LONDON – As hundreds of thirty-somethings swayed to the pulsating beats of Infected Mushroom in London’s Roundhouse theater, little did they know they were taking part in a bold, new and positive approach to combating Israel delegitimization.
As one of the most touted acts in the TLV in LDN festival, the Israeli duo Friday night was part of the largest cultural exchange Israel has had with another country.
The festival, which spanned five days across multiple venues in the city, showcased the diversity of Israel. Renowned concert pianist Gil Shohat, Dana International and Israeli-Arab singer/songwriter Mira Awad are just some examples of Israeli artists who decided to spend the better part of the week being cultural ambassadors of Israel.
“There’s so many artists in Israel, but we wanted to choose the ones that are renowned around the world. Unlike Shlomo Artzi, who would attract Israelis and Jews, we wanted names we know will attract people from all over,” Tali Tzemach, the TLV in LDN artistic director, said.
It was a strategy that paid off, as the crowd at the Infected Mushroom event and the TLV “beach” party that followed felt like the UN in a nightclub. Polish, Italian and, of course, English were some of the voices that were heard in between songs.
“I think it’s really cool,” Valentina, an Italian living in London, said when asked what she thought of coming to an Israeli festival. “You always hear of DJs from America or London, so it’s great to support someone from a smaller, lesser-known country.”
And it’s exactly people like Valentina that the festival hoped to target.
“BDS is not the central element here,” Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan told The Jerusalem Post. “We’re coping with the boycott battle, but this is about a greater issue: How does the next generation relate to Israel? Are we a country that is always just associated with military conflict, or are we a country that has a rich, joyful culture that is extremely varied and diverse?” Talk of the festival began over two years ago, when former ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub approached London’s mayor at the time, Boris Johnson, about doing something celebratory between the UK and Israel to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
Taub enlisted the help of British philanthropist and businessman Marc Worth to help get the festival off the ground. Worth, the co-founder of the World Global Style Network, a fashion trend-forecaster, quickly jumped on the opportunity to combine his two greatest passions: Israel and art.
“I was looking for something to do on the philanthropic side, and to combine my love of Israel with the arts was too good an opportunity to miss,” Worth said.
He sees the festival as chance to change the narrative about Israel that is dominant in the foreign media.
“People think if they go to Israel they’re going to walk into a war zone,” he said. “But people don’t really understand what Israel is all about.”
Although a festival – even of this magnitude – can’t sway the millions of people in London, it is an attempt to move the needle for people who are curious about the country and have an open mind.
“This event represents community and culture, and the food is incredible, and it seems really family orientated. I guess, if this is a reflection of Israel, then it’s a great place to be,” Emily, a working actor in the city, said while sampling one of the many dishes created by chef Shaul Ben Aderet at the festival’s food market on Saturday.
Saturday and Sunday were truly a family affair, as students both Jewish and non-Jewish learned Krav Maga, spent time with the Israeli drumming band Mayumana, baked honey cakes and created Israeli chocolate at daylong workshops.
“We want to broaden their horizons and see as many perspectives as possible,” Ian Botterill, a teacher at the Lister Community School in east London, said of the 40 students from his school who attended the festival. “I think it’s really important that our students are exposed to different opinions, and there’s always people trying to polarize a debate. We want our students to be able to develop a body of knowledge that will enable them to make their own decisions.”
The festival proved to be a teachable movement for Jewish children as well.
“It’s almost Rosh Hashana! If I don’t know how to make these honey cakes, how will my children know how to make them one day?” said doe-eyed six-year-old Amelie of the Akiva primary school, when asked why she thought her parents and teachers felt it was important for her to be there that day.
Non-Jewish students were surprised to hear tales of the diversity in Israel, as figures like judoka world champion Yarden Gerbi and Shohat regaled them with their personal stories Saturday morning.
Of course, not everyone could be convinced – certainly not the small crowd of BDS protesters who created a bit of a stir on Saturday afternoon. After a few moments of confrontation with pro-Israel activists, Ben Aderet arrived with chocolate mousse in hand as a piece offering. Some took the chocolate delight happily, others refused, claiming it was “probably poisoned.”
There were members of the Jewish side who couldn’t get on the Israel diversity train either. One attendee of Awad’s lecture, where she openly talked about her identity as both a Palestinian and an Israeli, walked out mumbling “It’s not right,” after hearing of Awad’s dual identity. “You can’t be both!” she shouted at the singer, before walking out of the room in a huff.
Considering that a festival of this nature was the first of its kind, Erdan is impressed with how it was run and is contemplating the possibility of more festivals like this in the future across Europe.
“This is a process and a long-term struggle,” he said. “I asked my ministry to prioritize where the most urgent places are. In Europe, the situation is urgent. Why? First, you have a large Muslim population that are active against Israel. Second, we don’t have a large Jewish community like in America, so we need to empower them,” he said.
“We wanted to break down barriers, we wanted people to get to know each other. We have different languages, but ultimately we’re all the same and we’re all human beings – we need to get to know each other,” Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev, said.
The writer was a guest of the festival.