Beautiful Truths vs Ugly Lies … and All That Jazz
In 2004 and 2005, a group of “oldsters,” myself included, decided that what was really needed to combat the steady stream of sophisticated propaganda against Israel and America was an instantly recognizable, credible, “catchy” way to tell the truth to high school and college-age “youngsters.” Something hip, something cool (well, that dates us), something with a beat, something colorful — maybe a hip-hop or rap style musical which could tour the campuses.
Glyn O’Malley, that most talented of gay playwrights (oh, did that man know how to weave a spell at the dinner table), wrote an important pro-American-military play (A Heartbeat to Baghdad, 2004), which was staged off Broadway. It was brave and beautiful and gone in a heartbeat. Opera librettist (The Ghosts of Versailles), playwright (As Is, 1986), and gay activist William Hoffman came up with the idea for short, outrageous improvisations for a theatrical touring company: Yiddish, blackface, whiteface, dangerous Jews, farce, maybe even a juggler or an acrobat. By 2005-6, a wealthy British gent hired a very famous, aging rock star (even I was impressed) to compose and arrange the lyrics for what was to be a fabulous anti-radical-Islam rock musical. Twice, he played the score-still-in-process for me. “But it’s all too dangerous to actually do, you know,” he said in a whisper.
Thus, nothing really came of these ideas — but now, there is a real (tattooed) flesh-and-blood, high-heels-on-the-ground kinda group which has begun to actualize this vision. And to take it so much further. Their name is Artists4Israel, and they are wonderful.
For those who can still remember what it was like when Beat poets first began to read their poems in coffee houses — the rhythm and excitement of it — welcome to the twenty-first-century version. Think poet (as in poetry slam, with its political-ethnic-gay aesthetic, its daring and poignancy); think stand-up comic, graffiti artist, musician, and break dancer; then, cross that energy and expressiveness with the skills of a playwright, a theater director, an actor, a ballroom dancer, a muralist, a painter, a photographer, a fundraiser, a lawyer who produces plays, and you begin to get a sense of what Artists4Israel is like.
The other night, I attended their debut theatrical presentation down on Bleeker Street. The theater had the obligatory coffee bar and café tables and chairs as well. The lobby had that excited, “crazy” energy of an opening night among people for whom “the play’s the thing.” Lawyer Racquel Reinstein co-produced the evening Love and Licenses, which consisted of two plays. One, At a Loss, was a staged reading which starred Equity actors Charlotte Cohn, Jason Odell Williams, Andrew Rein, and Norma Fire. The second play, Te Busco, mainly starred Amir Levi (who also conceived of the theater program), but Jason Najjoum (the ghost lover, if you will) danced as well as toyed with Levi’s character.
In both plays, the comedy was hilarious, and the acting and the choreography were superb, first-rate. The plays are serious — and yet comic too; neat trick, that. They’re both mystical, surreal, and yet could not take place anytime sooner than the 21st century. Charlotte Cohn spoke absolutely unaccented Hebrew — and absolutely unaccented English. She, and everyone else (Williams, Rein, Fire, Levi), all gave truly bravura performances. The characters are Israeli, American, Mexican, Christian, Jewish, gay, straight, trans-national, transgressive, perhaps even transgender. Amir’s character presents himself as his “mother’s daughter. … I am destined to be the next matriarch of my family.” Both plays quietly present characters who happen to be Jews and Israelis; no big deal. But in an era of the Lethal Blood Libel against Jews and against the only Jewish state, they humanize and integrate our people in the same way that so many other talented but previously marginalized groups have “branded” and glorified their “differentness.” Think: Bo Derek wearing blond Afro-braids.
These are real actors, real playwrights (Cohen and Williams, Levi), and real directors (DeLisa White, Shauna Horn), not propagandists.
This is precisely what Craig Dershowitz (not a relative), the president and producer, had in mind. “You don’t have to be Jewish to be pro-Israel. You don’t have to be Jewish to work with us. We are not a Jewish talent show. You have to be an artist and a good one. We do Art, not Propaganda.”
Craig is a lot younger than I am (I did not ask him his age). He wears his hair in a long and friendly ponytail and his arms are covered with tattoos. “Wanna see the angel Michael? Here he is.” (“Looks exactly like Gabriel to me,” said I, jokingly). “D’ya know who Ze’ev Jabotinsky was — here he is too,” Craig told me.
Artists4Israel is less than a year old. It has been something of a whirlwind year. The group came together when Operation Cast Lead and the propaganda fallout against Israel began.
(And, by the way, did anyone other than me notice that Egypt just wounded ten Palestinians. And that the Egyptians are building a wall to stop Hamas from smuggling arms into Gaza. Is that an “apartheid” wall? Is Herr Goldstone already working to denounce the disproportionate number of Palestinians wounded? And only one dead Egyptian. … Just a bitter aside of mine, pay it no mind).
According to Dershowitz: “Hamas started a culture war. We decided to be pro-active rather than defensive. … Artists 4 Israel is the offense. Rather than countering the misconceptions, lies and hates preached by the terrorist funded Hamas culture war against Israel, A4I utilizes the arts to tell our own stories and create our own narratives highlighting the rights, beauty and strength of Israel.”
Artists4I created pro-Israel posters and stood with them at the United Nations. Then, they stood outside a showing of the Rachel Corrie play and tried to arm theatergoers with some facts since they were about to be entertained by a very gripping series of Big Lies. Very quickly, Artists integrated themselves into the graffiti community, the downtown art gallery world, the world of street performers and political performance artists — and then, all youthful exuberant energy, they began a series of projects which almost defy description.
They developed the Fashion Police project. This consists of at least two or more “provocatively dressed” Artists patrolling the streets and “ticketing” any woman or man who is dressed “immodestly,” especially any woman who is wearing a short skirt or a tight top. What they give her is a consciousness-raising postcard about the “brutal crackdown” on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, Gaza, and Egypt. Were she dressed this way there, she’d be ticketed, probably beaten, hauled off to jail. Or worse. The “ticket” is actually a postcard addressed to the Royal Saudi Embassy.
Or take this project. “The Keffiyeh Exchange Program.” They have modeled this on NYPD’s Cash for Guns program. Artists4Israel is offering “free Stuff for Stupid Scarves.” With full respect for the diversity of customs in the Middle East, Artists is trying to make people aware that identifying with keffiyeh-wearers (which so many young Americans do at anti-American and anti-Israel demonstrations) also unfortunately may mean glamorizing or identifying with suicide killers, terrorists, and with ultra-leftists who are more than half-in-love-with-easeful-death, neither free spirits, nor life-loving.
Artists4I teaches art on campuses. Already, they have participated in Art Basel, which is the biggest art show in the world. They write: “Our talented team will be painting pro-Israel murals and participating in large concerts in conjunction with Art Whino.” Their inaugural event was “Bombin’ for Israel,” which took place at a downtown art gallery. Artists “collaborated with top urban art and culture magazine Bombin.” Four hundred people turned out for this event, braving snow and rain. Bombin’s publisher, Taylor Levin, said this: “A lot of these kids saw the World Trade Center fall and they see that Israel is being attacked by the same kind of terrorists. They hope that art can provide the moral clarity they don’t see in the press.”
Artists also has a monthly Life Drawing class (“Skin”), and they paint pro-Israel murals everywhere, meant to “speak to the communities where they are placed about Israel, art, and freedom.”
If this were not enough, Artists plans to visit Sderot to do “art therapy” with the rocket-traumatized children there. In fact, the proceeds from Wednesday evening’s performance on Bleeker Street are meant to pay for this trip.
Let me quote from three of their seven-point mission statement. Their mission is to “unite artists and showcase culturally relevant works which promote a positive image of Israel”; “counter misconceptions that the arts community does not stand behind Israel;” and “utilize the arts to counter misconceptions about Israel in the media and popular culture.”
They comprise nothing less than a dynamic, even profound cultural resistance to the demonization of Israel. The Living Theatre’s Judith Malina would love them — as would Peter Bergson, aka Hillel Kook, who tried to awaken American Jews to the unfolding tragedy of European Jewry via Broadway theater. To Bergson’s sorrow, he failed. Let us hope and pray that Artists4Israel succeed.
They may be reached at their website http://www.artists4israel.org/. Reach out. Join them. Invite them into your communities. Fund their work.
P.S. Racquel Reinstein, who is on the leadership board of Artists4Israel, tells me that she and Craig met through HRCARI (the group I just wrote about). She met Amir Levi through the Birthright Israel Diplomatic Fellow program.
Artists4Israel was founded by Craig Dershowitz, Tara Gordon, Seth Wolfson, Sarah Brega, Alicia Post, Marianne Pane, Brian Dershowitz, Brandon Margolis, and Jenny Kagan.