When Israeli singer and looping artist Netta Barzilai won the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest in Portugal last May, all of Israel was ecstatic. Beyond watching their native daughter win big on an international stage, Netta’s triumph meant that, as per the competition’s longstanding tradition, Israel would be granted the honor of hosting Eurovision in 2019.
As expected, Israel’s fourth opportunity to host the international song competition was thrilling. Tourists from around the world descended on Tel Aviv for glitz, glam and great music, and Israel pulled out all the stops to make its many guests feel at home. But at the center of it all was a golden opportunity: a platform for organic cultural exchange and open dialogue in a country that has met with mixed reviews from many of the nations in contention for Eurovision’s top prize. Thankfully, Israel delivered on that as well.
“I’m pretty sure all the artists have been experiencing the same pressures, the same kind of Twitter extremism. I’ve spoken with some of the other artists, everyone feels conflicted by it, everyone feels under pressure,” Australian singer Kate Miller-Heidke told Australia’s SBS News in Tel Aviv just ahead of Eurovision. “Since being here in Israel, I’ve been even more sure about the value of open dialogue.”
Understanding the power of music and art in cross-cultural dialogue, top Israeli institutions have been promoting ‘artivism’ programs for decades, providing budding artists with opportunities for simultaneous self-discovery and a thorough, rhetoric-free rediscovery of Israel on their own terms. Leading the pack is Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem, whose Ceramics and Glass Department hosts an annual “International Week” exchange program as winter turns to spring.
At the beginning of March, Bezalel Academy played host to 20 art students from universities around the world, challenging them to reexamine their craft – and any preconceived notions of Israel – while collaborating with Bezalel students throughout the weeklong program. The exchange students and their Israeli peers quickly meshed, learning that as artists, they don’t have to speak the same language to join in on the conversation.
“Art is a language, with the magic being that it creates conversations. You have your own opinions, which can either be accepted by others or they can create their own opinions from it,” said Shi Lowidt, a second year Ceramics and Glass Design student at Bezalel Academy. “Through our projects, the international students are seeing Israel in a different light. Back home, they heard the news and assumed that Israel was a war-torn country, but now they are seeing that it is a lot more nuanced than that. They were amazed to tell me how safe and secure they feel here.”
Noticing the barrier presented by spoken language, Linda Meripeled, an exchange student from Luxembourg who is majoring in Glass Design at The Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, insisted on spending a few days getting to know her new project partners before diving into their project, though the request was met with resistance by one of her Israeli partners.
“It seems that Israelis are hyper-focused and want to tackle a project right away, figuring it out as they go. This was a completely different method than what I am used to,” explains Meripeled. “I like to establish the experience and emotions I am feeling before starting to use the glass to express them, whereas the Israelis focus a lot more on the actual materials, wanting to start with the glass and then working out what to do with it.”
Meripeled was grateful that she was able to convince her Israeli counterparts to spend the first day of the program touring, as it provided a chance for them to bond and understand each other through philosophical discussions. “There was no one language that we all shared, so we began with body language, the basics of understanding. What at first seemed liked a serious challenge was actually an incredible opportunity for connection.”
“One of the Israeli’s remarked that they were very impressed with how open I am to the unknown,” noted Meripeled, whose parents were anxious about her trip to Israel.” It excites me that I don’t know the language and to experience something new. I learned that for some Israelis it’s a little bit scary not to know, but they told me that they were thankful to have had shared this experience with us and forced to try something new.”
Lowidt, who participated in the program for the first time, was among the grateful Israeli students, as Meripeled’s day out in Jerusalem convinced her to do the same with her own group, which included exchange students and Christian and Muslim classmates from Bezalel. “It was an incredible day that changed my view of Jerusalem, as each one of us was able to reintroduce their holy site to the rest of the group through the lens of their own religion and culture. For me, as a Jew, it was both interesting and overwhelming to have this rare opportunity to see and to learn so much about how the other sides view the conflict, while also being able to impact their perspectives on Judaism and Israel.”
Anri Musahi, an exchange student from Tokyo majoring in Glass Design, was one of four students from Tokyo University of the Arts. Her knowledge about Israel from came from reading books, and her family, inundated with negative reports via the international media, was worried that her trip would be dangerous. Upon arriving in Israel, Musahi was pleasantly surprised to see that daily life carried on normally, with “friends having coffee in cafes, just like they would back home.”
Growing up in Japan, Musahi didn’t have much exposure to other religions and cultures, so meeting Jewish and Muslim students who openly discussed their different religious and political beliefs was an eye-opener. “Tokyo is too normal with no political debates, so it’s refreshing to come here and experience peaceful but heated discussions. I imagined that the Israeli students would be more aggressive, but I was impressed by how much mutual respect was showed towards each religion – people have different religions, but they are still just people, which I think is so beautiful.”
“During the International Week program, the Ceramics and Glass Department hosted a seminar on artivism that was attended by the exchange students and students from three other departments within Bezalel. All of students interacted with artists from a variety of disciplines, who talked about how the projects that they create trigger a response and conversation on personal and social issues, including politics, gender, sexuality, and our shared history. The students then worked together in groups on joint projects that were developed throughout the week,” explained Dr. Eran Ehrlich, Head of Bezalel Academy’s Ceramics and Glass Department.
“The atmosphere was electrifying and moving, and the connection between the students – Jewish, Christian and Palestinian, European and Japanese – was a testament to the brotherhood of humanity, as well as the professional practice and imagination of the participants. The projects were amazing both in terms of conceptual sophistication and performance, in relation to the given time.”
“I believe that given the state of our world, we must encourage our students to embrace openness and curiosity, to seek out a variety of sources of inspiration, as well as varied life experiences beyond the ones they know. International thinking is not only a key to more complex and diverse art, but also important for the future careers of these young multinational artists.”
Echoing the sentiment, Lowidt expresses deep gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the International Week program, which allowed her to grow as an artist and a citizen of the world.
“It was so new and so different, and exactly what we needed to expand our minds and our outlooks. It’s amazing how art can help us develop into such different people and allows us to really see the other. It’s an experience that every artist should have so that they can give it over to the masses through their craft.”
Noam Mirvis is a nonprofit public relations professional living in Jerusalem. Prior to making Aliyah from the United Kingdom in 2017, he spearheaded the first ever pro-Israel lobbying group in the House of Lords in the British Parliament.