Israeli art, culture and politics intersect at Berkeley conference

March 28, 2017

This article was originally published on The Jewish News of Northern California on March 28, 2017. View it here.

he intersection of Israeli culture and politics represents a dichotomy — it shows off the best of the nation’s innovative dance, art, theater and music on a global scene, but is the source of great debate within Israel itself.

Both of those strains will be on display at UC Berkeley next week during a three-day conference entitled “Israeli Artists in Conversation with Israel.” The event, which begins Wednesday, April 5 and is hosted by the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, will bring Israeli and American scholars and artists together to look at Israeli society through the prism of art and culture.

“It’s an area that is underserved” in the realm of Israel Studies, said conference organizer Rebecca Golbert, the institute’s executive director.

“I think that Israel Studies is often connected more with political science, and there was room for doing this in the arts and humanities. That was a goal — to look at the way art sheds different lenses on some of the pressing social, political, economic and religious questions in Israeli society.”

Israeli artists who have committed to attending the conference range from Yair Dalal, a composer, violinist and oud player; to Elad Schechter, the artistic director of dance troupe c.a.t.a.m.o.n; to documentary filmmaker Iris Zaki

Daytime sessions will include panels and roundtable discussions, such as “Performing Religion, Gender, and Sexuality in Israel” and “Artists at the Intersection of Art an Technology.” There will be film screenings and discussions with the filmmakers on the evening of April 5, and performances the following night. There is a charge for the daytime sessions, while the evening events are free..

Merav Singer, a UC Berkeley ethnomusicologist who helped set up the conference, said local synagogues and arts organizations plan to send representatives to the conference.

“We’re going to be seeing how these artists see politics through the prism of their arts,” said Ben Brinner, a UC Berkeley professor of music and faculty director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies. “Artists are potentially mobilizers, they can get under people’s skin in different ways.”

One of the issues likely to come up is the confrontation between some Israeli artists and their nation’s culture minister, Miri Regev, who has threatened to withhold government funding from performers who refuse to schedule events at Israeli settlements. She also has pushed for the right to punish acts she describes as “delegitimization of the state” — such as burning the Israeli flag during a play.

“She is seeking to control much more tightly than ever before who gets funded, and boycotting artists if they boycott settlements,” Brinner said.

Yet the conference will not be just about controversy and conflict. It also will be a chance for Israeli artists to share their ideas in an academic setting.

“It’s an opportunity for the artists themselves to have this dialogue. And it’s a way for them to see things a little differently,“ Singer said. “It’s a different context for seeing their work and seeing it juxtaposed with each other.”

Golbert said the roundtables will include artists from different media and there won’t be a set agenda with specific questions that could inhibit spontaneity, adding that “it’s kind of an artwork in itself — it has not been laid out as formal conversations.”

Such an approach, Brinner said, could give the visiting artists a chance to understand each other’s influences, and for the American observers to get a fuller taste of Israeli culture.

“Israel is a land of festivals and some of them have discussions, but I don’t think there is this kind of intense discussion across the arts like this. There’s a show-and-tell aspect to this, but hopefully it goes beyond that,” he said.

“One of the most important things this can accomplish is to open people’s eyes and give them a much broader understanding than a monochrome picture of Israel. I hope they can see things about people from Israel that they never knew before.”

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.

The Jewish News of Northern California