Israel: Murals with a Messageby Jessica Hanewinckel May 30, 2013
By Jessica Hanewinckel
“Creativity takes courage,” said French painter Henri Matisse. Matisse lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but this idea that artists are courageous, and that art is often accompanied by a larger message, is timeless.
Last month, Jewish National Fund revisited the idea of courage and art when it partnered with Israel advocacy organization Artists 4 Israel, as well as local university pro-Israel groups Aztecs for Israel and Tritons for Israel, to bring A4I’s program, “Engage*Educate*Spraypaint,” to UCSD and SDSU’s outdoor walkways. The programming coincided with Yom Ha’atzmaut (it was at UCSD April 16 and at SDSU April 17) and featured professional graffiti artists who spraypainted large murals on canvases placed near the universities’ library sidewalks. The art featured Israeli symbols alongside the schools’ mascots and was meant as way to start a conversation about Israel in a fun, positive atmosphere, says Craig Dershowitz, president and founder of the New York-based A4I.
“Arts are emotive,” says Dershowitz, of how the organization is effective in sharing its message through art. “They’re visceral. They speak to the soul. Most people don’t have the time, unfortunately, to really study the facts about the Middle East, so it’s something that goes to that place in their gut that knows the truth, [in a way] that’s going to be a lot more digestible and easily accessible. The arts are something that inspire and move people in a way that no other academic-type things could.”
According to Ezra Erle, JNF’s San Diego region campaign executive, Jewish and non-Jewish students at both universities were really interested in the murals, and many stopped to ask why the artists were there and what the event was all about. It gave event organizers a chance to dialogue with their peers about Israel while everyone watched the artists work and listened to fun music. Erle said they didn’t encounter a single protest, and Jewish students at UCSD even joined up at the site of the event to sing “Hatikvah” together.
“It was a really great way to celebrate Israeli independence, and it really appealed to a large audience,” says Jessica Lebovitz, JNF’s western region director of Israel advocacy and education. “We’re showing people Israel as we know it. It’s a country we love, and we find all these amazing things coming out of it.”
The UCSD graffiti mural served the same purpose a month later, when Hillel used it during what it calls “Israel Solidarity Week” to respond to Students for Justice in Palestine’s “apartheid wall” during what SJP calls “Israel Apartheid Week.”
Interestingly, very few of A4I’s graffiti artists who travel to college campuses nationwide to create their murals are actually Jewish.
“We work with the best artists in the world, regardless of nationality or religion, to promote Israel,” says Dershsowit, who took several of the organization’s artists on three missions to Israel so they could see the country with their own eyes. “I think it’s telling to realize that the enemies of Israel oftentimes are the enemies of the arts as well. They oppress, censor or throw in jail artists, or they seek to make artists a tool and create propaganda for them by paying them to do certain stuff. So when made aware of this, artists tend to join up [and support our mission and message].”
But graffiti murals are just one of the many artistic media A4I uses to share its message. Additionally, they’ve done off-Broadway theater, photography exhibits, hip hop and indie rock concerts, life drawing classes and A4I’s Bomb Shelter Museum in New York.
For more information on JNF, visit www.jnf.org. For more on A4I, visit www.artists4israel.org.