The Israel Festival, Jerusalem – Why is it a big deal?

For better or worse, one of Israel’s most striking characteristics is the dichotomy between daily life and the ongoing conflict.

‘Songs of Lear’ at the Israel Festival (photo credit: MATEUSZ BRAL)
‘Songs of Lear’ at the Israel Festival
(photo credit: MATEUSZ BRAL)
IT’S DIFFICULT to think about the upcoming Israel Festival at the time I write these words – in the midst of yet another violent eruption in Gaza, with hundreds of missiles being launched at Israeli cities, sending the region into a new cycle of violence, suffering, fear and hate.
Few are optimistic when considering the combustible calendar: Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day, which for the Palestinians marks the Nakba (the disaster); the beginning of Ramadan, which often serves to further inflame emotions; and the high profile Eurovision, which offers the ever-present spoilers of reconciliation a wonderful opportunity for disruption. Still, we continue our steadfast efforts to carve the path to realize a vision of peace and coexistence.
For better or worse, one of Israel’s most striking characteristics is the dichotomy between daily life and the ongoing conflict. “It’s complex,” we sigh often as we try to explain “the situation.” And so it is indeed even when we are not in the midst of a crisis.
A street I used to live on in Jerusalem, in the past, begins Jewish and continues as Arab. Palestinian Arabs and Israelis pass by daily. Yet we never really meet. We go to different schools, community centers, shops. Further downtown, it’s a bustling melting pot. Arabs and Jews, seculars and ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopians, Russians, students, tourists, priests, soldiers, businessmen and merchants interact in business, at municipal services, social security, on public transportation, at the market, in the hospitals. It’s normal urban life – of sorts.
Revered for its rich history, holy sites, beauty and spirituality, Jerusalem is also the epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, beleaguered by deadly terror attacks and violent hostilities, strained by religious tensions and economic disparity. The distinct communities that compose the city’s population don’t mix beyond their daily affairs. Few have friendships across the divide.
With 880,000 people in total – 270,000 Palestinian Arabs, 190,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews and 450,000 secular or traditional Jewish residents – Jerusalem is one of the most diversified cities in Israel, as well as one of its most fragmented and polarized. The political conflict is omnipresent, religious intolerance has a firm hold, acute socioeconomic gaps are the norm. The ever-present, not-so-under undercurrents are hovering at the edge of the surface, always ready, threatening, to erupt. All these energies can be quite draining.
It is against this backdrop that we try to lower the noise surrounding us, cherish all the depth and beauty of our city, and work to put together the best, most interesting, most thought-provoking and most entertaining international festival.
The Israel Festival in Jerusalem, now in its 58th year, presents the best contemporary dance, theater, music and performance from around the world and from Israel. Our program strives to be innovative and groundbreaking, original and relevant. The artists that we present are all creative visionaries in their medium, or cross mediums as so many include in their tool box to bring forth a new personal stage language. Our aim is to enrich the cultural landscape in Israel and broaden the conversation around art and society.
The festival is an open arena for artistic expression that offers us a unique opportunity for encounter and dialogue, allowing us to meet “the other” and gain insight into their world while shedding new light on ours. Indeed, we believe that one of art’s most critical roles is to break through the real and imaginary barriers between people, communities and nations, and to serve as a bridge between them.
Not everyone likes it. There are those who do not like expressions of political opinions that do not agree with their own convictions. Others don’t approve of nudity on stage, in dance or theater, because they find it immoral and offensive. Others may disapprove of gender representation and discourse. No one is obligated to buy a ticket to attend a show one is not interested in seeing, but surely no one has the right to prevent others from seeing it.
In the face of growing attempts to narrow the freedom of artistic expression for fear that the exploration of controversial issues might give voice to varied ideological opinions, the Israel Festival’s artistic program is committed to unwavering independent curatorship driven by a steadfast strive for artistic excellence – one that reflects the values we believe in – openness, tolerance and understanding. In our political, religious, cultural and social reality – that’s a big deal.