Artists 4 Israel: Shaping Politics With Pop Culture
“Artists 4 Israel is changing our perceptions of advocacy…and having an impact on our policy and style.” – Office of the Speaker of the Knesset
“Hamas Shifts From Rockets to Culture War” – Ethan Bronner, The New York Times
Those battling for Israel have to fight on many fronts, unfortunately. But there’s one front that is far more important than most people realize, and it is high time, I believe, that we start devoting more resources to it — popular culture.
Consider Black Lives Matter, the movement for Marriage Equality, the unexpected ascensions of Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama before him. To many, these were unpredictable overnight revolutions. But in fact they were neither unpredictable nor overnight. Instead, they were the foreseeable results of many years of cultural indoctrination and societal shifts brought forth by trends and tastes in pop culture and adopted, almost wholesale, by the youth.
“But followers of pop culture, the youth, are not important,” I was told by someone disinclined to fund one of my organization’s more radical programs. “They don’t make the big decisions.”
But this person didn’t understand that the young soon become older and that today’s pop culture soon becomes politics.
Many Israel advocates make the same mistake. While they and the bureaucracies that nurture them typically take a top-down approach, our culture is actually being moved forward bottom-up. While they work on (say) bringing politicians to visit Israel — important as that is — showmen and scenesters are setting in motion the trends that will soon bring about the next “overnight” transformation. Indeed, politicians answer to polls, but polls are the amalgamation of people’s popularly influenced beliefs.
I first noticed this after leaving a cushy job at Morgan Stanley to become Creative Director of a graffiti magazine. I had been observing a number of urban art forms. I saw the growing and disturbing trend towards anti-Israel sentiment in these cultural communities. There was visual art, music, and other mediums that glorified or romanticized terrorism.
For example, Wu-Tang clan — an incredibly popular and successful rap group — referred to their music as “PLO Style.” Busta Rhymes, a multi-platinum selling artist, talks about how he wishes he were “in a casino gambling Arafat,” while Lupe Fiasco says how he would “start a world war” for the children of Palestine. Consider how devastating these seals of affirmation could be when they get amplified through thousands of listens in the ears of millions of impressionable youth.
When Nicki Minaj declares, “Half my crew screams ‘Gaza,’” she means the Jamaica-based reggae sound system crew that named itself after the Hamas-controlled territory. Whatever the reggae gang’s alliances are, a positive and powerful association is thereby transmitted to your children and grandchildren through an art form that is far more moving than any well-crafted talking points. As the leader of the reggae movement says, “Me love Gaza because them nan give up.” Disturbing as it is to realize, this comment has no less substance than a presidential debate sound bite — and far more significance to the millions of impressionable youth who download the music and do not bother watching the debates.
These artists don’t produce the well-reasoned academic pieces of Israel’s greatest advocates. This isn’t Alan Dershowitz in a debate. But it is the far more sinister stuff that gets into the subconscious, that biases the listener and influences the next generation.
Anti-Israel art and culture is more dangerous, I believe, than even the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, partly because it’s more subtle, but also because it’s more powerful. Hip-hop, graffiti, tattooing — all of it — has a bigger sway over the thoughts and belief systems of our children than does anything they are taught in school or is published in The New York Times. If you don’t believe me, ask your children who Kim and Kanye are, then ask them who Ze’ev Jabotinsky was.
Then, let us learn from that.
My organization, Artists 4 Israel, is trying to do just this.
We have brought over 100 artists to Israel from over 20 different countries and 5 continents. The only thing stopping us from bringing 1,000 artists or 5,000 artists is finding the money to pay for the spray paint.
These artists come back from Israel and do pro-Israel work in their home countries. Those from America join us on college campuses and visit over 45 campuses a year to make pro-Israel art and give pro-Israel speeches.
None of this is done through trickery, brainwashing, or evil Zionist conspiracies as our critics will charge. It is done merely by offering these individuals an opportunity to see the country for themselves. Politicians, academics, students who typically take such trips — as important as they are — all come with agendas and return with little influence on others. But artists come with wide-open eyes, an ability to see things differently, a practiced sense of color beyond the simple black and white, and a powerful way of communicating what they experience while there. We ask nothing of them other than honesty and an open-mind. They give us that and more.
More importantly, they come with the power to do good — now. They paint giant murals in downtrodden communities, they beautify buildings beaten by rockets, they transform the physical landscape of the country. On a recent trip we brought street-wear fashion designers who gave away clothes to children in poor communities. Artists 4 Israel aims to directly and immediately benefit Israeli communities in need.
And, by doing so, we create advocates with a true passion for the work. This generation and the next are deeply inspired by doing good. What shapes modern movements is not only the popular culture and celebrities we have discussed but also a desire to achieve, to help, to leave a positive mark. Marriage Equality was a victory, a tangible achievement that we could point at and say, “look, better.”
So, too, is a painted wall and a clothed child.
Artists 4 Israel aims to broaden the advocacy community with its focus on influential youth subcultures and modern, urban, and contemporary art forms. By uniting these artists with humanitarian and social service projects, we aim to create positive social change, material benefit for all Israeli communities, and a legion of advocates that just might be the deciding factor in the cultural war.