A Conversation With Craig Dershowitz

Craig Dershowitz.
Craig Dershowitz.

By Kathryn G. Menu

Artists 4 Israel Executive Director Craig Dershowitz — who will give a presentation this weekend in East Hampton — talks about how the non-profit uses art for social change, and to help give a voice to Israel.

On December 11, you will be giving a presentation on Artists 4 Israel at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons. Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of this organization and what its goals are?

Artists 4 Israel was founded, accidentally, in 2009 by a small group of outsiders to the Jewish and Israel advocacy community during the Gaza War of that year. We hosted a small gallery show on the Lower East Side to raise money to help buy bomb shelters in Israel. The gallery show displayed a number of pieces of art that asked the artist to represent their perception of Israel. Hundreds of people came and these were young, cool, diverse New York trendsetters who had never experienced an Israel related event before. We realized quickly that we had a chance and an obligation to this community to be the voice of Israel. Since the, we have undergone a constant evolution to being an organization that focuses both on telling the Israel story and for doing on the ground, humanitarian and social projects in Israel that leave lasting and permanent wonder. We beautify communities with giant murals, tattoo over the scars of terror survivors and prevent PTSD. We believe that social action creates global advocacy.

As part of the presentation, you will be working with students in the Gates of Jewish Learning to create Healing Arts kits. What are Healing Arts kits?

The Healing Arts Kits are an emergency, psychiatric first aid kit designed to slow or stop the onset of new cases of post-traumatic stress disorder of Israeli children living through war, terror or other crises situations.

You have been lauded for your advocacy work through the arts. For you, how did art become a tool for social change?

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I was very much involved in the civil rights and African-liberation movements. I saw art as a motivating force for in the struggle for people looking to overcome oppression and intolerance. Once, at a rally, I heard a group singing “Go Down Moses” and I realized that Moses was a Jewish character quite central to our story of returning to Israel. Our people had a beautiful and long history of finding comfort in song, food, art and other elements of culture to heal ourselves and push forward. Since co-founding Artists 4 Israel, each new success spurs the next and I am constantly reinforced with the notion that art can influence society more greatly than anything else. A rocket can explode a building but with a few cans of spray paint, we can bring that building back into life.

Another initiative by Artists 4 Israel, “Healing Ink,” brought tattoo artists to Israel to tattoo soldiers in an effort to hide battle scars. Where did that idea come from? How has it been received?

Artists 4 Israel has been wanting to do this tattoo program for a while but were very concerned about how it would be received in the Jewish world so we held off. Recently though, someone reminded us how controversial our graffiti program was at first too and we decided if controversy was our thing, so be it. As long as we knew would be helping people, that mattered more. The response has been overwhelming! I wake up everyday to WhatsApp messages from those we tattooed telling us how we have changed their life. How they were scared to look in the mirror before because of their scars and now they are joyous when they see themselves with their new artwork and ready to live again.

How do you hope to see the organization evolve in coming years? Are their new initiatives or projects you hope to introduce?

The organization is evolving its international component. We have worked with artists from 21 different countries by bringing them to Israel. Now it is time to bring Israel to these countries.

An Artists 4 Israel presentation by Craig Dershowitz will be held on Sunday, December 11 from 10 a.m. to noon at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, 44 Woods Lane in East Hampton. For more information, visit jcoh.org or call (631) 324-9858.