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Last week, as Israeli diplomats courted political support in capital cities across the globe, a different kind of international gathering kicked off back at home. The Hutzot Hayotzer arts and crafts fair, a Jerusalem tradition now in its 30th year, got off to a strong start August 8 and has drawn large crowds ever since with its wide array of artistic offerings, food stands and musical performances. Among those in attendance each evening have been artisans and vendors from central Asia, South America, Europe and the Muslim world. With war raging in the North until Monday and Israel pressing its view of events in the international community, what did Hutzot Hayotzer's foreign guests make of Israel and Israelis? Did their time in Jerusalem change perceptions about Israel and its people?
"It's not a matter of changing opinion," said Ahmed Kalifeh, a Jordanian art dealer who arrived in Israel via the Beit Shean border crossing, despite the crossing's being in range of Hizbullah missile fire. "It's about how you deal with each human. We [Muslims] have the Torah, the Bible and the Koran; we have three bibles. We don't deny the first religion."
Though he worried about arriving in Jerusalem during a war, Kalifeh said he persisted in coming to Hutzot Hayotzer to show his support for warm relations between Israel and Jordan. "We started as brothers," he said, "so [we] will end as brothers."
Not all the artisans expressed similar reasons for coming to Hutzot Hayotzer, which runs each evening except Friday between 6 and 11 p.m. and concludes Saturday. "We knew that Jews are good at trading," said art dealer Mirlan Bekimbetov, recalling stories he had been told before arriving from Kyrgyzstan. "[We thought] they are a little bit greedy. We heard that they won't help if you ask for something."
Three days in Israel changed his image of the country, Bekimbetov said. "After we came here, [my perception] changed. The hospitality of the people and the kindness was beautiful."
Bekimbetov said that while he had been exposed to some anti-Semitism in his home country, most of the negative views he'd heard about Israel came from his travels in Turkey, Russia, Khazakstan and Uzbekistan. "All around the world they say the Jews are dominant," Bekimbetov said. "Their little population is dominant all over the world."
Hutzot Hayotzer's Uzbek representative, Bekmukhamedova Nargis, expressed curiosity about Israel, not suspicion. "For me, it was a big question mark," Nargis said. "Now I see very kind, friendly people."
Serbian vendor Marija Ranio also knew little about Israel before arriving. "I only knew it was a country in the Middle East," Ranio said, "and that there were conflicts and breaking news every day. I didn't know how kind the ordinary people are."
Zion Cohen, a native Israeli who has lived in Indonesia for six years, has been working at the fair representing artists from that country. Two Indonesian artists were scheduled to join him, he said, but cancelled because of pressure from family members concerned about fighting in the North. Despite the Indonesian government's longstanding refusal to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, Cohen said ordinary Indonesians are eager to learn about Israel. "To come to Israel [would be] to fulfill their curiosity," Cohen said. "There's something about Israel that attracts them. It's not the politics. It's the history."
Brazil's representatives at the festival have been perhaps the most vocally pro-Israel. Now on his eighth trip here, Pedro Laurindo da Silva is part of the Association of Christian Friends of Brazil. After reading about Israel in the Bible, he said, he knew he had to see the country. Religion plays a fundamental role in what he sees as widespread Brazilian support for Israel.
His partner at the Brazilian arts stand, Ray D'Castro, said she had enjoyed her first trip to Israel."I thought it would be very good, and it is very good," she said. "I've been amazed by the diversity of cultures and people here."