Listen, we can talk about the issues later. First, I want to show you something you've never seen before." Master metalworker Yossi Sagi puts on white gloves to handle his latest creation, switching on his overhead light so I can get a better look. On his worktable is an exquisite kiddush cup, a silver goblet inlaid with the Shabbat blessing in gold lettering and embellished with drops of tiny semi-precious stones. Around the bottom, Sagi has engraved the names of the grandchildren of the purchaser, a prominent New York Jewish community leader who has commissioned the piece for a private museum. The cup, nearly finished, represents eight months of work.
In the stone compound of Hutzot Hayotzer, an artists colony near Jaffa Gate founded in 1969 by Teddy Kollek, tourists can watch the birth of masterpieces by some of Israel's most prominent artists. Though some pieces created here end up behind glass cases in world-renowned institutions, the compound is the opposite of a museum: cluttered workspaces, paintings piled on top of one another, priceless works of art jostling for cramped display space in the 27 studios.
"It's the most wonderful location for demonstrating the high quality that Israel has to offer in the creative arts," says Ruth Corman, the director of the Designer Crafts Fund in London who has been involved in the art community in England and Israel for more than 40 years.
But the internationally acclaimed artists working in the shadow of the Old City walls are in danger of losing this unique space. The East Jerusalem Development Company sent an eviction notice to all the artists on December 13. They were asked to vacate the premises by December 31 or accept a three-month extension and leave by March 31.
EJDC director-general Gideon Shamir accuses the artists of not holding up their end of the contract, which stipulates that the galleries must be open six days a week for tourists. He also wants the artists to pay a more "realistic" rent for their studios. "I am not looking to build a Mamilla number two," he says, refuting the widely held claim that the company wants to evict the artists and build a high-end shopping mall in its place. "The EJDC wants Hutzot Hayotzer to be conducted the way that Teddy Kollek wanted - a center where there's a lot of action for tourists, a lot of art. But we haven't succeeded with the artists who are there. Some artists are not standing by the agreements laid out in the contract."
He claims that at least a quarter of the galleries are usually closed during the day. Shamir also insists that the letter was not a publicity stunt to give the EJDC leverage while negotiating with the artists.
"We have been here through two intifadas, terrorist attacks, and we always came and opened our stores," says Uri Ramot, whose studio, filled with creations of ancient coins and glass in silver, has been in the compound for 34 years. The artists are angry about the lack of communication with the company. "Now they tell us, without reason, to go throw old people out on the streets. We didn't get a reason, just bureaucracy."
"Artists gave their lives here," says Sagi, the metalworker and one of three members of the committee that represents the artists and, at 15 years, one of the relative newcomers. "We got through everything - wars, intifadas. When tourists are finally starting to come back, suddenly they come to evacuate us."
The colony was founded in an empty demilitarized zone between the old and new cities following the 1967 war. Each of the artists has undergone a rigorous application process in order to be accepted to the compound, including an independent committee that reviews the artists' entire portfolio. The thought of losing Hutzot Hayotzer leaves many of the tourists bewildered and speechless.
Corman, a stylishly dressed art critic with impeccable Queen's English, is visibly shaken and almost at a loss for words when confronted with the thought. "I cannot imagine a time... it's just... appalling. Let them think about what they're doing. I'm trying to say how upset I am about this without resorting to bad language," she says. "Think about what you are doing, losing one of the jewels that Israel has to offer! I cannot tell you how passionate I feel about this... how the city of Jerusalem could be deprived of something so important to creative development. I have a mailing list of 3,500 people involved with art, and I'm going to bring to their attention the travesty that they should even be thinking about destroying something so essential to the spiritual development of the city."
Clients and politicians have rallied to the artists' defense, sending hundreds of letters to the mayor to protest the artists' evacuation. The letters come from mayors' advisers, organizers of major Judaica craft fairs around the world, Knesset members and wealthy art patrons who casually mention they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at Hutzot Hayotzer over the years. Many tourists stop at the artists colony each time they visit Israel, they say.
A meeting took place on Tuesday among the artists, lawyers, municipality representatives and the EJDC. The municipality is confident they'll be able to come to an agreement that will allow the artists to stay in the colony; but the artists and Shamir are skeptical. The EJDC maintains that the artists are in breach of contract, while the artists' lawyers claim that the company has no legal basis for eviction. Shamir insists that the letter was not a publicity stunt to give them leverage while negotiating with the artists.
The EJDC met on Tuesday at the municipality's request to reconsider the artists' eviction. The company did not revoke the letter, as the artists had hoped, but agreed to postpone the eviction for one year. "The artists are puzzled and worried," says Anat Galili, the spokesperson for Hutzot Hayotzer and the daughter of one of the artists. "They're worried that someone will play the same trick on them next year." In the meantime, it is difficult for the artists to convince clients that they will be able to fulfill future orders since their studios remain in a state of limbo, she said. The EJDC was not available for comment.
"What happened is wrong. The mayor didn't know about the [eviction] letter they received," says Pepe Alalo, the deputy mayor in charge of culture and art and the main political connection between the colony and the municipality. "It was wrong in my opinion; it's a shame that it happened."
Alalo speaks of a future Hutzot Hayotzer that is more involved with the city and connected to other organizations, such as the Jerusalem Foundation that may move into the area surrounding the colony. The mayor and the municipality stand firmly behind the artists, he adds. "We want to make this the most beautiful place in Jerusalem."
But the regulars at Hutzot Hayotzer are happy with things the way they are and hope that this slice of Jerusalem won't be swept up in the winds of change.
"The artists are so happy to talk about their art, and I love to hear about it. They talk about their work as if they were talking about their children. Of course, they want to sell it, but there's something beautiful about the interaction between the artist and customer," says Rabbi Albert Thaler from the Flushing, New York, congregation Temple Gates of Prayer, who is in Israel for his grandson Tal's bar mitzva. He collects menoras and always stops at Hutzot Hayotzer when he visits. "There aren't so many places where you can see someone weave a tallit. I know exactly who made them. When I wear it at home, I know I chose the blue and purple colors. I know I saw the loom upon which it was woven. There is a value to speaking with someone, and I come away with stories the artists tell."
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