A first-time visitor to downtown Jerusalem cannot but be in awe of the casual intermingling of Arabs and Jews, secular and ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopians, Russians, students, tourists, priests, soldiers, businessmen and merchants. The acute difference between how Israel is perceived abroad, when seen only through the hard news reports of the ongoing violent Arab-Israeli conflict, is in sharp contradiction with the reality of normal day-to-day life.
Yet beyond the apparent quotidian ease lie deep fractures. Jerusalem is revered for its rich history, holy sites, beauty and spirituality. But it 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.
Jerusalem artists have adopted this quote with a twist: diversity is the art of creating independently together.
Malcolm Forbes, the great American entrepreneur and prominent publisher of Forbes magazine, has said that diversity is the art of thinking independently together. Jerusalem artists have adopted this quote with a twist: diversity is the art of creating independently together.
Artists fill the unique role of cultural promoters for a more accepting and tolerant society. Even when their goals are merely pursuing artistic excellence, the simple choice of living and working in Jerusalem, with all its complexity, is a form of activism. Their work becomes truly critical to the wellbeing of the city when they further apply their talent and skills to facilitate dialogue and encounters between people and communities who would not otherwise meet one another.
Jerusalem is curious in that while its various communities meet one another in the public space, in malls, administrative offices or hospitals, they rarely interact on any kind of deeper level. They attend different schools, community centers, and do not integrate socially. Art and culture offer a unique, almost sole platform for encounter. Jerusalem artists and cultural centers are fully immersed in working at the intersection between East and West, secular and Orthodox, and socio-economic issues, using their art to create bridges.
Among the projects here: the “I Am You Are” Jewish-Arab video workshop at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the “Studio For You” art program for charedi women, the Hulagab Ethiopian theatre or the Flamenco dance course for the Palestinian gypsy community. Likewise, the Science Museum invites charedi students to explore Darwinism, the Bible Land Museum tells the story of Abraham to both Arabs and Jews, and the Israel Museum offers creative co-existence workshops.
The nation’s leading inter-disciplinary event, the Israel Festival, which runs this year from June 1 to 18, presents unique, ground-breaking contemporary international artistic fare, attracting diverse audiences in Jerusalem and from around the country, as well as tourists. Reflecting and celebrating Israel’s rich diversity and multi-culturalism, the Festival will open with a Groove Party featuring leading musical groups from the pioneering Teapack and Knesiyat Hasekhel, two bands that brought the musical identity of the periphery of the country to the center.
Also featured: the Firqat Alnoor Orchestra of outstanding Jewish and Arab musicians, with guest Nasreen Qadri presenting rocking Arabic hits, A-WA and Yemen Blues fusing Yemenite and rock music, and Liora Itzhak singing Bollywood-Israeli variations. The festival ends with the You Tube master musical artist-producer Kutiman Orchestra.
No less important than the events held in the various theatrical venues are the festival’s free events in the public space. Further blurring the boundaries between acrobatics, dance, puppetry, theatre music and sports, the festival will this year present the contemporary Czech La Putyka Circus. Highlighting the “Prague Days in Jerusalem” program initiated by the Jerusalem and Prague municipalities, the performances will take place in Zion Square downtown, inviting passersby to gather around and share this exciting cultural event.
What we share is greater than what divides us. Art, artists and cultural events make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
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.