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Culture in Al-Quds

Challenges and Future Prospects Are Unpredictable, Unless…

By Rania Elias

Jerusalem Festival 2022. Photo courtesy of Yabous archive.

A dvertisements and social media news seem to indicate many different cultural and artistic programs in the occupied city of Al-Quds (Jerusalem), specifically during the summer period. They range from exhibitions to festivals, musical and dance performances, film screenings, and book launches as well as workshops and training sessions, in addition to steady music teaching. At first glance, this implies that the city is teeming with artistic events and living a normal life. It appears as if there are active cultural institutions with large budgets, sufficient staff, specialized cadres, and administrative and technical capabilities that allow them to operate without problems, difficulties, or challenges. But the reality is very different. These active and genuine Palestinian cultural institutions in Al-Quds struggle to face the challenges that they are confronted with and must overcome on their own. Actually, they are buying cultural time and identity in the city, doing what the late Faisal Al-Husseini initiated 30 years ago when he advised that Palestinians “buy time in Jerusalem,” showing steadfastness until a just resolution is reached.Many Palestinian institutions in Jerusalem share goals but vary in their approach and focus. They aim to preserve the identity of Al-Quds, our capital, revive its cultural life, and support the steadfastness of its inhabitants. In addition, they may pursue artistic and qualitative goals and engage to uphold artistic standards. Believing in their cultural mission, idea, and objective, these institutions boast many success stories and tangible achievements, but the challenges they face are enormous. However, solutions can be developed to maintain what exists. At this stage, their work is all about steadfastness, so as not to collapse, shut down, or – the most dangerous condition, for sure – merge and succumb to Israelization.

The aim of Israeli cultural and community centers that operate in the heart of the capital with readily available budgets is to gradually eliminate Palestinian cultural centers.

The main obstacles are political and result from the practices of the Zionist occupier that harasses active cultural centers and prosecutes their management as well as cultural activists, artists, journalists, and influencers. Under any pretext, Israel uses methods that include raids, arrests, the confiscation of equipment, the closing of bank accounts, the imposition of enormous taxes, including property tax, and the refusal to issue so-called good management certificates to prevent institutions from engaging in their activities. In addition, Palestinian institutions are prevented from building or rehabilitating their premises due to the complexities and high cost of obtaining licenses. They must operate under a racist regime that always pursues one goal: to shut down the active Palestinian national cultural institutions in Jerusalem and to keep fragile bodies in line with the policy of the city’s occupier.

Maqamat Al-Quds.

These continuous attempts can be countered through legal follow-up, which requires legal and political awareness, the provision of continuous legal support, and legal bodies capable of fighting battles within their judicial system. But the question is always:
“اشكي لمين والقاضي غريمك” (To whom should I complain, when the adversary is the judge?). In addition to media, human rights, and local and global cultural campaigns, a local and global protection network is needed to address, support, and protect cultural institutions. Al-Quds needs continuous legal and actual financial support to strengthen the steadfastness of its people and institutions.

Most dangerous is that the occupier has been seeking for years to create cultural and community centers that are managed by Palestinians and located in Palestinian neighborhoods yet supported by the occupation municipality and its funding. The threat they pose is due to the fact that their goals and mission are mainly to weaken the identity and cultural awareness of the Palestinians who live in Al-Quds in order to have them become part of the system of the occupation. This can be seen in the policies and plans of the occupation’s various bodies that include the national government and its ministries and the local municipality. The goal is that these “Israeli” community centers become an alternative form to replace national Palestinian institutions in Al-Quds. Large cultural centers have been constructed and others will be built soon, such as in the city center next to the municipal library, near Al-Zahra Street and Salah Al-Din Street. They receive very high financial allocations that cannot be matched by Palestinian cultural institutions. It is hoped that the latter will disappear, crushed by the budgets, programs, and cultural facilities established by the occupation in the city.

The Arab Orchestra.

This situation requires a vibrant reaction from Palestinian cultural and noncultural institutions. The general public, artists, and institutions must be educated about the dangers of fusion and collaboration with Israeli cultural centers that implement programs and agendas that aim to Judaize Al-Quds. Addressing this situation also requires clear Palestinian budgets and plans that enable Palestinian institutions to endure with determination and to follow up on their programs without being preoccupied by the logistic and legal issues inflicted on them by the occupation with the aim of exhausting Palestinian cultural institutions administratively, financially, and logistically. Such legal issues come in addition to the high operating expenses in Al-Quds that include rent, taxes, and salaries. Arnona (property tax) is exorbitant, and minimum salaries are 5,400 shekels in Jerusalem. Most Palestinian cultural institutions in Jerusalem do not own their property, even if they have done restoration and rehabilitation work on it, and they are obliged to pay the high rents found in Jerusalem that can amount to US$100,000 annually, sometimes even double or triple that amount. Thus, between property tax and rent, institutions, especially large centers, are exhausted before they even start to organize any event.

Al Mathhabjieh Choir.

The solution also lies in the provision of annual allocations to cultural institutions, whether by the Palestinian Authority, Arab funds, the private sector, or Palestinian philanthropists. In order to strengthen the resilience of the city’s people, real, transparent, and safe support mechanisms are key. Simply reiterating the slogans of Jerusalem being the bride of Arabism no longer offers any solutions, particularly with the current normalization policies that affect relations with several governments of the Arab world.

The second obstacle is linked to the first and to several internal subjective challenges, specifically financial ones. Palestinian cultural institutions in Al-Quds are witnessing a significant decline in their numbers and in the size of their activities, despite all attempts to enable their continued operation. This decline comes as a result of the severe pressures and restrictions applied on donor institutions by the occupier. The degree of decline of Palestinian institutions varies depending on their size, the nature of their work, and their area of engagement. This is due to the high and very demanding procedures and taxes that pose a dilemma for institutions, forcing them to find individualized solutions to maintain their survival.

Al Mathhabjieh Choir.

It is very difficult to find actual solutions without real support for the cultural sector and with the strategy that the current Palestinian Authority is applying towards Al-Quds and its institutions in general. The PA’s limited budget for Jerusalem poses a true challenge. For example, the budget of “Jerusalem Light Festival,” organized by the occupation municipality with the aim of Judaizing the city, is multiple times the annual budget of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture for allocated funds for cultural programs for all Palestinians in general. Not to mention other Israeli bodies that are investing in Al-Quds for the purpose of its Judaization.

In addition to the failure of states to provide real support to Al-Quds and culture – whether through public and official funds, individuals, or the private sector – the political conditions imposed recently by the European Union and member states are adding a new layer of pressure on Palestinian institutions.

The European Union’s recent decision to include a new article in its contracts obliges recipients to adhere to its restrictive conditions to obtain funding, part of which is the recipient’s acknowledgment and endorsement of the designation of Palestinian political parties as terrorists. Some of Jerusalem’s cultural institutions have refused, as a principled decision, to receive any such politically conditioned support that criminalizes the Palestinian struggle. However, the fact that other cultural and noncultural institutions have accepted these politically motivated conditions without insisting on removing them or finding acceptable alternative formulas is concerning. Of course, this situation is a result of the weak national position and the compliance of official bodies that failed to assume their role in standing up seriously against these stipulations. They have thus affected many cultural institutions that struggle to continue and operate amidst the scarcity of funding in Al-Quds.

Mariam Afifi.

EU support has been crucial to Al-Quds and its cultural institutions. According to my understanding, the European Union’s support is based on the fact that under international law, Jerusalem is considered to be an occupied city. It is thus the EU’s duty to support the people who are subjected to violations of their rights on a daily basis – rather than supporting and prolonging the occupation and further restricting the institutions of Jerusalem’s indigenous population. For this reason, a discussion with the European Union and its member states must continue until we find a fundamental solution to this defining and critical condition.

Some Arab donors are showing a great interest in restoration projects in Al-Quds, which is very important and appreciated. But restoration without continued support for maintenance costs and operational expenses ultimately leads to weak institutions that are unable to survive or continue their engagement. Attention to the stone is important, but attention to the continuous and proper use of these structures, ensuring the continuity and sustainability of their occupants’ work, is essential.

Tarabband. Photo courtesy of ESNCM.

Many cultural institutions compete for support within a situation of great need and demand in all sectors. Supporters’ priorities reduce access to funding, as the varying sizes of the institutions are taken into account. But fractional and limited support of cultural institutions does not create a cultural life in the city. Intermittent support based on a project rather than on an ongoing, long-term program weakens the continuity of cultural life in the city.

The solutions are clear and have been put forward several times in closed rooms, during conferences, and in studies and reports. Unfortunately, there have been ears, but they do not listen. These solutions are linked to the determination of PA budgets as the PA has a primary responsibility towards the city. Such support should not be considered a favor or a burden. The Palestinian Authority is responsible for supporting institutions in Al-Quds, as they are the last fortresses that remain in the city. Although political agreements such as the Oslo Accords, the Paris Protocol, and others – which incidentally are no longer recognized by the majority of the Palestinian people because it has become clear that Israel entered into these agreements to buy time and entrench its occupation – prevent the Palestinian Authority from acting directly in Jerusalem, there are indirect ways, methods, and means that could enable PA support. For instance, such support could come by directing Arab countries, Arab funds, and international donors to extend their support. Real solutions must be found and official political decisions must be followed by action, such as calling off the political conditions set by the European Union; allocating part of the tax revenues to institutions in Al-Quds, including cultural ones; or purchasing buildings for the cultural centers that have invested in the restoration of buildings that they are currently renting and by funding the periodic maintenance of what has been restored; as well as not obstructing or stopping any grants allocated to Jerusalem. This is in addition to the responsibility of the private sector towards Jerusalem and its institutions, which has begun to fade even with regard to moral, national, and social responsibility.

On the other hand, cultural institutions should develop austerity plans in line with realistic facts. They must develop work strategies and plans within what is reasonable and available to ensure their resilience and continuity, including relying on ticket income, utility allowance income, and a large part of individual donations. For example, this city could be revived if the PA and other bodies would allocate US$7–8 million annually to genuine cultural institutions operating in Al-Quds. Such support would keep the doors of these institutions open, enable them to confront the hyperactive campaign by the occupation on cultural institutions, and allow them to continue their efforts to revive this besieged city.

During recent years, we have clearly observed the process of change and the impact of arts and culture on behavioral change with regard to a sense of belonging to Al-Quds, identity preservation, and cultural awareness, also raising the level of artistic taste among the public. We must furthermore promote the concept of volunteering and, most importantly, influence the understanding and awareness of the importance of culture. But recently, we have witnessed a clear and tangible decline in society and inflammatory rhetoric attacking and distorting cultural institutions, artists, and events. Such rhetoric affects the response and even the acceptance of culture and the arts and puts additional obstacles in front of its practitioners and supporters. The resulting confrontations have shrunk the available spaces and caused a lack of respect for freedom and artistic and cultural production. As a result of the public vacuum, political failure, weakness of political action, and the general change in customs and traditions, instances of hooliganism have been observed to control the street in Al-Quds.

Cultural centers, artistic institutions must continue to work and communicate with the entire spectrum of society, including religious, societal, and political personalities. Raising cultural awareness starts with upbringing, education, and preparation in schools, families, homes, and the street. The most important thing is that there should be a political situation, an educational renaissance, and a capable leadership in Jerusalem that is present to provide guidance, protect cultural institutions, and confront distorting and inflammatory discourse that attacks cultural institutions and actors. Efforts to create serious and fundamental change in society need cumulative, continuous, and solid work, as well as a healthy environment that is ready to deal with culture and the arts.

Cultural institutions should also work on their artistic vision as they design programs and plan events. The efforts are many but individual and scattered, and there is no artistic vision. There are intruders in the cultural sector in Jerusalem who do not understand arts or culture yet are classified as cultural institutions and have become part of this field only because they align with the agendas of supporters and donors. For example, Palestinian community centers in Al-Quds that specialize in sports and other centers organize cultural events – which is appropriate but does not mean that they understand the cultural field and should be classified as a cultural center. It is important to maintain the artistic level of the cultural sector in the city of Al-Quds, so that the work falls  within a clear artistic vision. Artistic concepts and visions are essential elements in building the cultural program. To adhere to high standards, specialized artistic managers, technical managers, technicians, etc. should be involved. We must improve our work in this aspect.

From the Swarm exhibition, 2022. Photo courtesy of Yabous archive.

In efforts to Judaize Al-Quds, Israel targets the culture of the city’s inhabitants, stripping it of its human, Palestinian, and Arab content and depth. Instead, it seeks to implement a consumer culture that lacks the ingredients that would help the people survive and exert influence. It aims to ensure that Jerusalemites remain weak, unable to challenge the ongoing Israelization and daily robbery of the necessities of life. Ways to confront these efforts are simple and possible. But even though we have knocked on all doors, talked, and discussed, we have received the same old promises but no real action! “They have ears, but they don’t listen. They have eyes, but they refuse to see.”
Matthew 13:14–38

The long years of engagement, workshops, and masterclasses have not created a strong cultural and technical structure. Moreover, the structure of some institutions has become flabby and needs renewal and new blood. Institutions must not be seen as a social guarantee, but there must be change, ensuring that institutions be infused with a continuous flow of new ideas. The lack of adequate structure is exacerbated by the complications that relate to the entry of international artists to Jerusalem because the occupation authorities control all crossings and borders. Likewise, it is becoming impossible to involve artists from the West Bank in events in Al-Quds due to the occupation policies that deny them the permits they need to cross the military checkpoints. This has limited the variety and continuity of cultural and artistic action, and the ability to activate programs of performances, discussions, and various workshops. The format of artistic events must also be reconsidered in order to become more attractive, stronger in content, and better organized. Repetition creates a state of routine and boredom, as many events in Palestine apply the same methods, decreasing the public’s interest in participation. Better marketing methods might help reach the audiences in a more effective way. There should be coordination between institutions, if possible, and joint work with others whose content, goals, and messages are complementary. The infrastructure of streets, restaurants, and shops should be prepared, and shops should open their doors at night, so that the city does not become a ghost town after 7 p.m.

Artistic taste and enjoyment are no easy matter in Al-Quds. It is important to see the relationship between culture and liberation. Yet the hardship of remaining, persevering, and continuing despite difficult political, financial, and funding conditions has become draining. Culture remains as a tool of resistance. In Al-Quds, everything is resistance, and resistance is also a form of culture.

  • Rania Elias is an independent management consultant for the arts, cultural development, and artistic events practices. She is the former director of Yabous Cultural Centre (1998–2022) and currently a board member of several institutions, a main speaker at conferences, and the author of several published articles. She can be reached at RaniaElias1971@gmail.com.

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