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Global Cuddly Bears Draw Art Lovers to Jerusalem

11. Global Cuddly Bears Draw Art Lovers to Jerusalem


Israelis are getting a rare opportunity to see a benevolent and almost cuddly aspect of their Middle Eastern adversaries. A display of brightly painted bear sculptures in Jerusalem is attracting hordes of delighted children and curious, sometimes skeptical, adults, Israelis and tourists alike.


Inspired by the cow parade in New York, each of the 132 United Buddy Bears displayed in the square outside the Jerusalem Municipality was individually designed by an artist on behalf of his or her native country. Through the vibrant works of art, visitors can trot around the globe and get a taste of international culture.


And the event even heralds a historic moment-for the first time, Arab and Muslim countries with no diplomatic ties with Israel are also represented in the Israeli capital. Although the bears stand in alphabetical order, the organizers decided to break the grammatical rules and place the Israeli bear between its Iraqi and Iranian counterparts.


The gimmick has not gone unnoticed. One Israeli woman passing the Iranian bear pondered out loud whether the Persian writing on the bear said: "Kill all the Jews." But the initiators of this colorful project do not wish to highlight enmity.


Beyond its artistic value, the event carries a message of peace and tolerance and aims to bring not only aesthetic pleasure but also genuine relief to populations in need. So far, more than US $1.9 million has been collected through auctions and donations. Most of these funds are intended for child relief organizations.


The United Buddy Bears project began in 2001 with each fiberglass bear designed by a German artist in order to promote Berlin. The project soon gained momentum and took on an international flavor. There are no signs of jetlag on the cuddly ambassadors, even though they have been on the road in 11 countries on four continents since 2002.


Eva Herlitz, who initiated the project, started gathering artists in Berlin from around the world in 2002, in order to paint the bear representing their country. "Lots of artists try to show something about their country through artwork, and this was very important to me," Herlitz said. "The more you know about a country, the more understanding you have for people coming from that place. Through these bears, I want to give people food for thought."


Standing more than six feet high and holding hands, the bears form a colorful circle with designs ranging from grotesque (Bolivia's monster) to enchanting (North Korea's flying fairies) to hilarious (Cuba's cigar-puffer). Artists have gone to great lengths to highlight the positive aspects of their country. Even the Iraqi bear, parading a picture of gold-capped shrines and smiling children on a magic carpet, says nothing of the chaos and violence prevailing in the country.


Perhaps the exception is the Afghani representative, which shows a painting on its belly of a woman and a young girl crying. The picture piques the curiosity of all the Israeli visitors, who speculate whether they are sad because they are hungry or simply because they are tired of war.


"I never had a city where visitors were so interested in what was going on as in Jerusalem," Herlitz says. The fact that there are bears from countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel did not pose a problem, she said. "We were afraid we'd have voices against this, but there were none. People were happy we did it, and it was very satisfying for us to see how people in Jerusalem accepted it."


"It's an international exhibition, and they all belong," says Stanley David, a resident of Jerusalem and visitor to the exhibition. "Let's hope that everybody has an aesthetic desire for peace, if not a political desire," he says.


The Israeli bear stands out with its golden multicolor caps. It is covered in brown-beige bricks, perhaps reminiscent of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and large red hearts. An informal survey among some of the children here suggests this one is a favorite among the younger visitors, but some find it boring, even ugly.


"Of course Israel is the best," a mother of two says. But her nine-year-old daughter eyes Israel's neighbor. "No, Iraq is the prettiest," she says. Four-year-old Ron likes the Israeli bear the most. His second favorite is France, "because it has a tummy made of gold."


Zion Torjeman, the general director of the Ariel Company and one of the initiators of the Jerusalem exhibition, says that, so far, tens of thousands of visitors have viewed the display. "The exhibition came to us from Cairo," he says. "The message of the bears works very well, and we didn't really run into any problems."


The choice of holding the exhibition in Jerusalem in the midst of the 40-year unification celebrations of the capital drew some criticism in the first few days, he admits. Critics were disturbed by the notion of bears from Arab countries appearing in Jerusalem as part of the celebrations, he said. "But we soon clarified that the message of this exhibition is love, peace, and tolerance," he says. "It's also traveling to Arab countries, and I don't believe anyone would boycott the Israeli bear."


One item that seems to catch the eyes of all Israeli onlookers is the Palestinian bear, which is wearing a traditional Palestinian wedding outfit. From his home in Germany, Palestinian artist Ibrahim Hazimeh told The Media Line he was thrilled to learn that his work was on display in Jerusalem.


The 74-year-old artist was born in Acre, where he still has family. He left in 1948 and has not been to Jerusalem since he was 11. "When they suggested I paint a bear, I didn't hesitate for a moment," he says. "I see this as a positive thing that can bring people together."


Back at the bear circle, a four-year-old with pigtails is pointing to the blue Greek bear and pulling at her grandmother's shirt. "I want to hug the bear, but I can't," she says. "He's too fat."


(By Rachelle Kliger, The Media Line, August 26, 2007)



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Eine Initiative von Eva und Dr. Klaus Herlitz

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