with this new direction. Students are asserting their right to run their pro-Israel campus groups without the interference of outside groups that seek to illegitimately dominate and control the pro-Israel campus community. As one iFest participant said, “Sharon and the students are among the bright stars in a dark world when it comes to some Jewish leadership. My hope is that our community acknowledges, supports, and praises the commitment, strength, and beautiful passion that the Anteaters for Israel demonstrated at their UCI event.” They should and they must. The support of unapologetic pro-Israel leadership is a critically necessary counterweight to the rising tide of Jew hatred on college campuses.