NEW YORK – Sometime during Operation Cast Lead, Craig Dershowitz’s graffiti magazine, BOMBIN’, became something of a forum for pro-Israel views.
However unlikely, the graffiti community, touched by 9/11 and smarting from increased police cameras that stopped them from freely painting, sympathized with Israel. In the face of widespread public criticism of Israel’s military operation, the graffiti artists – rebels to the core – sided with the Jewish state.
“It was this weird mishmash, this group of issues that made the graffiti community care about Israel,” said Dershowitz, a 32-year-old tattooed Taglit-birthright Israel alumnus, who quickly mobilized artists to form Artists 4 Israel.
Largely non-Jewish, the group has had gallery shows and produced off-Broadway plays in the past year. Next month, 12 artists plan to travel to Israel; with actress Meital Dohan acting as their liaison, they will bring their art to Sderot from April 24 to May 2.
“This is a huge untapped resource,” said Dershowitz, referring to his effort to get artists to promote a positive message about Israel.
According to Dershowitz, the group got its start during the Gaza war, when he and a few friends attended a pro-Israel rally at the United Nations. Like protesters do, they made signs; but as artists, theirs were “prettier” than most and were emblazoned on the back with “Artists 4 Israel.”
A week later, Dershowitz organized a gallery show in New York City on the night of the winter’s first blizzard. Some hip-hop artists showed up and jumped on the turntables. Two women took off their clothes. “I was like, ‘OK, it’s a party now,’” Dershowitz recalled. By night’s end, 500 people had showed up, the place was packed and people inside could barely move.
“That was the point when we realized that unlike every other advocacy group... we had the capacity to reach a young, non-Jewish audience that had maybe never heard about or discussed the Middle East,” he said. “And we were going to be the first ones in their ears and their hearts and minds discussing this important topic.”
An outline for an advocacy organization took shape with a mission of reaching people through pop culture and the arts.
“We’re not a Jewish organization,” said Marianne Pane, a mother of five who is the group’s director of information. “We are looking to advocate beyond the Jewish and Israeli community,” she noted. “There are people beyond that circle who don’t know that much about what’s going on.”
Brought up Roman Catholic, Pane learned about Israel about seven years ago, when she delved deeper into her own faith. The daughter of an Irish father and a Filipina mother, she drew parallels between her heritage, the struggle of her parents’ native countries and Israelis struggling today.
“The bottom line is, I’m a pacifist and I’d like to see the descendents of Abraham be able to claim their land as their own,” she said.
In December, Artists 4 Israel sent four artists to Art Basel in Miami, a sister art show to Switzerland’s Art Basel, where they painted pro-Israel murals. A month later, the group staged an off-Broadway production discussing gay rights in Israel. This month, they hosted an “Indie Rock for Israel” concert.
With no shortage of passion, the group can sometimes seem unfocused. Among the things it is working on is a cookbook, with recipes related to freedom. Another program has its members, calling themselves the fashion police, handing out tickets to women who are dressed in tight or short clothing; the tickets give the history of women dressed immodestly in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The group also holds monthly life drawing classes featuring nude models; there is always an Israel connection, such as a class focusing on Israeli environmentalism, where models came out painted in green body paint.
The trip to Israel, though, carries a message of solidarity. The art is meant to help “the Israeli people to see that they are not alone,” said Pane, and to beautify parts of their neighborhoods with a permanent message of unity. “We’re looking to unify beyond the Jewish and Israeli communities,” she said.
While in Israel, the group plans to paint bomb shelters in Sderot, work with children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, paint a women’s shelter and create a mural with the help of local kids. The artists plan to stay with families during their trip.
“Hopefully, they will come back inspired and willing to become even greater advocates for Israel in the American press and in their arts communities,” Dershowitz said.
Notably, none of the artists are Jewish and all are volunteering their time. Among them is C.J. Reilly, a 25-year-old mural artist who met Dershowitz at an art show.
“I’m not a really big political advocate,” admitted Reilly. “I support Israel and I support democracy.”
To him, mural painting represents a platform for congregation and something people can admire together. “It’s not this great thing that solves everything. It becomes a nice facet for people to sit with,” he said.
“I’m not really here to talk about politics, but to teach drawing, to teach painting” to children in Sderot, he said.
“With that, I’m very serious and really committed to helping kids that
want to participate in this mural work, to help them create a substance
that we can leave behind that they can benefit from.”