When a Culture Project Brings Jerusalem's Conflicted Communities Together, Things Get Real

The FeelBeit project is trying to harness art to forge ties between Jerusalem’s Jewish, Palestinian, secular and religious communities. Participants push each other’s most sensitive buttons – but the experience is transformative

Friday, January 7, 2022 | Haaretz | By Netta Ahituv

   When Zuhdi Najeeb, from East Jerusalem, was 18, he began working at a hotel in the city’s western (Jewish) part that catered primarily to the Haredi public. In addition to his job in reception and as a waiter in the hotel’s restaurant, he was the establishment’s “Shabbes goy” on weekends (performing tasks forbidden to observant Jews on the Sabbath). “I’d always been curious about the other side of the city, but it was only then that I came into contact with the ultra-Orthodox world, the world of people who live 10 minutes from me,” he relates. 

 

 

And then Najeeb, who is today 31, had two formative experiences. One night, as he left the hotel at the end of a shift, some people who, as he discovered afterward, were from the racist group Lehava, approached him and asked a question in Hebrew. Hearing his Arabic accent, they shouted to others in the group, “Here’s a ‘cousin’” (a Hebrew slang 
word for “Arab”), and threw a brick at his head. Najeeb fell to the ground and was treated by hotel staff. “That’s when I understood that I needed to be the invisible Arab, the good Arab, who speaks fluent Hebrew without an accent.”  

 

 

At the same time he also attended classes at the Arab American University, on the outskirts of Jenin, in the West Bank. Presumably because his car has yellow (Israeli) license plates, and some Palestinians thought he was a Jew, he had stones thrown at the vehicle. “I felt like I didn’t belong to either side, and that things would always be dangerous,” he says. Najeeb’s next job was at a West Jerusalem branch of a health maintenance organization. At first he felt relieved that he and his colleagues were all coming together with the same goal, to do their jobs, and were leaving their ethnic identity at home. “But after a time I felt that that wasn’t right, either – that you can’t just come to work and forget where you’re from. We’re not robots, we’re people.”

 

 

 The next sentence in Najeeb’s story is one that repeats itself frequently in conversations with people involved with Jerusalem’s cultural scene: “And then I met Naomi Fortis.” Working with Naomi Bloch Fortis, the center’s executive director, he says, was the first time his identity could achieve full expression. “Here it’s all right to speak Arabic, or Hebrew with an accent, here I am part of the place and belong to it, here the other wants to learn about me just as I want to learn about them,  here the relations are mutual – not in order to feel good about ourselves, but genuinely. This is the first time I’ve worked with Jews without feeling that they are stereotypes of Jews; here I am working with human beings. Here I feel that I am doing something for the other, for my people.” 

 

 

By “here,” Najeeb is referring to FeelBeit. “We are a ‘home’ that creates art and culture that allow all identities to be fully that creates art and culture that allow all identities to be fully that creates art and culture that allow all identities to be fully expressed,” Fortis, as the organization’s head, explains. “Our tool is art. We believe in its power. We have groups whose political power is limited, and art is their only tool for giving expression to new ideas.”

 

 

 

נעמי פורטיס

 

FeelBeit’s goal, then, is to integrate through artall the different Jerusalem communities – secular, Haredi, Arab and others. Its venue, reached via Naomi

Street, in the Abu Tor neighborhood, overlooking the Sherover Promenade, is a kaleidoscope of events and performances. “To try and define FeelBeit is something like explaining to someone who will never give birth what that experience is like,” says Yifat Shir-Moskovitz, a content producer at FeelBeit and a Jerusalem resident from childhood. 

 

 

Indeed, FeelBeit is many things. Let’s begin with its name – in Arabic it means “at home”; in English it’s written “feel” as an invitation to feel at home, and in Hebrew the word “beit” also refers to a home. As for what FeelBeit contains: It’s cultural center, club, restaurant, café, bar, workspace for all comers, Arabic and Hebrew school, a social venue for the exchange of ideas (a “salon”) and a hall available for rent. There’s an onsite recording studio that creates four regular podcasts for four different audiences: Hebrew, Arabic and English speakers, and Haredim (all of them are accessible at https://podcasti.co/mekudeshet-onair) There’s a performance stage, a generous terrace that overlooks the seamline between East and West Jerusalem and hooks up with the promenade, which looks out on one of Jerusalem’s most spectacular and thrilling panoramas. FeelBeit’s people are also the producers of the Mekudeshet music and art festival that is held annually in Jerusalem. 

 

 

“Just don’t write that this is a place of peace, coexistence and all that bullshit,” Apo Sahagian, a musician from the Old City’s Armenian Quarter shouts at me during a party at the site. What would you like me to write, I shouted back. “From my point of view,” he replies, “it’s a place that makes Jerusalem a little less crappy.” That idea is worded somewhat differently in the collective’s written mission statement: “We are aware that Jerusalem is far from being perfect or just. This is not new and it is difficult to rectify, but we believe we have the right and the obligation to try to make things better.”

 

 

Supplementing that aim, Itamar Doari, a resident of the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Zayit and FeelBeit’s musical director, says, “For me, FeelBeit is a space to create differently. It’s a house that reveals itself through those who come to it, attentively and with curiosity. It’s a space that makes possible exploration and development for different communities and diverse artists.” 

 

 

The model is that of a collective, with each member having a job description and, above all, a deep and committed sense of mission. As Riman Barakat, who oversees FeelBeit’s East Jerusalem department, and herself a local resident, says, “FeelBeit is a place that breaches fear, that allows us to see people eye to eye, to be surprised, to shatter stereotypes; it’s a place that warms the heart, but also shrivels it during tough conversations.” 

 

 

“It’s not an idea or a concept that came to someone, but something that was born on the fly,” says Bloch Fortis. A resident of Moshav Beit Yitzhak, near Netanya, she has the official title of executive director, but in practice is far more, serving as a real leader of the group. Its members are with admiration for her, and in almost every conversation they note how much she has changed their lives, or at the minimum their cultural-artistic approach. Prior to her arrival, Bloch Fortis was a dancer with the Bat Sheva company, and then for many years its director. Funding for FeelBeit, she says, comes from dozens of sources, some of them public and some of them philanthropic, foremost among the latter the Schusterman Family Philanthropies. It also generates income from activities. 

 

 

“We have made many active, physical efforts to get to know the Palestinian and Haredi communities,” Bloch Fortis says. “I arrived to manage the Jerusalem Season of Culture in 2010 [the prior name of the Mekudeshet festival], thinking that I was open, liberal, a lover of humanity, a person with broad horizons, well-intentioned. But Jerusalem schooled me. I understood very quickly that I needed to peel away more and more ideas about myself, to enhance my ability to listen. It was a shock at first, but very soon it became the most fascinating and meaningful journey of my life. 

 

 

“What is amazing in Jerusalem, and the reason I believe so strongly in this city, is that it constantly lights up blind spots of yourself,” says Karen Brunwasser, the American-born chief strategy officer of FeelBeit, who immigrated to Israel in 2005. “Walking around Jerusalem, you immediately encounter a reality that challenges your stereotypes, even if you think you are enlightened.”

 

 

For the past three years, FeelBeit has operated a Harediunit, whose ultra-Orthodox staff members seek to give voice to artists from the community. It also produces a podcast about arts and culture, and intended for Haredi women. “Our many attempts to create a bridge to the Haredi community were very painful, doors were shut in our face all the time,” Bloch Fortis recalls. “When the door was finally opened to us, it was a discovery with a great deal of mutual emotion and joy. The disconnect between secular and Haredi in Israel is very large, and the anger and hatred are a bleeding wound in all of our lives. Getting to know each other and working together are very healing.”

 

 

An example of a product of the Haredi unit is a sound work by an artist from the Bratslav Hasidic community who is studying the subject of solitude and private parlance with God in text and music. “It took a lot of background work and confidence building,” says the musician, conductor and artist Emmanuel Witzthum, FeelBeit’s head of creative development. “I sat with the Haredi department in order to understand the background, the language and the target audience. For example, many of them don’t have smartphones, so how will they listen to the work? We needed to find solutions, and we did it with MP3 players.

 

 

” The events for Haredi audiences, which take place at the house, are one of the biggest tests for the openness of the Feel-Beit staff, because they are gender-separate – either for men or for women – which means that half the personnel of the Season of Culture, most of whom are also secular, have to absent themselves. “With all my feminism, I needed exactly five minutes to be persuaded that we need to hold separate events here,” Fortis says in response to criticism of that decision. “There is no way that a Haredi woman will present her work to a mixed audience. That’s how she was brought up and that’s the way she feels good. And if we don’t create platforms, she will not have the possibility to present, and that art won’t happen.” 

 

 

Witzthum adds that he too accepts this situation, “because I understand that in order to create true multiculturalism, you need to learn how to live amid this contrariness and also to come to terms with your absence. It’s not easy, but I don’t want to impose my world of liberal values on them; I want to grow a strong cultural community that will exist within Haredi society.” 

 

 

‘Something happened to me here’ There are almost always people in FeelBeit. During the day the staff is there and also occasional visitors, who come for meetings with the latter, or just to see the new place or use it as a caféstyle 
workspace. One morning, I find Yifat Shir-Moskovitz, a lifelong Jerusalem denizen, in a corner with Gil Rouvio and Saar Gamzu, both residents of Tel Aviv. Rouvio, whose background lies in music and radio, came to Mekudeshet eight years ago and is now its director of communications and an artistic contributor. “Jerusalem is a city that keeps you on edge and gives you an opportunity to escape the routine,” he says. “We hear a lot of people say something like, ‘I’ve lived in Jerusalem for 40 years and I never knew that these kinds of people or things existed.’ It’s a great privilege, because not everyone who is engaged in art gets this sort of feedback.” 

 

 

Shir-Moskovitz is in charge of one of the items most closely associated with the Mekudeshet festival, “Dissolving Boundaries,” in which around 50 participants set out on a surprise journey. They don’t know where they are going or how they will get there. In the course of five hours, accompanied by an audio guide, they make five stops around the city, following the personal story of a Jerusalem resident. At the end of the journey they meet the person whose story they heard. “We constantly asked ourselves whether this is art or life itself, and where the seamline between them runs,” Shir-Moskovitz says. “Imagine a Haredi woman hosting a Palestinian from the eastern part of the city in the stations of her life, and vice versa. Bringing that to fruition was difficult, there was a great deal of suspiciousness, we received numerous negative replies from people and organizations that declined to host the participants. It felt like I myself was embodying Jerusalem’s disparities. But in many senses, these journeys were our organization’s school. The one difference is that now we bring people to us and don’t bring them to be hosted by others.” (“Dissolving Boundaries” generally offered seven different tours per year, and the event is always sold out.) 

 

 

Gamzu came to Mekudeshet nine years ago with a background in public relations. He thought he would assist in organizing a few festivals that summer, and then move on to other things, but he was drawn in and stayed. “It isn’t natural for me to be in Jerusalem, I am very much a Tel Aviv person,” he notes. “Many of us underwent a process in which art, however interesting and important it is, went from being the thing itself to a tool toward the thing itself. What’s important now are the processes that we undergo through artistic work. That is also what we are trying to transmit to the audience through our communications, along the lines of ‘Something happened to me here, and I think it would be worth your while, too.’”

 

What happened to you?
Gamzu: “Personally, I entered into a dialogue with the Jewish, Israeli and Mizrahi components of my identity. It didn’t happen when I was active alongside my liberal, universalistic peer group. But here, thanks to the encounters with artists and with people different from me, it became of interest. That’s why it’s difficult to communicate what FeelBeit is. It’s not a product, you don’t buy a ticket here for a concert. It’s a place that might leave you frustrated, maybe you’ll bang your head against the wall, you’ll get into bitter arguments, you’ll meet people who from the moment you meet them will push your most sensitive buttons. The fact is that many things will happen here that will confront you with yourself.”

 

Can you give an example?

“Let’s say I meet someone from La Familia [ultranationalist group of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team] – one of them came to an event of ours and got into a highly charged conversation. But it’s the La Familia man who succeeded in illuminating something for me that was obscure until now. Or, when parties are held here with people from East Jerusalem, and I, who am part of the ruling class in this country, arrive, but I am not the sovereign now. The privilege of being a Jew in Israel, which is always invisible to me, collapses in a second. It is a jolting experience. And that is what the Arabs experience all the time. Everyone here gains from these meetings, because each person goes back to their own community with the cargo [they picked up at] the meeting and then enriches the communities we live in.”

 

Absurd reality

In mid-November 2021, FeelBeit officially became a yearround physical venue and not just a seasonal arts festival. Since then the site has been inundated with events, each earmarked for a different target audience. One Friday evening the Palestinian public was invited to view a video work by the Palestinian-Israeli artist and actress Raida Adon, which was followed by a conversation with her. About 50 people were present, the majority from East Jerusalem and a few from Bethlehem – the FeelBeit team was thrilled at having been able to draw an audience they have been struggling to reach for some time. Some of them arrived in religiously modest garb, others in secular attire. Following the conversation, the singer Tamar Shawki performed traditional Arab music, including songs of Fairuz and Umm Kulthum. She was followed by deejay Nizar, who swept up the dancers in the crowd.

As befits a group of artists, the activities in FeelBeit are always followed by a session of feedback and self-critique. In the staff meeting that analyzed the events that had launched the house, the Palestinians noted that they had been concerned that a problem would arise because a Jewish singer (Shawki) was singing Arab musical classics. “Many Arabs find that strange and problematic, but the moment you hear her, it all melts away,” Najeeb told the group.

 

 

Despite the meticulous attention that is paid to all the details of everything taking place at FeelBeit, the absurd political reality of Jerusalem in which they operate nevertheless intrudes. One of the sound technicians that same evening – who came from an outside company – wore a T-shirt marking the end of a stage in basic training in the army. “I saw that and my head started to spin,” Bloch Fortis told the staff meeting. “All the thought we’d put into that evening so Palestinians would feel at home, and in the end some guy is wandering around here in an IDF T-shirt. I asked Apo [Sahagian] to gently offer him another shirt he could change into, but he told me, ‘This is life here, we’ll have to get along.’ I realized that it was impossible to create a hermetically sealed situation, and I felt proud that the house could contain everyone.”

 

 

She adds, “I also know that the most joyful moments are those in which there is a mixture of publics. In the end, a woman from Bethlehem in a hijab and I danced together, with me holding a glass of alcohol in one hand. It’s only here that something like that could happen.” A large number of non- Israelis and diplomats attended the opening events, she notes, “and that’s understandable, because cosmopolitan places are sexy – oops, sorry, I said ‘sexy,’” Bloch Fortis says, smiling at the Haredi women in the room.

 

 

In line with a site that contains so many different stories, the building itself also has a personal story. Gita Sherover, the philanthropist who underwrote the construction in 1989 of the promenade named in memory of her son, Gabriel (a segment of the Armon Hanatziv Promenade) built a restaurant here with
the thought that Arabs and Jews would avail themselves of it on the boundary line between the two parts of the city. Today the separation wall is visible from the terrace. Following a knifing attack in this section of the promenade during the second intifada, in 2002, when a young woman, Moran Amit, was stabbed to death by several Palestinian teens from the adjacent mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Abu Tor, this bit of the promenade remained relatively deserted, and finally the restaurant shut down. The building stood empty for 15 years, “until Naomi Fortis arrived,” the staff laugh.

 

 

“The minute we saw the place, it was clear to us that it had been waiting just for us,” Fortis says. (The organization is renting the building.) “In one fell swoop we revised our strategy from being an organization that mounts a festival to one that maintains a house. It is very moving to return to the place that Gita built and to run it as she had envisioned. We are standing on very broad shoulders. Her intention can be felt here in every step, you can really feel her love for the landscape and the terrain. This is a very precise and intentioned place. It is a house that offers hospitality.” 

 

 

The Mekudeshet staff – who today number 18 – received the keys to the structure in March 2020, and managed to hold two inaugural events – one Palestinian, in which salt was scattered for good luck, and one Jewish, a mezuza-affixing ceremony – before the coronavirus epidemic struck with all its force and the country basically shut down. But a minor event like a lockdown didn’t stop the FeelBeit folks from continuing to maintain their shared life of the spirit. Twice a week they studied together via video – a talk about the history of the Sherover Promenade, a lecture about the significance of the Abraham Accords, an online cooking workshop and the like. The content kept growing, and the acquaintanceships paradoxically grew more intimate, because now the staff saw via the computer screen the homes of their colleagues and met their families.

 

 

“On the one hand, the epidemic did a number on our financial plan, but on the other, it gave us a grace period to come together as a team who could make this their home before they opened the door to guests,” says Bloch Fortis. At the conclusion of the third wave, a year ago, the time came to return to the house and furnish it. Almost naturally, the team decided that the furniture would not come from an outside firm but from the staff. The living room furniture is from the Barakat family, a portrait of Bloch Fortis’ great-grandmother hangs on the wall, and so forth. The few office walls are transparent; most of the work is done on laptops placed on furniture that is shifted around to follow the sun’s rays during the day.

 

 

 The Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes a constant and disturbing backdrop for the activity that takes place in the warm atmosphere of the house. “We don’t have a five-year plan for [resolving] the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says Gamzu. “We are in a process of our own, and are committed to that alone. There have also been periods when we went a lot of steps in reverse. When Jerusalem begins heating up, it’s difficult for Palestinians to meet with us [Jews], and the climate in the house changes. The truth is that it’s not easy for me to come here, either – only the commitment to the process makes me invest the effort. Maybe the Jerusalemites among us won’t agree with me, but it’s hard to be in Jerusalem. It’s not an easy city. It’s not that everyone here has a [vision of a] utopian Jerusalem and that is the glue that binds us. What does connect us is that we are all against the status quo, we’re not ready to accept it.”
 
 

Malki Amir Danon, who manages FeelBeit and is largely in charge of the Mekudeshet festivals, was born in Jewish West Jerusalem and still lives there. She speaks about the place as an experimental process whose results are not yet known to the participants, still less to the two conflicted peoples whom they represent. “FeelBeit is above all a very courageous and exceptional step in the realm of culture,” she avers. “Personally, I often feel that I need to shake off conceptions, fixed ideas and prior knowledge, and remind myself that an experiment is being conducted here, something that wasn’t done before and by its nature arouses fears alongside curiosity and expectations.”

 

 

 Jerusalem space, unbounded A vibrant cultural scene exists in East Jerusalem, and Feel-Beit has set itself the challenge is to bring both the artists and the audience from there to the house on the seamline. Riman Barakat is in charge of ties with artists from East Jerusalem, a task that entails thorough and sometimes exhausting fieldwork to build trust. In an era in which anti-normalization is the dominant tone among Palestinians – that is, boycotting any of their own who is seen as collaborating with the Israeli establishment – it’s hard to convince artists that FeelBeit is a “different” organization, not one that only cloaks itself in a cover of coexistence for image purposes.

 

 

 In 2017, they managed to produce their first major joint event of and for Israelis and Palestinians – both artists and audiences. It was a series of large-scale musical concerts called “Kulna” – meaning “all of us” in Arabic, but also evoking the Hebrew word of the same meaning, “kulanu” – which sought to imagine a Jerusalem space without boundaries. The concerts included dozens of Israeli and Palestinian musicians from different communities who sang and played in various languages and genres.

 

 

“Kulna was our shout to the outside,” Barakat says. “It’s the amazing Middle East we dream of, with a spectacular display of the diverse identities in Jerusalem: Palestinian, Israeli, Druze, former-Ethiopian musicians. In Kulna, which was held in Mitchell Park,” opposite Jaffa Gate. That’s a site generally frequented by Jewish audiences from West Jerusalem, but this event, she says, was also attended by Palestinians, “and that was a significant moment, with the Nation-State Law being enacted in the background.”

 

 

 

Working alongside Barakat is Najeeb, who as head of media affairs for East Jerusalem, has the job of articulating what FeelBeit is doing for the Arab public. “It’s hard to communicate it to the outside, I won’t deny it,” he says. “Sometimes people say I am implementing normalization. But that’s not the case, because we don’t hide the complex reality. We aren’t turning the abnormal into the normal, but are acting from within the abnormality of this city in an attempt to create a more acceptable reality.”

 

 

What’s it like to be identified with the occupier, whom others want to boycott, I ask Naomi Bloch Fortis. “I am not offended,” she replies. “I am against boycotts, but I understand the need to oppose the normalization of the conflict. As a cultural organization, we decided jointly not to operate according to what is ‘permitted’ and what is ‘forbidden.’ We are creating a reality of the sort we believe in and not playing by the rules of others.”

 

 

 

Najeeb agrees. “The time will come when FeelBeit will be a place to which everyone feels they belong, I have no doubt. I believe that every person contains good within them, and if there are any people who have a prospect to bring out the good in every person, it’s the staff here at FeelBeit.