In Defence of Using Art for Israel Solidarity

This semester Hasbara at York hosted three pro-Israel events that had a major artistic focus, and participated in one hosted by the student union. Each event was accompanied by some pro-Israel message or discussion, because only very rarely do we conduct programming that is purely recreational, without any educational component whatsoever. These events were:

Multicultural Week Visual Art Exhibit

January 25-29, Stong College

As part of the York Federation of Student’s Multicultural Week, Hasbara at York member Esti Kass submitted “Love at First Sight” to be exhibited all week long alongside pieces by fellow artists representing the other cultural groups participating.

Painting for Peace
February 1st, York Student Center

Co-Sponsoring Organizations: StandWithUs Canada, NCSY Alumni
At a price of $10 per person, students were given paint, a canvass, two hours of instructional painting lessons by Tanya Zbili Art, and a sushi dinner. The program ended with a presentation and a discussion about Israeli humanitarian aid from Zina Rakhamilova, national campus coordinator for StandWithUs Canada. $300 was raised for Save A Child’s Heart, an Israeli charity that provides cardiac surgery to children in need from all over the world.

Artists for Israel
March 14th, Central Square Upper Bear Pit
March 19th, Underground
Co-Sponsoring Organizations: StandWithUs Canada, Hasbara Fellowships Canada, The Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Canadian Freinds of Simon Weisenthal Center, Masa Israel Journey, Hebrew University

A live exhibition of two Israeli artists creating a master piece for students to sign after completion. Over 100 students from the general York University community came up to watch the exhibition and sign the work, leaving comments about their optimism for peace. Members of Hasbara at York would then engage them about Israel’s political realities, using educational literature provided by the co-sponsoring organizations. This also served as an opportunity not only for recruitment to the club, but also as a chance to advertise and sell tickets to our Tel-Aviv party, which generated some much needed revenue for the winter semester’s educational and political programming.

Make Your Mark
March 17th, York Student Center

At a price of $12 per person, students would enjoy a linoleum carving tutorial from Leonora Buskin, a fine arts and education student active in Hasbara at York. This was accompanied by a visual presentation of early Zionist history, and how the fine arts impacted the formation of a new kind of distinctly Zionist art form.

These events were not useless, self-congratulatory or ‘feminine’. While the educational content was not a hefty as hosting a speaker about Middle Eastern politics or a panel about the Jewish Exodus from Arab lands, these types of events, these events had their place in making this year Hasbara at York’s most active on record. And here is why:

1) Leaving the “Phantom Zone”
Zionism is all about showing up. We are finally showing up, out of diasporic exile and being seen in the eyes of the brotherhood of nations not as a wayward minority, but as a nation, equal among all else. It runs counter to the objectives of creating support for Israel by staying in exile, or this grey “phantom zone” I call the period of time between the up tick in anti-Israel violence at York to about 2013 when Jewish students started getting more active.

This is why we participate in Multicultural Week, even if its hosted by the most inhospitable student union that endorses the BDS movement. When we show up to the parade, the food fair, the tabling fair and even make a submission to the visual arts exhibit, we are making it known that we are Zionists and, like Israel herself, we aren’t going anywhere.

2) Enhanced Visibility
You and your group may have a great message. But if it isn’t seen or heard then how good it is matters not. What good is having pro-Israel events huddled within the confines of the Hillel office? If you want your message to be mainstream then you cannot uniformly preach to the choir. This is why we have a policy to avoid doing events in Hillel. We want to be seen, we want to use the student rooms that every other club does, and we want to be in the busy areas so we can engage as many students about Israel as possible. Presenting Artists for Israel in the Central Square accomplished this objective.

3) To Advocate!
Who cares that Artists 4 Israel is painting? It brought in over a hundred students who came to our exhibition and were exposed to a pro-Israel pro-peace message. Would a dunk tank or a fireworks display be any more or less dignified? Maybe at the end of the day all we got was a piece of art with some names and “peace is possible” scribbled on it. Defeating BDS will not happen overnight, but campus programming that utilizes the fine arts, when done correctly, gets us closer, not farther, to that goal.

4) To Have Fun!
York is a rough campus. We fight back by frequently putting on events and passionately educating about Israel’s predicament. But it certainly brings its fatigue and sometimes, at the end of a long semester, students want to take a night off of advocacy and studying to just paint, or have a blow out Tel-Aviv style party. We’re entitled. And if it raises money to conduct the other 20-something campus activities with a more political nature, even better.

Quality pro-Israel campus programming needs no justification (like, ever), especially against criticisms from individuals who did not attend these events. If a program attracts/retrains students, raises money for charity or advocacy, boosts pro-Israel visibility on campus, and opens the door to more pro-Israel programming, its a winner. Its unfair to disparage the work of these students because they aren’t in nature confrontational or designed to “deter Jew-hatred”. Building community comes first, and these events helped do just that.

Of course sitting around painting as a recreational activity bereft of any educational or political component cannot be called ‘advocacy’. However, when executed correctly with the requisite amount of pro-Israel content, and as part of a growing pro-Israel campus movement built over time, the fine arts can be an extraordinary asset to supporting Israel on campus.

About the Author
Willem Hart is a social science and Jewish studies student at York University in Toronto. He is an active member in the pro-Israel scene, and a lifelong disabilities service worker and advocate.