How Art Can Transform a Community

Courtesy Israel Festival in Jerusalem.

By Eyal Sher
for eJewish Philanthropy

When I was given the suggested theme for this piece, my first thought was shouldn’t the title rather be “Can Art Transform a Community?”

Can it?

Of course, artists believe it can – the wish to positively impact political, cultural and social realities is often a significant component in the desire and actual choice to be an artist.

It’s easy to see how art serves as a bridge between different communities and cultures when considering shared living projects such as an Israeli-Arab youth orchestra at the Herb Alpert Center in Jerusalem, or the iconic, now defunct I Am You Are Arab-Israeli video workshop at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.

One of Israel’s most inspiring presentations at the recent Eurovision in Tel Aviv was the outstanding performance of the Shalva Band, which is comprised of eight talented musicians with disabilities, all committed to the highest musical standards and bringing home the message of inclusion.

The Jerusalem Conservatory Hassadna strives to provide each and every student aged 3-18 with musical instruction of the highest caliber, while ensuring that every child longing to experience the gift of music is able to access this life-changing opportunity.

The Paley Art Center in East Jerusalem is yet another community-empowering lighthouse, as are numerous art-related programs within the Ultra-Orthodox community, most notably Oman, the Bezalel Art Institute Orthodox Branch.

But the encounter and dialogue that takes place in the educational and community oriented shared living program does not transfer to the larger population. The programs impact only those who participate in them, their families and circles of friends.

In downtown Jerusalem, few Arabs and Jews or secular and ultra-orthodox mix in nightlife areas, nor do they come together in museums, theatres or other cultural centers. The Jerusalem Zoological Gardens are the extraordinary exception.

The Khan Theatre, the Yellow Submarine Music Center, the many art festivals appeal first and foremost to the Jewish secular, traditional and reform communities, by their programmatic choices de facto excluding most of the Ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities. Again, there are the exceptions, such as the Oud Festival, the Piyut Festival, along with Kulna and artistic platforms that are committed to challenge and melt the barriers that separate our communities.

Jerusalem boasts some of the best art academies in the country, amongst them the world renowned Sam Spiegel Film and TV School, the School of Visual Theatre, the Musrara Naggar School of Interdisciplinary Art and Society and others. Yet one of the most elusive goals remains keeping the young graduates in the city after graduation. Limited career opportunities are only one of the considerations for young people starting out their lives – political tensions, religious fanaticism and cultural differences are the more defining components in the decision.

Young people want an open, dynamic urban environment. They yearn for a lively, free cultural scene, along of course with good education for children, parks and recreation, a good community, good public transportation infrastructure and more. Still, the cultural scene, the creative class (as urban theorist Richard Florida termed before he retreated from his whole theory) are at the center of any modern urban life.

Except that Jerusalem is not only modern. It’s also ancient, and holy. And poor. And complicated by its demographics: 270,000 Palestinian Arabs, 190,000 Ultra-Orthodox and 480,000 secular, reform and traditional Jews. People who pass by one another and interact in daily administrative affairs and business, yet seldom maintain social relationships with one another. There are certainly numerous exceptions, but they remain exceptions.

Can culture transform this complicated city? Can it offer a safe zone for encounter and dialogue? Offer insights into other worlds? Make us see “the other” without intermediaries? Move us, inspire us, provoke us, entertain us? Of course, it can.

It does so by storytelling. In so many different ways. Using music and dance, visual theatre, performance, video art, technology and more to create new stage languages that touch us in a fresh way. Challenging us to think. Encouraging us to talk. Meet one another. As spectators, people. It’s so possible.

This is precisely where the Israel Festival in Jerusalem comes into play. In the 2019 edition of the festival, the artistic program includes works from South Africa, Brazil, France, Sweden, Poland, Switzerland and of course Israel. Music, Dance, Performance, original site-specific productions, an open-to-the-public travelling music and spoken word track and more. The theme that emerged as we were shaping the artistic lineup (Artistic Director Itzik Giuli and Associate Programmer Shira Vitaly) was individuality, multi culturalism, community.

One might note, and rightfully so, that “all art deals with these issues, doesn’t it?” Sure, still this certainly isn’t how I would have described last year’s Festival (which was more about exploring darkness.) So yes, multi-culturalism. Identity issues, gender, nationalism, alienation. Artists have a way to break through the real and imaginary walls that separate us and touch us. Make us think. Make us question. Challenge our preconceptions. Make us empathic.

Empathy can transform community.

Eyal Sher is Director of the Israel Festival, which will take place in various venues around Jerusalem, May 30 – June 15.