There are missions that take American Jews to plant trees in Israel, to visit the bomb-scarred southern town of Sderot and even to play golf in the Holy Land.
But a mission to counter the cultural boycott of Israel?
When Aaron Herman, who plans Jewish community trips to Israel as director of missions and development at Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), learned a few months ago that singer-actor Justin Timberlake would perform this spring in Israel, he thought of scheduling a mission around the performance.
Timberlake, like other superstars who include Israel on their international performance itineraries, has come under pressure, which he has resisted, from the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) movement to drop Israel from his schedule. His performance, his first in Israel, will take place May 28 in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park.
Herman calls Timberlake, who first made his reputation in the ‘N Sync boy band, apolitical and therefore a good fit for participants in an Israeli mission. “He doesn’t have the baggage of other celebrities.” He’s “clean cut,” a philanthropist.
Herman, partnering with JFNA’s boycott-fighting arm, Israel Action Network, and the Los Angeles-based, pro-Israel Creative Community for Peace organization, created the mission on short notice; it takes place May 25-29 during the week of Memorial Day, and will include “decent” tickets to the Timberlake concert as well as meetings with a wide range of “up-and-coming” Israelis artists.
“It’s a strictly cultural mission,” Herman said, and the first of its kind for JFNA. It will be limited to 15 participants; registration deadline is the end of next week.
Herman, who also is a video blogger for The Jewish Week and has served as a leader of a dozen Birthright Israel trips, calls “Backstage Israel” the first-such mission with an exclusive focus on the Israeli arts scene. It will take place entirely in Tel Aviv and won’t feature the usual staples of visits to Israel — no Jerusalem, no Masada, no dinner in a Bedouin tent.
By staying only in Tel Aviv, the mission is steering clear of the controversy over the new performance center at Ariel, on the West Bank, which many prominent artists — most notably, singer-actor Theodore Bikel — are boycotting. “The focus of Backstage Israel is connecting participants to Israel and its people through music, culture, arts and education,” Herman said. “We’re not diving into Israeli politics in that way.”
With a leadership development emphasis, Herman hopes it will be an eclectic strike against the BDS movement; it is likely, he said, to attract members of the arts community who are not active members of the pro-Israel advocacy network. Artists and musicians have typically ranked as sympathetic to the BDS movement.
The schedule will include a Jerusalem Day concert, a drum circle, a visit to the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music and to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a meeting with a graffiti artist, get-togethers with dancers from the Batsheva Dance Company and young Israeli artists in their studios.
If the mission generates sufficient interest, JFNA may consider future ones that will coincide with Israeli performances of other superstars, Herman said. Beyonce, he said, is said to be coming to Israel this summer, but in a sign of how fraught these performances can be, the website Electronic Intifada cites a tweet from the singer’s representative saying the rumors are false.
The cost of Backstage Israel is $2,089, single supplement $2,634. For information: (212)284-6991; firstname.lastname@example.org.