72 Hours in Tel Aviv

How artists, activists and cultural producers are dealing with the boycott against Israel.

Often viewed as the uninhibited, secular bubble within a divided Israeli society, Tel Aviv has long been a creative haven for those seeking an escape from the country’s increasing cultural conservatism. These days however, that bubble appears to be running the risk of hardening into a shell of insularity, as an international boycott movement which targets Israeli cultural, academic and governmental institutions gains in popularity. More and more artists are refusing to come, and Tel Aviv’s musicians, bookers and curators are all feeling it. Indeed, some are supporting it. Justly or not, cultural production in Israel, regardless of form or content, has become politicized.

Journalists at Haaretz headquarters in south Tel Aviv putting together the center-left daily. During the war in Gaza this past summer, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy strongly criticized the actions of the Israeli Air Force, whose "targeted" bombing of Hamas militants also included entire families as collateral damage. As a result, the newspaper experienced a wave of subscription cancellations, and Likud party member Yariv Levin called for the journalist to be put on trial for treason. Levy is also an outspoken supporter of an economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.

Thursday, 12:15 p.m. Editor-in-chief of Haaretz Aluf Benn explains changing demographics.

When I was a kid, Tel Aviv was a city of elderly people, many Holocaust survivors, living in old, run-down buildings. Since the early ’80s it has become a cultural hub and a magnet for young people from all over the country—that is, as the standard of living improved and people learned how to party and how to drink. There’s this cliché about the Tel Aviv bubble, that Tel Aviv is not like the rest of Israel. But I reject the idea not only because I’m a proud local, but also because it assumes that there is some other place that is the “real” Israel. Here, there are two extremes: One of which is Jerusalem, where it’s all religion, history, security problems, terrorist attacks, and tension between Israelis and Palestinians and various religions. The other is Tel Aviv, which is supposed to stand for escapism, liberalism, walking around half-naked and partying all the time. But the real Israel is somewhere in between.

Shai Agnon, Israel’s only Nobel laureate in literature, and the guy on the old purple 50-shekel note—his magnum opus was called Only Yesterday. Published in the ’40s before the establishment of the state of Israel, it’s based on Agnon’s own experience as a young pioneer from Galicia, which was then a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and of Poland today. He came to Palestine in 1906. At that time there was a small Jewish community here of about 50,000 people. Back then, most inhabitants were Arabs, the rulers were Ottomans and there was a lot of foreign influence—German colonists, American pilgrims, people from all over the place. Agnon recalls the earliest days during the founding of Tel Aviv, more than 100 years ago.

He depicts the city as a center of free love, going to the beach, waking up late, making art, having endless debates about literature, about society. In sharp contrast, Agnon’s Jerusalem was ruled by ultra-orthodox Rabbis who tried to control everyone’s lives. To me, the character of Tel Aviv is deeply rooted in its founding, when there were only a few people on sandy hills along the coast. Now imagine that today there are many more Jews in Israel. It is a Jewish state. The Ottomans are long gone. We went through British rule; we went through different kinds of Israeli governments. And still the basic issue, which Agnon described, remains: How do we reconcile a secular nationalist movement with religion? What should be the role of religion in Zionism?


In my opinion, the rise of minorities is the most important variable explaining Israeli society and politics in recent years. There are two strong minorities that are growing demographically, politically and financially. These are ultra-orthodox Jews and Arabic speakers. And what’s common to both minorities is they are not Zionists and for very different reasons. The ultra-orthodox Jews, who are underemployed because they devote their lives to studying Torah, aren’t Zionists for historical reasons. They struggle to preserve their peculiar lifestyle in a closed society and they paradoxically see the army as dangerous because it’s predominantly secular and co-ed.

The Arab community is similarly underemployed, but because they’re discriminated against. And most of the Arab community in Israel is exempt from military service because they’re seen as facing the dilemma of fighting against their brothers, sisters and cousins across our borders. What’s most important to many Arabs in Israel is justice; to be able to put forward their narrative as a counter-narrative to the Israeli mainstream. That narrative is the Nakba, the term describing the forced dislocation of Palestinians in 1948. When I was growing up, it was not a part of the Hebrew dictionary, and now everybody knows what is was. This is a key aspect of a changing Israeli society.

See, when I was a kid, nobody actually talked about Zionism explicitly. You got it from your mother’s milk. The fact that the government is trying to draft more ultra-orthodox Jews on the one hand and to put a cap on the political expression of Arab society in Israel on the other means that these two minority groups have more and more power. It’s a fact: Among all first grade students in Israel, half of the kids belong to these groups. Secularism in Israel is shrinking, and a very different society is emerging.

I’d like to think Haaretz reflects this change. For example, there is an old expression in Israel, “shooting and crying,” which means that criticizing the military is legitimate only when the war is already over. We don’t believe in that. We think that wartime is the crucial time to publish criticism because that’s when it may have an effect on decision makers. Gideon Levy’s articles criticizing the Israeli Air Force during the war in Gaza in 2014 for killing whole families in their hunt for individual targets was the most discussed piece of journalism published during the war. Levy argued that these pilots are the crème de la crème of Israeli society and were doing the most horrible things.

As a result, a couple thousand people canceled their Haaretz subscriptions in protest because they saw themselves, their neighbors or their family members in the pilots. Raising a critical voice at the time was not so simple. At the height of the war, there were right-wingers trying to physically harm left-wing protesters at demonstrations. This group was actually led by a rapper, Yoav Eliasi, known as The Shadow.

Of course, outside Israel, people don’t see Israel’s critical view from within. They debate the boycott. And whether or not you agree with the cultural, academic or financial boycott of Israel, one thing is for sure: People in Israel don’t feel the boycott at all—especially not in Tel Aviv, where there are already so many things to experience culturally. Most people don’t know what they’re missing. And I think the mainstream in Israel more or less agrees with the government, who portray any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism or as a form of appeasement to the Arabs or the Iranians or Islamists.

Female soldiers on a midday stroll through the Neve Tzedek neighborhood in South Tel Aviv, the first Jewish enclave outside of the ancient port of Jaffa.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. At the Center for Contemporary Art, Chen Tamir and Leah Abir explain the complexities of the boycott in the Israeli art world.

Chen: About a year ago, a few curators organized an informal meeting of art world people to talk about the political situation and the boycott. From that, seven continued working at it. For almost a year, we tried to figure out how to express our thoughts about the boycott against Israel and how it affects our work. Finally, in January, we organized a public conference and published a report. The BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanction] movement’s guidelines for the cultural boycott are quite complicated, so we mostly wanted to shed light on how it worked and its effects on contemporary Israeli art.

Leah: The BDS movement was founded in 2005 as a response to a massive marketing campaign by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to brand Israel in a positive light internationally, using culture and academia and other avenues. So essentially it’s a boycott against anything that projects Israel in a positive light or that presents projects that normalize the occupation—say, through exhibitions or events that show Israelis and Palestinians together as if they were equals. BDS is essentially about creating international awareness of the occupation to pressure Israel to end it. The boycott is generally not against individual Israelis. There have been exceptions both in the art world as well as in various academic settings.


Chen: The boycott goes beyond official guidelines, though. Lots of artists choose not to come to Israel without explicitly stating why. So the conference opened with a lecture I gave about different kinds of boycotts in the art world. The second part focused on both academic and art projects that were affected by the boycott, like the three-year Liminal Spaces collaboration between the Israeli Center for Digital Art and the Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art, which changed as the boycott took form. The third part consisted of lectures and discussions, including speakers like Kobi Snitz, who is from the Israeli pro-BDS organization Boycott From Within, as well as other organizers of the conference.

A particularly interesting lecture was given by curator Hila Cohen-Schneiderman titled, “An International Boycott but Not an Arab Boycott,” which put forward the utopian idea of advocating for an international boycott, but not a boycott of Arab work shown inside Israel because our Arab neighbors are exactly the people we need an exchange with. Inevitably, most of the conversation ended up being centered on questions of “What do I think? Am I pro or against the boycott?” But actually, it doesn’t matter at all what we think. The boycott is part of the situation that we have to negotiate. To say “boycott me,” or “don’t boycott me” is almost a way of turning this into a personal situation when, in fact, there’s no room for Israelis to have much say in this. Forming an opinion about the boycott is not something I have the privilege of doing because I’m the one being boycotted.

Leah: I think these days there’s definitely more acknowledgement of the boycott within the Israeli art world, too. It wasn’t part of the conversation before, but suddenly it is, especially amongst Israeli cultural producers.

Chen: In terms of speaking about the boycott and “taking sides,” it’s a really tricky thing. For me, I had the freedom to organize this conference, write a text, and have this conversation with my colleagues. But it’s walking a tightrope because I work for two institutions, and many of the other speakers work for institutions or will one day. And it’s often unclear as a curator when you’re speaking for yourself and when you’re speaking on behalf of an institution. At the conference, all of us stated that we were speaking for ourselves, which brings me to an important point: There is a kind of atmosphere of McCarthyism happening in Israel at the moment. It’s been getting worse and worse since the last war in Gaza this summer, particularly with artists and cultural producers who’ve had their lives and jobs threatened because of even a trivial expression of sympathy with Gazans or a mild critique of the war. And of course there’s the boycott law that passed in 2011, which says that anyone advocating for a boycott—cultural, academic, financial—can be penalized. I am not sure people have been punished directly, but the threat of having funding pulled for the Nakba film festival held at the Cinematheque here in Tel Aviv or defunding academic projects or films due to the position on the boycott is a definite reality.

Leah: After Gaza, everything here became more violent. You were suddenly threatened by people with different opinions. Inside of Israel, the question of funding inevitably leads to questions like: Where do you work? What do you do? With whom do you work? How do you fund your work? Of course, we choose to work here, and we choose to work with institutions, but it’s not about our stance.

Chen: That we do address it and actively want to raise awareness says something, too. Not whether we’re pro or against, but that we do want to acknowledge its existence. According to BDS guidelines, in order to not be boycotted you have to formally make a statement against the occupation. This is something that I’m not sure you could do in Israel, being funded by the Ministry of Culture. Just in terms of how the art world is built, it’s very hard to work here without governmental funding. This is a very small, almost esoteric position, but for our generation in our line of work, this is one of the major questions we’re dealing with.


Friday, 1:20 p.m. Over drinks at the beloved underground house/techno spot Breakfast Club, bookers Yotam Avni, Or Magal and Daniel Frenkel (above, left to right) who also run Tel Aviv’s premier dark techno party, Avadon, discuss how they deal with producers and DJs who refuse to come to Israel because of the boycott.

Yotam: For our generation, the Barzilay Club was the first real environment for techno music in Tel Aviv. It was created after a long era of mega clubs that ruled the city, which came to an abrupt end in 2001, when a suicide bombing killed clubbers outside of Dolphinarium, located directly on the beach. The building still hasn’t been restored and there is a large memorial to those who were killed—mostly Russian Israelis. After that, pretty much all the mega clubs in the city shut down. I don’t think you can claim that the bombings alone did the mega clubs in because these kinds of places also shut down all over Europe. That said, the bombing and the second intifada were the main reasons people stopped wanting to congregate in large groups. And the bombing gave my generation a reason to rebel and go underground. The bombing also gave the mayor of Tel Aviv at the time a reason to remove the clubs from the center of the city.

Daniel: And that’s why the only big club you have in Tel Aviv, The Block, is not in the city center but rather near the central bus station. As bookers, the boycott against Israel is a very big deal. You know, every DJ we bring over has a different opinion. But mostly it has affected bigger artists who were supposed to come to Tel Aviv. They have to take tons of shit from people who know they’re coming here.


Yotam: Which is why we don’t try to do a lot of convincing. Coming from the second generation of bookers, there are plenty of names we wouldn’t even try to book, because we know they have political problems with us. Also because of all the shit they get from BDS supporters. Which is why we tell some of the guys: Don’t post shows on your artist page.

Or: Exactly. Come quietly, don’t post—just do it. The important thing is that they are coming even though they take tons of shit for it and have their own dilemma. An amazing example of that happened last summer when the war in Gaza just started. DJs Shifted and Sigha were here…

Daniel: It was two weeks after the bombing started, on the night when Israeli ground forces went into Gaza. We had a party here in Breakfast Club, and it was the best party we’ve ever had. I remember there were two bomb alarms that went off that day, both before dinnertime. The club was packed and absolutely insane.

Yotam: That might seem like escapism, but what was even more escapist for many Israelis was the psychedelic trance scene, which got big partially because of all the soldiers going to Goa after doing military service. That was huge here, especially in the ’90s. There were massive demonstrations under the motto “Give Trance a Chance” in front of the city hall. Thousands of people came to protest against police brutality at raves. Actually, psychedelic trance was essentially the reason why electronic music had become a commercial thing in Israel, something that people don’t look at, strangely. The protests started right around when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. I don’t get it. Psytrance still dominates Israel. It’s huge. Next to military and high-tech start ups, it’s our biggest export.

Or: Sigha told me that if he were to boycott Israel, he would be blaming the people living in the country, not the ones who are responsible. It wouldn’t change anything. Essentially the boycott doesn’t seem fair. That said, visiting Tel Aviv is not like coming to Israel. You don’t often feel the full weight of the conflict. Sometimes I have the impression people just want to punish the society in Israel collectively because they don’t believe that there are political views other than that of the government. But I can understand it if somebody refuses to come.

Yotam: Well, I think that being born in Israel and living in Tel Aviv from a very early age you have to have a political opinion. People expect us to say things and to have ideas about conflicts. But some of us are not into it. When people ask me about that, I always say: Listen, I was born here and I love music. I didn’t go into the army, and I don’t want to kill anybody. I’m stuck here. The situation is in my backyard. What do you want from me? But sometimes not having a political statement when you’re being asked to have one is a political statement. Everything I do here is a political statement. I also think doing a party during wartime is a political statement. You could also say we do our posters for the Avadon parties in a political way.

See, Avadon, our party, means “damnation” in Hebrew, and it’s about darker techno. For example, we just did a party with Ø [Phase] from Token Records where we used an image from the Black September Organization’s killings of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972. For the first party we also used a huge ink stamp for the entrance that has the name of the night and a series of numbers. Abdullah Rashim was the first DJ to play. For me, the black and white stamp with numbers on someone’s arm in Israel is an obvious reference to the Holocaust. I was hoping people would complain and yell, “How can you abuse the Holocaust like that?” And I would say: I can do whatever I want to do with it. Every now and then when people see the graphics for the parties, we get angry messages. And we like it.


Friday, 7:45 p.m. Zack Bar of Fortuna Records talks psychedelia at café Port Said.

The Fortuna label was established three years ago as a kind of collective epiphany. Having collected vinyl for a very long time, we realized there was a special thing happening in Israel that dates back to the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Arab countries immigrated here. These immigrants came to an already Westernized place, which was dominated by American culture. The result of this influx of Iraqi, Moroccan, Yemenite, Turkish, Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian Jews was definitively an East meets West moment—one that was reflected in the music being recorded at the time. Almost immediately, Sephardic culture fused with Western aesthetics of recording and of musical influence: Arabic folk music met Western jazz, rock, blues and disco. This is what I see as the most essential psychedelic aspect of what we release, because psychedelic music, when it was born in the ’60s, conceptually always had a lot to do with Western musicians exploring Eastern culture, instrumentation and sensibilities. What we do is, in many ways, the exact other way around.


A great example is our first release by Tsvia Abarbanel, who brilliantly combines Yemenite chants with jazz in strange time signatures. That record was huge for us and came to be central to our identity. And then we came out with Grazia, who as a 16-year-old kid in the ’70s made the grooviest Turkish-language funk with seriously pounding drums and lots of far-out Moog sounds.

Importantly, we re-release artists like these on vinyl because we reckon they never got the exposure they deserved. But make no mistake: it takes a lot of time, a lot of digging, a lot of buying bad records based merely on interesting album covers to unearth these gems. Also, most of the record labels we contact don’t have the original masters anymore, so finding the artists or the owner of the rights and then clearing those can sometimes seem like a Sisyphean task. And still the actual story behind the music we release is very important to us; we don’t want to just put stuff out, but rather we actually go into detail explaining who the artist is, how the album was recorded and what the circumstances were. So far we’ve only re-released music by Israeli artists, but this is about to change as we have a very special record coming out by a Lebanese musician named Ihsan Al-Munzer who does psyched-out, upbeat ’70s belly-dance music. It’s two tracks only, but it’s a meaty 12-inch.

And this is why for me, what we do is about the music. Maybe we’re naive or escapists, but we just don’t tend to think about politics. We’re clearly huge fans of Arabic music, but people perhaps don’t understand that we grew up on this music. Fortuna is the name of my grandmother, who’s from Turkey. It’s not like we release Thai surf music—which, by the way, I love, but it isn’t a part of me or this culture. We’re in the Levant. Beirut is closer to us than Berlin. The music we release is true to this region. For me, it makes perfect sense.

As a promoter and DJ I spend a lot of time booking acts from all over the world, so the boycott is something I’m personally confronted with all the time. But I refuse to get into the politics of it. This is a very complex place. I understand artists who prefer to play in Amsterdam or Berlin where it’s just less intense. But Tel Aviv is an amazing city. It’s on 24/7, it’s happening and it’s generally pretty liberal. I feel privileged. And with all the strife and insanity that’s going on around us, we’re still creating. People get along with people, you see. Governments don’t. Artists should come here and find out for themselves. I remember when we booked Gil Scott-Heron a few years ago, he first said yes, but then he had a show in the UK and was confronted by protestors demanding he not come to Israel. Taking into consideration his historical position against Apartheid, he decided it just wasn’t a good idea to play. Unfortunately, now he’s passed away, and we’ll never have the opportunity again. The fact is that people are suffering. But this is where I live. And I deal with people and music. Not politics.

At the Anna LouLou bar in Jaffa, Palestinian activist and poet Muhammad Jabali explained the dangers of "normalizing" the Israeli occupation through the promotion of Israel's more democratic aspects, such as its multi-cultural identity or queer rights.
At the Anna LouLou bar in Jaffa, Palestinian activist and poet Muhammad Jabali explained the dangers of "normalizing" the Israeli occupation through the promotion of Israel's more democratic aspects, such as its multi-cultural identity or queer rights.

Friday, 11:45 p.m. Activist Muhammad Jabali on the politics of normalization.

No matter if you’re a DJ, arrange poetry sessions or just go and vote in Israel, everything here is a political act. Cultural production in Israel and especially in Tel Aviv is political activism. I grew up in Taybeh, a Palestinian town inside Israeli borders on the Green Line. I went to high school in Nazareth and did my university studies in Jerusalem before becoming a community organizer and political activist in Jaffa-Tel Aviv. As a Palestinian activist vocal on queer issues, I represent something “sexy” to outsiders, signifying “liberal” Palestinian culture in historical Palestine.

But queerness for Palestinians is more normal than the sexy topic it’s painted to be. That said, living on the margins of Israeli society and Palestinian society and being exposed to global trends is a powerful point of view—it’s that of a double minority with a wide international network. And queer culture’s infinite interest in liberty makes it a major influence on any society, but especially in Israel, where queer politics are often a form of projecting democratic normality. It’s called pinkwashing.

If you look at south Tel Aviv nowadays, you’re looking at New Jaffa, an occupied New Jaffa. Nothing was “invented” in Tel Aviv. If you think about where the nightlife happens in this city, it’s not in Tel Aviv but in historical Jaffa, which is extremely important to emphasize. Take the club The Block: It’s in Levinsky, which was a mixed Jewish and Palestinian neighborhood in historical Jaffa before 1948. The same goes for the nightlife in the Florentine neighborhood, the main Jewish neighborhood in Jaffa before Israel was founded. Until Allenby St. and the Carmel Market you’re talking about historical Jaffa, and this is where people consume culture. If you know history, you know that this is where nightlife existed before 1948. No aliens came from the sky with a space ship and invented “modern” culture. See, culture is a continuous thing. There was “culture” here for centuries, which included global trends. In contrast to the Israeli narrative, this was not all desert until they introduced Western culture.

Tel Aviv's Carmel Market is a whirlwind of sites and smells, mostly mouthwatering, some stomach churning. Everything from fishmongers and kosher butchers to hawkers of homemade dim sum can be found in its maze of stalls.

Look, I am not your regular Tel Avivian cultural producer, and including me in this article is a minefield. Actually, I am not a Tel Avivian cultural producer at all. Because what I see as art is so fucking different than what this city produces. 90 percent of what I do as an artist and activist is trying to change what Tel Avivian cultural production is. I am trying to reclaim a lost space.

I see Tel Aviv as a very complex city. I see it as a colony. Tel Aviv is the major, white embodiment of losing my space. This interview is taking place in historical Palestine. It’s very tricky how to illustrate that I think it’s fucked up that I am the only Palestinian in this piece. Because that ups the risk of portraying the situation here as “normal” just because you talked to a Palestinian, so people in Berlin and anywhere else think the minorities are represented. But portraying Israel as being truly open and multicultural is misleading. This is not a multicultural existence. Israel has had refugees—300,000 of them—for more than 70 years, and yet now the African refugees who came in the past ten years get lots of attention. Don’t get me wrong, I support their plight, but part of why the situation for African immigrants in Israel is so bad is that today, if they were to get asylum, then Palestinian refugees would have to be granted their rights too. These two things are intimately related. This is not Berlin. And this is why the institutional image of Israel as a normal place similar to Europe should be boycotted. I am not talking about individual Israelis, but rather organizations and institutions. A country that puts so much effort into reducing the amount of Palestinians and does its best to study demographics for how to do so should be boycotted.

If you look at Israeli society, 20 percent are Palestinians. And 40 percent of Israeli society have Oriental backgrounds or grew up in Jewish communities within Muslim majorities—Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, etc. That means 60 percent of Israeli society has very little to do with Europe. But Israel is celebrated as a special place for electronic music or gays and lesbians or whatever appeals to a white Western image. But this is not a Western society. It’s not just made up of European immigrants. The boycott matters. It matters to have a progressive agenda. And people who work in Israeli cultural institutions should see that, even if it means the government then boycotts them. This is all we ask.

Revelers dancing the night away to Kenny Larkin at Barzilay's recent ten year anniversary, held at Duplex.

Eritrean immigrants in south Tel Aviv celebrating a baptism.

Saturday, 11:20 a.m. Artist, teacher and peace activist Dana Wegman on the importance of dialogue.

I grew up in Haifa, born to Argentinian parents who immigrated to Israel in the early ’70s. After high school I moved to Tel Aviv to study photography, and in 2002, after graduation, I had my first larger solo exhibition in the Haifa Museum. This was during the second intifada, and there were terror attacks and suicide bombings almost every day in Israel. One of the works in my show was about a terrorist who bombs a café, based on a poem by Polish poet Wisława Szymborska. Two weeks after the opening, there was an attack in Haifa at the Matza restaurant. 16 people were killed. Among them were two old friends, both Argentinians named Carlos. One of them was my father.

Several months after my father’s death, my mother and her husband—my parents were divorced—left for Paris, and my sister and I joined them. I stayed in Europe for three years, mostly in Barcelona. But at some point I realized I had to be in Israel; I became acutely aware of the importance of social activism, and I understood that I can only effect real change if I’m in Israel. Shortly after I returned, I received a scholarship from Musrara, an institute committed to socially engaged, community-based art in Jerusalem, and joined a program called Artists for Social Change. That was the first time everything became connected for me: art, activism, education and initiating projects.


Since I returned to Israel alone, I had to find my own identity and reshape my own sense of belonging. That’s how I joined the The Parents Circle-Families Forum, a grassroots organization of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost immediate family members due to the conflict. If we, the ones who’ve paid the highest price possible, can meet and talk, then anyone can. I first encountered the Forum at what’s called the Alternative Commemoration Ceremony: Once a year, for the past eight years, the Forum and activist group Combatants for Peace have been holding a joint memorial event to commemorate the Israeli and Palestinian victims of the conflict. This memorial service is attended by bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families and accompanied by artists. The people I met there inspired me to take my personal story of bereavement and turn it from a narrative of victimhood to a place where my father’s memory can be part of something heroic. I wanted to work with teenagers, and one year after becoming a member, I became the Youth Manager together with Osama Abu Ayash on the Palestinian side. See, everything in the forum is co-managed by Israelis and Palestinians.

One of the organization’s most important activities are the Dialogue Meetings in which an Israeli and a Palestinian, who’ve lost their loved ones, visit schools and tell their stories, and the kids can ask questions. You can see the difference between before and after these meetings: Beforehand, kids commonly say things like, “Kill Arabs!” But after the face-to-face meeting, the fears melt away.The kids understand the pain and identify with the person in front of them. Some members on the Palestinian side speak Hebrew and can speak to the kids in their own language. This, importantly, can allow for empathy.

Every year, I bring speakers from the Forum to a school where I founded a photography department some six years ago. Importantly, the school is for high-risk youths in the south of Tel Aviv. These kids mostly pose a risk to themselves, but also to others. They need much more attention; they have problems at home and they’re often from working-class Sephardic Jewish families—North African or Middle Eastern—or they are Russian. These are the disenfranchised within Jewish Israeli society. Sadly, this class divide still exists. But many of the Sephardic kids feel culturally closer to Arabs than to Ashkenazi Jews in terms of culture, food, music and mentality. Of course, their politics are a different story: It’s a deep-seated tradition that the Sephardi will always vote for the Right. If there were no war, the connection to Arab culture for these kids would be easy, especially when you’re Jewish Arab. It’s the politics that puts fear into people.

Separately, Osama and I also organize the Forum’s youth summer camp. This year we had to postpone it because of the war in Gaza. But when the camp opened in the fall, one of the most important guidelines was not to compare and compete on the level of fear, pain, difficulty or terror. There have been fewer terrorist attacks in Israel in recent years, so we have decided to open up the camp for Israeli kids who haven’t lost family members. In contrast, many of the Palestinian kids have lost more than one. Still, the camp is a safe place where everyone can express his or her fears; we do not compare.

It was important to tell the children to speak and ask questions in a personal manner and not to approach things as “representatives” or speak in general terms. Because our objective is getting to know the other side. We’re not trying to convince one another but to learn. I use art as a tool of connection and creative expression can be an empowering experience for the kids. Non-verbal communication is key because there is no common spoken language here.

At the height of the war, for seventy nights, we set up in front of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, where Forum members told their personal stories, and peace lecturers spoke. As a result, we received the prestigious Dror Prize for NGOs promoting peace in Israel. Of course, there were people who came to scream “Traitors!” at us every night. Sometimes we succeeded in getting these people to talk with us. Often we didn’t. But when everything around us is on fire with violence and hate, we continue our path of tolerance and reconciliation, of dialogue in times of war or peace.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.


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