There is a cultural war being waged against Israel, and some defenders of the Jewish state are fighting back with cans of spray paint.
Three graffiti artists who support Israel — because Israel supports the arts — will descend on the University of Pittsburgh campus Thursday, Sept. 6, from noon until 5 p.m. with an interactive mural project inspired by Andy Warhol’s art.
New York City artists Col Wallnuts, BROKER and GlossBlack — all part of the group Artists 4 Israel — will create a giant pro-Israel mural on the Union Lawn, based on Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup can image, and its subsequent interpretation by graffiti artist and hip-hop personality Fab 5 Freddy.
The artists will teach students the basics of graffiti and ask them to sign their name to the promotional piece. They also will discuss the recent boycotts and struggles around arts in Israel and the Middle East.
A reception will follow at 6:30 p.m. at Eastside Gallery, 6401 Penn Ave.
The Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia is funding the project.
There is no shortage of artists protesting Israeli policies, or artists refusing to perform there. But while this summer saw the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker forbidding an Israeli publisher from releasing a Hebrew-language translation of her novel “The Color Purple,” and anti-Israel activists disrupting performances of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland, Artists 4 Israel has been combating negative perceptions of Israel with beauty — and facts.
The mission of Artists 4 Israel can be summed up by an aphorism on its website: “We are the security fence around cultural terrorism.”
Artists 4 Israel was launched by a small group of New Yorkers, including Craig Dershowitz, in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead. At the time, Dershowitz organized a pro-Israel graffiti show in New York that attracted 400 people.
“It was an incredibly diverse, young, artistic crowd,” Dershowitz recalled of those attending that first show. “I saw an opportunity to be the first to explain Israel to this young, influential crowd. Knowing there was a culture war against Israel — using arts to manipulate the truth — we thought we could use the arts to help Israel, so we went around educating as many artists as we could about Israel and its protection of their rights.”
Dershowitz set out explaining to various artists Israel’s record of promoting artistic expression, and contrasted it to the policies of some other Middle Eastern countries.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people already were influenced,” Dershowitz said. “I would even go so far as to say they were brainwashed against Israel. But I had no problem finding artists that support Israel, once they heard all the facts.”
Artists 4 Israel now has “a couple thousand artists that say they support Israel,” Dershowitz said.
One of those artists, Gregg Bruno, who goes by the name Col Wallnuts, says he is inspired by the determination of Israel to hang on in the face of its many challenges.
“Having many friends that are Jewish, and such amazing people, it was easy to [support Israel],” he said in an email to the Chronicle. “So much history and passion involved. It is very inspiring to me that no matter how hard and troubled times have been in Israel, they as a people do not waiver or deny their beliefs and their passion. I respect that!”
Artists for Israel has taken its graffiti program to universities across the country, including several in Pennsylvania. The program coming to Pitt, though, is unique.
“It will have a little bit more of a party aspect,” Dershowitz said. “A DJ will be coming, and having artists interpret the Warhol art will be specific to Pittsburgh.”
While the group has taken its shows to campuses from California to Florida, Artists for Israel is rarely confronted by anti-Israel protestors, Dershowitz said.
“How do you protest someone creating pretty pictures?” he asked. “Protesting us would prove our point.”
The Pitt program is sponsored by Panthers for Israel, in conjunction with Hillel Jewish University Center.
By showcasing Israel through the work of the graffiti artists, Panthers for Israel hopes to educate a wide-ranging demographic of Pitt students, said its president, Sam Mellits.
“A lot of the programs we do at Pitt are focused on people who already care about Israel,” Mellits said. “This program will open up Israel to a whole new segment of the population, to those who wouldn’t normally be reached.”
“With the graffiti, we’re not dealing with the [political] conflict, but with how Israel protects the arts as a democracy, how it protects the human rights of its citizens, ” he added.
Panthers for Israel is supported by Hillel JUC in bringing Artists 4 Israel to campus. Because the focus of the event is on the arts, and not politics, the pro-Israel message may appeal to a broader range of students, according to Aharon David, Herman and Helen Lipsitz Jewish Agency Israel Fellow.
“The Pitt campus is not very political, but there are pro-Palestinian groups,” David said. “We wanted to have an event saying ‘we’re supporting Israel, not politically, but artistically.’ It shows that with art, you can support Israel, but not deal with the [political] conflict. There is more to Israel beyond the conflict.”
In terms of advocating for Israel, Dershowitz said the art speaks for itself.
“We create beautiful works of art, with internationally famous artists, who are literally writing it on the wall,” he said. “This is about the idea of sharing art and having the freedom to make new art.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)