Israel Festival, Jerusalem

EFA Festival in Focus | Simon Mundy, in interview with Eyal Sher, General Director of the Israel Festival, Jerusalem looks at the festival’s history and current success

There are few festivals in the world that face such a complicated set of challenges as the Israel Festival. Even without the aggravations that beset most, a liberal arts festival in Jerusalem, dedicated to cutting edge and provocative art in any discipline, is confronted with an historical and political context which makes its continuing success and daring all the more remarkable

The first challenge is not the fragility of peace but the uncompromising and shifting demographics of the city. As well as reflecting the sensitivities of being sacred to three related but exclusive local religions with global adherents, Jerusalem now has to deal with the way this has translated into social deprivation. Eyal Sher, the festival's General Director, says, “Out of a population of 850.000 we have 190.000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom do not work for religious reasons, and 260.000 Palestinian Arabs for whom the festival fare is somewhat foreign to the culture.” Of the other 400.000 there has been an economic and professional shift away from the city.

“Many of Jerusalem's intellectual and cultural elite have moved since the 1980s, most to the coast and to Tel Aviv which is more modern and less complicated politically. So Jerusalem has become very poor, very heavily burdened and so challenging to work in artistically but exciting too. Its centre is ancient and beautiful – and if there was no conflict we could just celebrate its diversity – but everything you do in this city has another dimension.”

© Guy Yechiely

The Israel Festival itself did not originate in Jerusalem. It was founded in 1961 in Caesaria, the coastal town by the sea between Tel Aviv and Haifa that had been built by King Herod and turned into the provincial Roman capital of Judea by the Emperor Vespasian but abandoned after the Crusades until it was refounded in the 1950s. The festival was started to host classical music events in Caesaria's superb Roman amphitheatre. Given the viciousness with which Vespasian and his son Titus subjugated the province over more than a decade, it is perhaps surprising that the newly established republic of Israel should want to restore the Caesaria 750 years after its dissolution. Less surprising though, that the festival should have moved to Jerusalem within a few seasons. 

The move was made by the then new mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, just before Israel took control of the whole city in the Six Days War of 1967. It remained a music festival until the 1980s, when it began to have a more multi-disciplinary character and now it prides itself on the breadth of work in the programme. “In the early years,” says Eyal, “the festival was the only way to see really international fare but, just as everywhere else, the offering has become much bigger and the festival has continually to reinvent itself to keep central and relevant, both locally and to the wider world.”

“It is the trend now that the traditional barriers [between art forms] have gone. We are seeking new stage languages. So we have to ask, who speaks the universal language; who can bring it to the stage?”

© Dudi Saad

The programme in recent years has focussed far more on providing events that “have no commercial business model because they are not defined yet. They are just more up-to-date, daring, thought provoking. We can use our subsidy from the city to cut through the labels.”  Eyal feels that it is impossible to set out to bring together all the disparate elements of the Jerusalem audience and that to try to do so by presenting folkloric aspects of each would not have any artistic integrity. Instead he sees the job of the three weeks of the festival (1-18 June this year) as to present outstanding quality and “to become relevant to the cultural consumers, the students, the intellectuals and academics. Once that is taken care of you can start building the other audiences. There will always be barriers. Our art opens itself to a limited target audience so we try to widen it but at the end it will remain limited. The mainstream doesn't need us.”

Jerusalem has become a very difficult place for contemporary performance artists to base themselves, Eyal feels, whether they come from the Jewish or the Arab communities. “East Jerusalem (the mainly Palestinian half) isn't at the same place in terms of generating or consuming contemporary secular culture for many reasons, and on the Jewish side everything is further complicated by the political situation. Inevitably more of the art that has freedom to experiment comes from outside. The wall between communities has mostly stopped the bombings but at a cost.” He says that just as Jewish intellectual life has migrated to Tel Aviv, so the Palestinian has moved to Ramallah, “so very little is developing organically here any more.”

© Sammi Landweer

Even if he could bring in artists and audiences from the Arab community they would have, as he says, “an understandable problem of coming to something called the Israel Festival. In terms of understanding the work we offer we have to have education in the process. At the moment there are no habits and no tools. What we have to do, therefore, is to see our role as an educator and to build a bridge to the art.”

The festival does that by dividing its shows between those that are ticketed, and so aimed at its core audience, and those that are staged in a public place. When a stage is erected in the main square Eyal says, “what happens is all the good clichés; people from every part of the community come there and watch, at ease with each other. If you put a band or any piece of theatre in the street people will stop but it has to be good. We are not out here to serve ourselves. My goal is to engage people but to do so by standing behind artistic truth; to continually renew the environment in which we work. That means that at any moment we have to stand up to Muslim and Ultra-Orthodox conservatives and on occasion the Minister of Culture.”

“The festival is going through a really interesting process at the moment; of taking things to the next step and seeing how hungry people are for the new.”

© Lucie Jansch

Further Information on the Israel Festival, Jerusalem

Founded in 1961, Israel's premiere multi-disciplinary international festival takes place annually in the spring, presenting outstanding international theatre performances, contemporary dance and classical music, along with outstanding original Israeli works and open to the public street performances. The Israel Festival provides an important platform for inter-cultural encounter and dialogue. The festival collaborates with the leading art academies, professional guilds and independent artists for the organisation of master classes and post performances discussions.
The 57th edition of the Israel Festival (23 May – 9 June 2018) will continue to build on the Festival's strong brand recognition, uncompromising quality and prestige, while further introducing an innovative and compelling cross-disciplinary artistic program, catering to the festival traditional audience and to new, younger crowds, students and professionals.


General Director: Eyal Sher
Artistic Director: Itzik Giuli
T: 00972 2 5611438
P.O.Box 4409, 9223310 Jerusalem


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