Five dancers gather under a Styrofoam statue of an African boy in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, start stripping off their clothes and screaming.
“I’m a stranger and I see many strange things here,” a tall male dancer says as he addresses onlookers in Russian-accented English. “I want to build my nest here. I hope you aren’t scared anymore.”
The statue is a symbol for foreign workers in Israel, many of whom live in southern Tel Aviv. The show, by dancers who are mostly foreigners, is part of an all-night arts festival called “Contact Point” featuring dance, music, word and performance that is inspired by museum artwork in what director James Snyder calls “a celebration of human creative intervention.”
The dance, called “Foreign Work,” brings together male dancers from Russia, France, Guadeloupe and Brazil who are working in Israel, including with the Batsheva Dance Company.
Their performance takes place next to a Damien Hirst household-gloss painting. It fits with Ohad Meromi’s “Boy from South Tel Aviv” a 6 meter (20 feet) black statue.
On the plaza that houses Anish Kapoor’s “Turning the World Upside Down,” people from Jerusalem dance to music piped through wireless headphones.
“This is definitely a way to open yourself to a wider audience,” said Snyder of the 4,000 people attending.
In the Modern Art section, visitors “hire” a private musician to play into individual headphones as they tour. In the auditorium, art experts answer call-in questions about paintings on view. In the hall outside the exhibition of Egyptian mummies, writers sit in high chairs typing out spontaneous stories that are projected onto a wall.
The foreign worker became a political issue when Interior Minister Eli Yishai decided last year to expel 400 children of foreign workers born in Israel, a move protested by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara. This year the subject has arisen again as Netanyahu seeks to bolster the number of construction workers to accelerate building of homes.
“The meaning is to point out fear, fear of them,” said choreographer Irad Mazliah, a Canadian-born Israeli who was inspired by complaints he heard from dancer friends from abroad about the bureaucracy they encounter as “foreign workers.”
Mazliah, who began dancing after serving in Israel’s air force, said he was raised by a father who came from Iraq, a mother with Polish roots and a grandmother who is French.
“We are most of us foreigners in our own land,” he said. “We actually have a lot in common with those that come here from Darfur, those who come here from France. Everyone a voyager, a modern voyager, that is escaping his past, his home, coming to a new land, another land.”
There are about 225,000 foreigners in Israel, of which less than a third are legally employed, according to Interior Ministry figures. More than 100,000 of these entered the country as tourists and their visas have expired. About 40 percent of these are from the former Soviet Union.
About 36,000 people, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, entered Israel illegally by crossing the Sinai border desert, including 1,200 who arrived in June, a record for the year.
Israelis are divided on the policy toward foreign workers. The Bible admonishes Israelites to be kind to foreigners, since they themselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.
At the same time, economists have argued that the extent of employment of foreign workers in Israel’s labor market is high by international standards and that the outsiders don’t help the employment and wages of Israelis.
“We actually don’t think art is about politics,” Snyder said. “The point is that a group of dancers who define themselves as foreigners in Israel are using this setting as a place to choreograph and adding to the power of the piece.”
Contact Point is an annual festival that is a joint project between Israel Museum and the Jerusalem Season of Culture.