On July 24 in New York City, adults, teenagers, and children participated in an “art vigil” organized by the not-for-profit Israel advocacy organization, Artists 4 Israel.
Just north of Washington Square Park, one group of participants created drawings with oil crayons and reflected on a vigil, consisting of art and electric candles, set up to honor those suffering on both sides of the conflict. Across the street, beneath the Washington Square arch, dozens of men and women—many with Israeli flags draped across their shoulders—held hands and danced as they sang “Am Yisrael Chai.” Interspersed were participants holding signs that read “Free Palestine is Code for Kill the Jews,” and “Hamas Ruins the Lives of Innocent Children.”
These juxtaposing responses to the Gaza conflict—one group focusing on solidarity and politics, the other more meditative—reflect the range in attitudes of American Jews towards the current conflagration. (In fact, The Times of Israel reports that the art vigil combined with a “concurrent” but seemingly unrelated pro-Israel demonstration.) But between these factions was there was a common thread of feeling: support for Israel, and a desire to see Hamas’s terror capabilities extinguished.
Participants at the event expressed concern at the rising fatalities—now at 1,650 Palestinian civilian deaths, 63 Israeli military deaths, and three Israeli civilian deaths—and appreciated the ability to have a place to create, pray, and express support for Israel.
Artists 4 Israel was formed in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, in response to the growing number of international artists boycotting Israel and refusing to perform in the country. Its aim is to refute “misconceptions that the arts community does not support Israel” as well as “beautify the landscape and strengthen the spirit of the people of Israel and the Middle East.”
“This is a first of a kind art vigil and the idea is paint and prayer—whichever people connect with and it’s in support of Israel,” said Lance Laytner, public relations officer for Artists 4 Israel. “The hope of the art exhibit is it does something that only art can do.”
Ariel Maron, who is raising funds through an Indiegogo campaign to purchase equipment for soldiers in the IDF, said he had come to “cheer on Israel, show support for all the Jews in Israel, and promote other countries to do the same.”
“It’s unfortunate what’s happening in Europe, in Turkey, and Paris with the burning of the synagogues and hopefully we’ll have more non-violent rallies,” he continued. “We love Muslims, we love Arabs; we don’t like terror.”
Several vigil participants expressed concern about the fact that Hamas is using children as human shields.
“I think people need to understand and know that there is terrorism going on right now in the Middle East. What I’m the most upset about—as is my organization—is that children are being used as human shields by Hamas,” said Hillary Markowitz of Mothers Against Terrorism. “Hamas is telling people, ‘put your children here’.”
The exhibit also featured a Bomb Shelter Museum, a structure constructed with the same dimensions and thickness as the shelters used in Sderot, Israel. Inside the shelter, a screen played footage of families running from rockets fired by Hamas.
On July 22, Artists 4 Israel set up the Bomb Shelter Museum in the Upper Senate Park, near the capital building in Washington, D.C., inviting President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and all congress members. But achieving the turnout they desired was described as “a challenge” in their press release.
“There has been a lot of advice from U.S. officials and even some unexpectedly snide comments—from Secretary Kerry in particular—about how Israel should handle the current crisis,” said Artists 4 Israel Executive Director Craig Dershowitz in a statement about the Washington exhibit. “But those same officials have never had to experience grabbing their children and running for their lives. They say you cannot understand a person’s decisions until you have walked a mile in their shoes. We’re not asking a mile, just as many steps as you can take in 15 seconds.”
Pastors, rabbis, and an imam from the NYU Islamic Center, Khalid Latiff, were invited to participate in the Washington Square Park vigil. Imam Latiff lent his support, but was unable to attend because it was the last night of Ramadan. Pastor Dan Quagliata of The Bridge Church and Rabbi Scott Matous of the New Synagogue both attended, and jointly led a prayer session at the end of the event. “We’re for peace in Israel. We’re for peace in the Middle East. We’re for peace in all the communities—and to try to show from a faith-based perspective that everybody’s welcome,” said Rabbi Matous.
Elisa, a 19-year-old woman whose brother is a lone soldier in the Israeli Defense Force and who is getting ready to make Aliyah herself, drew the emblem of the IDF inside the star of David. Her mother drew two small caricatures to represent an Israeli soldier helping a Palestinian child. “A lot of people find peace, find love with connecting with other human beings, and art is a form to do that in,” said Elisa.
As part of the outreach aims of the organization, the drawings made at the event will be distributed to bomb shelters located in schools and daycare centers throughout Israel.
Yvonne Marie Juris is a second year student in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. She writes about religion and the arts. Follow her on Twitter at @fancifemini.
(Image: Seth Wolfson, Artists 4 Israel)