By Eyal Sher
Being an artist in Jerusalem is like being a pioneer in the early days of the Zionist Movement. It requires passion and resilience, a bit of naivety, a lot stubbornness. Above all, it requires a vision of what we believe this incredible city could be, what it should be and what it deserves to be.
While these character traits, along with talent and skill, are arguably those that define artists everywhere, in Jerusalem they receive another meaning, whether we want them to or not. No artwork in Jerusalem exists in isolation of the city’s political, religious and social reality.
Revered for its rich history, holy sites, beauty and spirituality, Jerusalem is also the epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, beleaguered by deadly terror attacks and violent hostilities, strained by religious tensions and economic disparity. With 270,000 Palestinian Arabs, 190,000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews and 450,000 secular or traditional Jewish residents, Jerusalem is one of the most diversified cities in Israel, as well as one of its most fragmented and polarized.
Upon taking office eight years ago, Mayor Nir Barkat identified art and culture as central to the development of the city as a dynamic, modern, pluralistic cosmopolitan. Empowering a Creative Class, a term introduced by renowned urban studies theorist Richard Florida, was embraced by Barkat as integral to his comprehensive efforts to revitalize the city.
The cultural landscape in Jerusalem is rich and diverse. The Israel Museum, the Tower of David, the Science Museum, the Jerusalem Music Center, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Khan Theatre, the Train Theatre, The Yellow Subrmarine, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the Israel Festival – these are but few of the outstanding world renowned cultural organizations that form the backbone of art and culture in the city.
Spread around the city, which lacks the urban continuity of other cosmopolitans, these cultural centers alone are not enough for the task at hand. Jerusalem’s downtown, once the beating heart of city life, with over 20 cinema houses, cafés, restaurants and stores, has gradually lost its centrality. The development of malls emptied downtown of its unique local flavor – and its shoppers. The establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus campus emptied the city streets of students. There was the business crisis during the lengthy construction of the light rail along downtown’s main artery, Jaffa Road and security instability during the two Intifadas, during which Jerusalem suffered a large share of the terror attacks.
Much of the urban renewal effort has thus focused on revitalizing downtown: building the light rail; transforming the traditional Mahane Yehuda market into a dynamic, youthful night scene; establishing new galleries, theatre and dance centers; working to bring the Betzalel Art Academy back into the city; building an art campus that will house the Sam Spiegel Film and TV school, the School of Visual Theatre, the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio and the School of Middle Eastern Classical Music; and more.
Still, while over 30,000 students study in Jerusalem, amongst them 6,000 in some of the world’s best art academies, upon graduation, many of these students leave the city, opting to follow their dreams and career aspirations in neighboring Tel Aviv or beyond, in Berlin, London or New York, where greater opportunities await.
Responding to the challenge of stopping the migration of the city’s strongest and most promising asset – young professionals – recent years have witnessed highly dedicated and equally motivated young activists establishing grassroots organizations such as Hit’orerut (Awakening) and Ruach Hadasah (New Spirit). Impressively committed to the city, these young people are immersed in the intersection of art, community and urban renewal. They set a theatre ensemble, a public art collective or a mini dance festival at the heart of a community, engaging its residents and injecting energy to local businesses.
Sitting on the intersection between East and West, Secular and Orthodox, lower socio-economic and gentrified neighborhoods, the Musrara School of Art and Society is engaged in doing just what its name suggests, integrating art and society. From the YMCA Israeli Arab Youth Choir, thorough Maale Film School workshops for Charedi women, to the School of Visual Theatre’s work with people with disabilities, cultural activities serve as platforms for dialogue and encounter, creating bridges between otherwise disengaged communities.
Tent pole events such as the Jerusalem Season of Culture, the Oud Festival, the International Writers Festival, the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival, the International Film Festival and the International Puppet Theatre Festival and the Israel Festival facilitate an important local-global encounter between leading artists from around the world and emerging and established Israeli artists.
The nation’s leading inter-disciplinary event, the Israel Festival presents unique, ground-breaking contemporary international artistic fare, attracting diverse audiences in Jerusalem and from around the country, as well as tourists. No less important than the events in theatres around the city, are the Festival’s free events in the public space. A weeklong series of musical and stage performances in Zion Square in downtown Jerusalem in 2016, invited passersby, Arabs and Jews, ultra-orthodox and secular Jews, young and old, to “gather around the camp fire” and enjoy a break from daily rush. Inspiring and magical, it offered a glimpse into the vision artists in Jerusalem are working to attain and a taste of what Jerusalem can be: a dynamic, pluralistic, tolerant city that celebrates its rich diversity.
Indeed, artists living and working in the city not only move, thought-provoke and inspire us but also empower community, advance education, contribute to tourism and to the economy. Most important, cultural activities facilitate dialogue and encounter between people and communities who would not otherwise meet one another.
Eyal Sher is the director general of the Israel Festival. He was previously the Director of the Art and Culture Department of the Jerusalem Foundation.
All photos courtesy the Israel Festival.