Artists Etc. – Are We Maximizing Israeli Arts and Culture as An Engagement Tool?

by Lee Perlman

Full disclosure:

I enjoy Benji Lovitt’s comedy. I am an old colleague of Dr. Zohar Raviv. I am a Tel Aviv patriot of 25 years standing. I was on the R&D ‘Tel Aviv team’ which helped develop the Birthright model in the mid-1990’s. I believe that applied research and evaluation enhance philanthropic impact. I’d like to widen the lens and slightly shift the focus of the discussion at hand. The subtitle of this piece is intended as a rhetorical question

In following the rich thread of conceptual and programmatic focused responses to Benji Lovitt’s important call for re-imagining Birthright’s educational agenda, I was struck by an ostensible “throw-away” phrase in Zohar’s piece, when he described how “Taglit-Birthright Israel has also created specialized niche trips for participants who would like to have the contemporary “start-up nation” side of Israel highlighted during their tour. Such niche groups revolve around high-tech, entrepreneurship, business-management, bloggers, artists etc. (my
emphasis) and for whom Tel-Aviv features as a central experiential hub.”

Firstly, while we know that Tel Aviv is in fact a real-time experiential hub for Israeli culture, we can credibly point to more and more cities and regions throughout Israel where arts and culture are thriving and where meaningful engagement opportunities for Birthright and other visiting groups can be afforded – some lesser known examples starting way down South are Eilat and the neighboring Eilot region and the Negev towns of Beersheva and Dimona with professional theatre troupes of some of Israel’s most talented young actors and directors; Netivot and the neighboring Sdot Negev region a bastion for visual artists and artisan entrepreneurs. Moving north and east (from Tel Aviv); Kfar Saba is the winds and brass Mecca of Israel. The Arab towns of Shefaram and Nazareth rightfully take much pride in exceptional music conservatories churning out top-notch musicians. Not to mention cutting edge arts museums in Petach Tikva, Herziliya and Haifa (to name a few) and of course The Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum. And what about our 25 professional contemporary dance troupes which are wowing audiences internationally? More well-known is the cultural boom in Jerusalem, most significantly of home grown arts groups. This transformation merits a lot of attention and support – it’s not a secret that a number of philanthropic groups have displayed visionary leadership and have fostered impressive collaboration with public and private sector players and most importantly, the artists themselves.

The throw-away phrase “Artists etc” appears as on add-on part of a laundry list of thematic alternatives. Anecdotally we know that engaging with Israeli performing and visual arts and artists is memorable and meaningful – whether on a Birthright, Masa program, Federation mission or private tour, a Birthright Next reunion, a JCC cultural series, synagogue sponsored event, summer camps or any other communal or countercultural Jewish groups. Let’s learn together how we can maximize Israeli arts and culture as an engagement tool, whether experienced in Israel or back in our community settings and when, how and why they are most effective in achieving specific engagement goals – better understanding variables including settings, different types of experiences (spectator, spec-actor, interactive), the various arts media and different types of learners (engagers). This merits focused inter-disciplinary research and evaluation. Let’s invest some targeted brain power not only on these dimensions but take it one step further and figure out operationally how Artists etc. can be done more efficiently and economically for all involved, while also promoting the artists and not at their expense. Just as creating art usually costs a lot, so does utilizing it as a tool. I think our overlapping and parallel mega global and localized systems, including Israel’s very professional Ministry of Foreign Affairs Cultural Division staff and its corps of cultural attaches, can build on current Israeli culture export practice and figure out ways to make Israeli arts and culture more accessible and affordable. Just last month, the Knesset’s Arts Lobby and its chair MK Ofer Shelach put forth some constructive ideas to upgrade our cultural export system. Groups like Makom have developed expertise on a programmatic and training level and we should build on their and others’ experience and move beyond the largely idiosyncratic nature of this field within a field and its untapped potential of engaging and connecting younger and older in our communities, to Israel and to each other. The Kinetis group has made very impressive strides in creating high level experiences in Israel for opinion makers and thought leaders in many fields including arts and culture – they are a tremendous resource and partner. These efforts can also benefit from and build upon the breakthrough efforts of the Hebrew at the Center group and the recently established Middlebury College and Hebrew at the Center Hebrew Language Institute.

Artists etc. aren’t a “nice to have.” Israeli arts and culture play a critical role in shaping Israel’s character, in all its diversity, and are a strategic asset to Israeli society in three main ways: strengthening and sustaining our democratic fibre as a key part of our civil society, providing opportunities for individuals in Israel’s geographic and social peripheries, as well a tool of ‘selective integration’ for Arab citizens, Ethiopian citizens and haredim into Israeli society, and; an important unifying role in creating a shared society and fostering national pride.

Artists etc. can and should be a strategic asset for our communities as well, both educationally and in two other very relevant realms, donor engagement where meaningful relationships can be forged between donors and Israeli supporters, partners and young artists as well as in the community relations’ realms.

AICF, The group I have the privilege of leading here in Israel has a mission of cultivating Israel’s future artistic leaders. Our Israeli, American and Canadian supporters and partners experience the impact of and believe in enabling talented young Israelis to fulfill their artistic potential at the critical stages of their development. Let’s join forces to more thoughtfully and effectively utilize Israeli arts and culture as potent and accessible engagement tools globally.

See you on opening night.

Lee Perlman, PhD, is the Executive Director of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. His Art-up Nation blog on Israeli arts and culture appears in The Times of Israel.