On July 8th, I took a group of students from abroad to visit an amazing art gallery in an Israeli Arab town, which is famous—or infamous—for its “Islamic extremism” in this country. The town of Umm el-Fahem which is the largest Israeli Arab Muslim town in Israel, is situated in the Vadi Ara section of Israel, an area that saw a lot of rioting in October 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada. It is known in the Israeli media as the home of Shiekh Ra’ed Sallah, the leader of the northern wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, who just began another jail sentence (for 5 months) for attacking an Israeli policeman, and who was in the flotilla which tried to break the Israeli blockage of Gaza a few months ago.
Very few Jews go to Umm el-Fahem. It is perceived to be a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment and of potential violence. Yet, I had absolutely no problem in bringing a group of Jewish and Christian students from abroad who were studying with me in a course on COEXISTENCE this summer at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, to see first-hand this unique and impressive gallery in this quiet and peaceful town.
We were warmly welcomed there by Lilli Stern, who works in Resource Development and is an eloquent spokesperson in the wonderful art gallery called The Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery (www.ummelfahemgallery.org ), founded by Said Abu Shakra, with the blessings of the municipality of Umm el-Fahem and with support from Israel’s Ministry of Education. The idea of this gallery is to create a space where people can meet and have a cultural exchange. It is also a home for Palestinian artists from Israel and the territories. They host 3-4 major exhibits a year, and the current exhibit by Abed Abdi (a Palestinian artist from Haifa) which is beautiful and inspiring, is accompanied by a beautiful catalogue in Hebrew, Arabic and English, which I purchased for our ICCI library.
In addition, much community work is done in this beautiful space. Children from villages in the area come and meet artists, and there are activities here for youth at risk and for women’s empowerment. In addition, they do some wonderful special projects, such as a ceramics symposium, which got a lot of attention from Jews and Arabs in the area.
The sponsors of the museum are now dreaming (and fundraising) to build a full museum of contemporary art in this city, which would represent the first art museum in an Arab village in Israel! As a first-time visitor to this oasis of coexistence in the middle of Israel, I can only say that I hope that they succeed in this ambitious project.
If you haven’t visited the gallery in Umm el-Fahem yet, I urge you to do so. You will be treated to a very special educational and cultural experience, as were my students this summer.