Early in the fall semester, the University of Pittsburgh's Panthers for Israel group kicked off the year with free giveaways, music and a creative twist. Three renowned graffiti artists from New York attracted hundreds of Pitt students as they painted an homage to Pittsburgh and Israel on campus walls.
"People were really into it," said Sam Millits, a Pitt senior who is president of Panthers for Israel. "Normally, when you see an Israeli flag you are already pro- Israel, or already anti-Israel, or just don't care. This was something that pulled students in, that introduced them to Israel and engaged students in a new way."
The graffiti artists at Pitt that day are three among thousands of artists across the world who have been supporting Israel as members of the Artists 4 Israel organization.
"We noticed we had an important ability to attract what was a young, hip, influential and diverse crowd, a crowd no one else was able to reach," said Craig Dershowitz, executive director and co-founder of Artists 4 Israel, "We decided we had to keep going and create an organization that could utilize the unique talents of our artistic friends to spread the truth about Israel and her beauties and freedoms."
After 400 people crowded a small New York art space in 2008 to see over 50 works of pro-Israel graffiti art, a live wall painting performance, a hip-hop routine, and body-painted models in support of Israel during Operation Cast Lead, Dershowitz and a few friends launched Artists 4 Israel with the mission of becoming a 'security fence against cultural terrorism.'
Since that night in 2008, Artists 4 Israel, which Israel's Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs has called "one of the most effective advocacy organizations in the world," has hosted pro-Israel activities that include drawing and painting classes, art exhibitions and an off-Broadway play talking about gay rights in Israel, painted bomb shelters in Sderot, murals on the security fence and schools in Tel Aviv, and it has brought the Bomb Shelter Museum and a project called Engage*Educate*Spraypaint to dozens of North American college campuses.
"We started it [Artists 4 Israel]," Dershowitz explained, "because no one in the Israel advocacy community had the power to reach the young and diverse audience we did. No one else had the power to corral the emotive, visceral, passionate nature of art to give forth their message like we could."
"I'm in college. I think graffiti is awesome," said Erin Doppelt, a senior at Pitt and a member of Hillel who took part in the Engage*Educate*Spraypaint initiative, "The music was loud, there were cool giveaways, you wanted to be a part of it. You wanted to join in. This was not a political event. It was a gathering of like-minded people to make art."
On a tight budget, Artists 4 Israel has managed to send artists of all faiths, nationalities and backgrounds to teach students how to spray-paint murals on campus with a strong pro-Israel message in Engage*Educate*Spraypaint, as well as experience a bomb going off in Israel through a bomb shelter simulation gallery called the Bomb Shelter Museum.
"Each time it was powerful," Dershowitz said of the Bomb Shelter Museum that has been installed at Hunter College, New York University and Baruch College, and reported on by CNN, FOX News and the Huffington Post. "Students left crying but educated and hopeful."
"It is a new age of advocacy," said Eran Hoch, Israel Fellow at UC Irvine who brought the Engage*Educate*Spraypaint project to Ifest 5, a week of events held by Anteaters for Israel in 2012, "It is getting Israel in through the back door rather than as a flag in front of your face."
Engage*Educate*Spraypaint has been featured on numerous college campuses including the University of Michigan, Florida Atlantic University, UC Irvine, Temple University, Tufts University and Penn State University, in addition to Pitt.
Hoch did not mince words when he described the impact the program had at UC Irvine. "It is one of those things that is a game changer."