I [Heart] Israel – Creatively, Authentically

Last week, an international graffiti gang “bombed” Netanya, Jerusalem, and other Israeli cities.  Those edgy, hyper-colorful, spray-painted murals New Yorkers in the 1970s called “vandalism,” beautified ugly concrete walls in schools and community centers. One “piece,” as street artists call their handiwork, flowed up from a schoolyard’s beige-colored dirt into two beige-colored hands, whose thumbs and pointers together made the shape of a heart. A day later, the artist magically superimposed on the hands yet somehow behind them too a big, bold, yellow word in cursive: PEACE.

Yes, Artists 4 Israel was on the loose again, spreading its hip-hop message of peace, love, healing and creativity, mobilizing tattooed and body-pierced angels from Brooklyn, Puerto Rico, Spain, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.  Founded in 2009 by Craig Dershowitz, an artist bold enough, unconventional enough, to escape the far left’s bash-Israel groupthink, this art collective supports Israel in ingenious ways. A4I brings art into bomb shelters to soothe children; imports artists from all over the world to decorate targeted communities or depressed areas; and uses art, particularly “contemporary, urban and disruptive arts” in the US to celebrate the Middle East’s one pocket of artistic and political freedom.

Free of the usual rhetoric burdening so many Israel-oriented discussions, these artists inject a fresh perspective. Encountering the Gaza security barrier, they painted pictures of Third Worlders protected by a purple sun, adding this message on Facebook: “The images of a native, indigenous people in need of love and respect are the images of the Israeli people who have come from afar seeking shelter and protection in their native homeland.” Indeed, Jews are not colonialist, imperialist interlopers but, as the Canadian human rights activist Irwin Cotler teaches, the original aboriginal people, speaking the same language, developing the same culture, and tied to the same homeland for millennia.

The world has gone topsy-turvy.  and Palestinian Media Watch fill my inbox daily with translations of official, mainstream Palestinian hate demonizing Israel, spreading anti-Zionism, fomenting Jew hatred.  Palestinian terrorists, excuse me, “martyrs,” are lionized for running over babies or shooting up synagogues.  Yet systematic desensitization works. If once every six months Mahmoud Abbas’s supposedly moderate regime incited toward violence, it might make headlines. But this stream of hatred flowing as steadily – but more violently -- than the Jordan River, dulls our capacity for outrage.
I am proud that the occasional anti-Arab outburst from Israelis still generates headlines – such bigotry remains exceptional. I am even prouder of Israelis’ many initiatives to fight hatred and ensure that Israel lives up to its highest, Zionist, democratic ideals. One shining, all-too-overlooked model is the TALI School Network’s extraordinary coexistence program called Dialogue and Identity introducing Jewish and Arab schoolkids to each other.This program is jointly sponsored by TALI Education Fund and JCJCR (Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations). 
Fulfilling its mission of bringing Jewish studies to secular Israeli schools, TALI cleverly has Jews, Muslims, and Catholics teach each other about their traditions. Since 2006, more than 3,000 children and 100 educators have hosted each other in their respective schools. With 18 schools now, the program works because it is time intensive, participatory, and puts everyone on an equal footing.  
Despite this year’s tensions – and worries before they met -- on November 10, sixty Fifth and Sixth graders from the TALI Oranim School in Yokneam and the Latin Patriarchate School of Yefiyah. (Jaffa of Nazareth), learned and laughed together, this time in Yokneam. “I was really frightened at the beginning of the day that I would not be able to speak with” the TALI children,  one Arab student admitted, “but after only a few activities, I felt more comfortable and I made a number of friends!!” “I already miss my new-found friends from Oranim,” another student added. “When will we meet again?”
The Jews were equally enthusiastic, enjoying the mixed Arab-Jewish basketball teams and the formal meetings. A TALI teacher reported the big complaint: “most of the children felt the meeting was too short.” They wanted more organized activities and “’informal’ time during the break where the freedom and space created helped them in connecting with their Arab guests.” “We do not promise peace,” TALI’s Eva Halahmi says wisely, “but a first positive experience that breaks down stereotypes and the barriers of fear. Each child is allowed to experience the complex identity of the ‘other,’ but only in tandem with learning about their own culture and religion.” 
Both Artists 4 Israel and TALI’s “Dialogue and Identity” program succeed because they are welcoming, unscripted, and authentic. This generation is wary of being manipulated. Open, grassroots, passionate exchanges and experiences are essential.
That authenticity explains Taglit-Birthright Israel’s success, too. This summer, the 400,000th Birthrighter visted Israel.  When the war began, Birthright’s educational team encouraged every group to stop at any time and discuss the situation. This insight defied many Israel advocates’ protective instincts to dodge unpleasantness. Addressing whatever participants were thinking and feeling, in real time, built trust as participants saw that Birthright educators weren’t hiding anything; they were teaching not propagandizing – often working through their own confusion.   Having confronted the current events, participants could then concentrate on the day’s historical, cultural, identity-oriented – and fun – activities.
As the ideological war against Israel intensifies, as the ugly Green-Red Islamist-Far Left Alliance propagandizes and perverts the truth, we should trust our own messy, honest, democratic practices. We need the Artists 4 Israel’s out-of-the-box passion. We need TALI’s warm, direct exchanges.  And we need Birthright’s integrity and flexibility. Totalitarians’ enforced uniformity often appears stronger but our genuine democratic chaos will ultimately triumph.
Full disclosure: my family hosted the artists for Shabbat, we contribute to the TALI program, and I am the voluntary chair of Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee. Journalists might call this a conflict of interest – we Zionist activists call it a confluence of values.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Last week, his latest book  Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism won the 2014 J.I. Segal English Non-Fiction Award on a Jewish Theme.