UT Students Celebrate Israel in Block Party, While Others Call for Ceasefire

Chairs marked with the images of Hamas’ hostages (Photo by Naina Srivastava)

Hundreds of students filled UT’s Gregory Gym Plaza Tuesday afternoon to celebrate Israeli culture and innovation in the largest pro-Israel event on a college campus in North America. Down the street, others wore keffiyehs, held handheld signs spelling “Ceasefire now!” and chanted in protest of the event.

Tuesday marked Texas Hillel’s 24th annual Israel Block Party, an event that aims to educate students through celebration of Israeli culture, according to the organization’s website. The event was a sort of pop-up, with booths serving food, as well as a display: dozens of chairs on Speedway held photos of Hamas’ hostages still in Gaza. The Palestine Solidarity Committee, which advocates for Palestinian liberation, held a protest at the same time in opposition to the event. In a post calling students to join the protest, the PSC wrote: “nothing to celebrate about genocide.”

Stephanie Max, rabbi and Hillel executive director, said the Texas Hillel’s mission is to empower Jewish students to make an enduring commitment to Jewish life and learning. She said the Block Party is just a piece of this goal.

“The word that people pay least attention to is empowerment and to me that’s actually the most crucial,” Max said. “Not just with this event, but what Hillel is here to do overall, is to empower students to take part in Jewish community and to own their Jewish identity in whatever way is meaningful for them.”

PSC member and student Ammer Qaddumi said the PSC organizes a protest each year in response to the Block Party. But the protest is more pertinent than ever this year because of the rising Palestinian death toll, he said.

“Our hope is that while we’re here protesting, anyone who sees the Israel Block Party will also see us and understand that what’s happening there cannot totally be sound because all these people out here saying otherwise,” Qaddumi said.

Students protest the Israel Block Party (Photo by Naina Srivastava)

The Block Party and protest come shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, issued last week, which calls on public universities to review and update free speech policies, and punish those who violate them. Abbott said the order was prompted by a rise in antisemitism on college campuses following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and specifically named the PSC as a violator.

Max said she appreciates Abbott’s efforts to draw attention to antisemitism. “I also have full confidence in the university to continue the excellent work it’s done at combating antisemitism,” Max said.

UT student Hansa Saif, who has attended the Israel Block Party protest for multiple years now, said more people are aware and educated on the ongoing issues this year, and seeing people come out to show their support is helpful.

Qaddumi said the PSC has been more “diligent and vigilant” in following the university’s policies following the executive order.

“[UT] understands that we want to demonstrate and, we’re thankful that rather than serve as a hindrance, they actually have served to streamline that process,” Qaddumi said.

To comply with university policies, protesters only chanted during passing periods and avoided holding signs with sticks. Many of the chants were directed at Abbott and UT President Jay Hartzell. Meanwhile, Hillel set up a tent in the plaza.

UT student Etai Geller, who helped organize the Block Party for the past few years, said he’s glad both groups are able to voice their opinions and thankful for a separation because it gives other students both perspectives. The groups did not have any major confrontations.

“At the end of the day, we just don’t want violence, especially at this event,” Geller said. “Yes, there’s violence in the Middle East but we don’t want to correlate that to UT. We don’t want anyone to get arrested.”