The Daily Gamecock

Gamecocks for Israel hold pro-Israel rally: 'I'm proud to call myself Israeli'

The Gamecocks for Israel student organization at USC held a rally on Dec. 7, 2023, to show support for Israel and call for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Members of the Jewish community in Columbia and allies gathered on Greene Street while Jewish students and community leaders gave speeches. Speakers included second-year international business student and president of Hillel at USC Casey Fitzgerald, Rabbi Sruly Epstein of Chabad at USC and Alpha Epsilon Pi President Bari Klarberg. The rally was interrupted by a group of pro-Palestine counter-protestors but quickly resumed after campus police and several members of the rally intervened.

Gamecocks for Israel hosted a pro-Israel rally in front of Russell House on Thursday despite interruptions from counter-protesters.

Dec. 7 is the first day of Hanukkah in 2023, so the group wanted to bring the community together for a public display of solidarity and positivity, according to Gamecocks for Israel President Keren Karmiel. The organization's vice president, Noy Barel, said that around 200 people attended.

The event was briefly halted, however, when a counter-protestor approached the microphone to speak and another tore down the Israeli and American flags hanging on the brick wall lining Greene Street. 

“I am not going to stand for people who, you know, commit genocide. Israel is committing genocide, the US is complicit,” the counter-protester said.

One of the two pressed their hand to Barel's shoulder to prevent her from reaching the microphone, but other attendees and police quickly intervened.

“We had police here to make sure stuff like that didn't happen, and they did step in and told the protesters, 'Please step aside. You're interrupting, and you're being violent,'" Barel said. "They shoved me physically, and that is violent.” 

Karmiel kicked off the event with a speech about her father, who moved from the Soviet Union to Israel on his own and recently passed away. 

“I'm the first generation with the right to be Jewish. I'm the first generation with the right to free speech. I urge you all to use your voices and to be proud," Karmiel said. "I'm proud to call myself American, and I'm proud to call myself Israeli. There is no greater honor than to be a citizen of two countries whose values are based on democracy and freedom.”

Bari Klarberg, the president of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi, spoke to the crowd and said that he has seen a rise in antisemitism and misinformation on college campuses over the last two months and said universities are doing nothing to stop it and instead citing the right to free speech. 

Klarberg said he was concerned by usage of the phrase “From the river to the sea. Palestine will be free" by pro-Palestine demonstrators. He said Jews and Israelis do not perceive the phrase as a rallying cry for the liberation.

“People who say that — you ask them, 'What river? What sea?' They can't give you a response," Klarberg said. 

Klarberg, who is Israeli, said visited Israel often after he moved to America and still has a lot of family there that he worries about. 

“In a general sense, if you call your cousin and he doesn't pick up the phone, 'Oh, he's probably busy, probably doing something. He'll call me back later,'” Klarberg said. “(But) your mind jumps straight to conclusions." 

Josef Olmert, an adjunct political studies professor at USC and former Israeli government spokesperson, said it was important for the rally to be held just before the first night of Hanukkah in 2023 but also called out congressional testimony from the presidents of Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania. Olmert said the three leaders refused to condemn calls for genocide against Jews at their universities. 

“Those universities are ranked number one in the country in terms of tuition fees. This university of ours should rank finally number one in the country in terms of fighting racism and antisemitism,” Olmert said. 

Athletics Department Academic Advisor Storm Blitz attended because she said it felt important as a Jewish person and for Israeli students. 

“When something happens to Israel, it impacts every Jew around the world. I mean, we're seeing that right now in what's going on in higher education as well," Blitz said. "We have in athletics some Israeli and Jewish student-athletes so also coming out here to know that they have support through athletics so far away from home."

Kirk Wisemayer, the executive director of the Columbia Jewish Federation, also attended the rally and spoke after the interruption. He said that his organization stands with Gamecocks for Israel and the campus community. 

“I was gonna begin by saying that, fortunately, and unlike so many campuses around the country and around the world, we haven't seen any overt hate or antisemitism, anti-Israel or anti-semitic hate on campus at USC but of course that changed a couple of minutes ago,” Wisemayer said. “I applaud each of you for being proud, for standing up for each other and for standing with Israel as Jews, especially now as we approach the holiday of Hanukkah.”

Editor's note: Inaccurate information about one of the event's speakers has been corrected