Transforming Jerusalem

Artist Matan Israeli describes one of the outdoor artworks created by his group in the Musrara neighborhood; photo by Roy Gluska.

Transforming Jerusalem: the Art of Urban Preservation
by Liz Nord

A new wave of artists and activists are working to revitalize Jerusalem: the city that evokes majestic images of sun setting on white stones, ignites passion among people of various faiths, and has been a source of prolific creativity for writers, poets, and artists for generations worldwide. This fabled city has fallen on hard times due in part to the rapidly-growing number and influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews, a dwindling economy, and a perception among Israeli youth that the city lacks social and cultural opportunities for them. Jerusalem has therefore been facing a “negative immigration” of young people and businesses for several years.

Fortunately, several of Jerusalem’s change-makers are building on Jerusalem’s rich history of arts and culture and using those tools in new ways to ensure their city remains pluralistic and vibrant.

One artist working to make a mark on the city is photographer Einat Arif-Galanti. She is a slight woman whose soulful, deep-set brown eyes help tell the story of her parents’ immigration to Jerusalem – her mother’s family having come from Iran by foot and her father’s family from Germany after World War II. This history is part of what encouraged her to stay in the city despite a better financial climate for artists in Tel Aviv.

Arif-Galanti is one of the founders of Jerusalem’s first cooperative gallery, Agripas12. Inspired by the Israeli kibbutz model, the Agripas12 artists work collectively to create opportunities for themselves and other local artists to show and sell their work in their own city. They consciously chose to locate their gallery in a house in the Machane Yehuda neighborhood, just outside the colorful and bustling food stalls of central Jerusalem’s historic market.

“I really love places in which you can see that time has passed,” explains Arif-Galanti. “You can see what happened, like stains in an old book. It has a story. And I feel it’s one of the stories this space has to show.”

Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s outdoor market, is quickly becoming known as more than just the place to buy the best halva in town, with artist studios and gourmet restaurants cropping up in unexpected alleyways. In fact, Agripas12 has inspired openings of several other galleries and cultural institutions in the area since its inception seven years ago.

Across town, artist Matan Israeli and his Muslala group are turning the streets of the Musrara neighborhood into an evolving, outdoor gallery with work visible at any time of day or night. Their goal is to foster dialogue between the diverse people who pass through this uniquely located area, on the border between West Jerusalem and the predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, and in close proximity to the Old City, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the ultra-religious Jewish neighborhood of Me’a Shearim.

The neighborhood is already home to several cultural sites, like the Naggar School of Photography, but the Muslala collective is literally bringing art into the streets. Visitors can pick up a route map to walk a self-guided tour of the photographs, billboard paintings, and sculptures that are now sprinkled among the Musrara residences.

According to Israeli, “We’re not only dealing with art. We’re dealing with social change. We put the art outside not just to be beautiful, although it is beautiful, but also to say something. It’s to have this kind of conversation in a place where conversation is not so obvious. Try to imagine a conversation today between the Orthodox community, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, and Palestinians. It doesn’t happen. But maybe through this work it can start.”

The most ambitious of the urban renewal efforts was envisioned by venture capitalist Erel Margalit of the Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), who moved his firm and several of its funded startups into the old Jerusalem Mint building, along the train tracks. Margalit was living in New York City during the 9/11 terror attacks, and was inspired by the significance of creative ventures like the Tribeca Film Festival in healing lower Manhattan.

Margalit decided to bring this philosophy to Jerusalem. The once abandoned Mint and old railroad buildings nearby are now booming, thanks to the JVP startups and associated Media Quarter and Animation Lab. At the core of the Margalit’s plan is The Lab, a fringe theater and performance space. The Lab aims to put Jerusalem theater and performance art on the map through production of innovative, multi-disciplinary work.

Emmanuel Witzthum, artistic director of The Lab, is himself a Jerusalemite composer and electronic musician. He enthusiastically describes the possibilities of his position. “Jerusalem is still trying to discover what it is,” he explains, “It’s like a teenager all of a sudden realizing there are certain things that it can do. Certain things it dreams of doing, and all of these things are happening now.”

Much of the work performed at The Lab is locally inspired. For Witzthum’s first production as creative director, “Dissolving Localities,” six artists recorded sounds from all over the city. The artists then performed these recordings live with electronic music, as Witzthum describes, “to use Jerusalem as a musical instrument. Instead of a keyboard, we used Jerusalem.”

All of these artists feel that Jerusalem is a city with loads of untapped potential, and that despite challenges of life there, the city’s future is already looking brighter thanks in large part to the efforts of its creative community.

Liz Nord is a documentary filmmaker who has produced and shown work throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North America. Learn about her current film on Jerusalem’s cultural renaissance at

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Our Environment issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.