When I was first invited, along with 30 other Hillel directors (mostly from North America, but also from Germany, Russia and Israel) to travel around Israel this winter, I assumed that the trip’s purpose was to help us to deal with the mushrooming BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, and to empower us to advocate on campus for the Jewish state. But because many of my colleagues on the trip had visited Israel dozens of times, largely through staffing Birthright trips, the idea behind the trip was broader; it was to expose us to elements of Israeli society that we had not encountered before. Thus, the bulk of our time was spent learning not as much about Israeli politics as about Israeli culture. Yet by the end of the trip, I was to discover that Israeli politics and culture are so interwoven as to be almost impossible to separate.
Soon after we landed in Tel Aviv, we were whisked to a hotel in Beersheva, where Laura Bialis, a filmmaker from Los Angeles, showed us her recent documentary, “Rock in the Red Zone,” about the flourishing underground music scene in Sderot, which lies less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. (The scene is literally underground, since many of the musicians have recording studios in basement bomb shelters.) The film reveals how Moroccan-Israeli music groups like Teapacks and Knesiyat Hasekhel (Church of Reason) helped to move what Bialis calls a “little Liverpool” to the center of Israeli — and global — consciousness.
We spent Shabbat in Tel Aviv; a highlight was a walking tour by an architect that emphasized the many sleek white Bauhaus buildings that were built in the 1920s and ’30s. After Shabbat, our group met singer Shaa’nan Streett, whose hip hop/funk band, Hadag Nahash, puts on an annual festival that young people from marginalized communities can attend for just one shekel. Over the next several days, we studied Yehuda Amichai’s poetry with scholar Rachel Korazim, met with photographer Adi Nes (best known for his takeoff on Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” using Israeli soldiers instead of disciples), and visited the art gallery in the Israeli Arab village of Umm el-Fahm, where unflappable founder Said Abu Shakra brings Jews and Arabs together by exhibiting the works of both.
In a whirlwind day, we met with both former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who heads the Jewish Agency for Israel in Jerusalem, and with former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who runs the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. I was especially struck by the photographs on display at the Peres Center, which were snapped by both Israeli and Palestinian youths.
Finally, we met with officials at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem to discuss Israel’s relationship to the Arab world and the BDS movement in America. That session concluded with a presentation by public relations expert Joël Lion, who is charged with rebranding Israel, emphasizing the diversity, creativity and technological know-how of the nation’s people rather than the conflict with the Palestinians.
I ended the trip with a pilgrimage to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where I was drawn to a wonderful temporary exhibit, “Out of the Circle: The Art of Dance in Israel,” curated by Talia Amar. While folk dance may not seem to have any political overtones, much of the Zionist and other dances that ultimately developed in Israel do. And top choreographers working in Israel today (like Hillel Kogan, whose satirical work, “We Love Arabs,” will be presented next month in New York) often use the conflict as the starting point for their work.
Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt has rightly suggested that greater education about Israel is necessary for most of us before we can rush to advocate for the Jewish state. But the reason that my Hillel student leaders prefer to sponsor cultural events about Israel — featuring Israeli falafel, folk dance and films — rather than expressly political ones, is out of fear; they want to forestall controversy and to avoid disagreements both with other students and among themselves.
If only I could help them to see that political engagement is not just necessary, but ultimately unavoidable, no matter how fraught and potentially painful. As I continue to get my thinking to break out of the circle of my own long-held preconceptions, prejudices and stereotypes, I find myself drawn to traveling more to Israel and learning more about Israeli culture, and to understanding the role that Israeli culture plays in a vibrant, flourishing society that is also perpetually on the brink of war.
Ted Merwin directs the Hillel at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.), where he also teaches religion and Judaic studies. He writes about theater for the paper. Tedmerwin.com.