While strolling old Jaffa's gallery district in May, Zehava Bitton saw empty storefronts. "It was heartbreaking," said Bitton, who was on a mission with American Red Magen David for Israel (ARMDI), Israel's equivalent of the Red Cross. "I used to work as a tour guide in the area, and I remember it was so alive before the intifada. There were people walking everywhere, and music spilling out into the streets. But now out of 40 galleries, only six are left."
The galleries are among numerous of Israeli small businesses that have folded since 2000 as a result of a significant decline in tourism due to fears of terrorism.
To help the dying arts scene, Bitton initiated "Art for Life," which will take place in three Southern California venues Dec. 11-16. The event will feature work by more than 15 top Israeli artists, who will donate one-fifth of their sales to ARMDI. Eight will appear in person, including world-renown sculptor Frank Meisler and jewelry designer Amitai Kav.
"To survive for Israeli artists these days means going abroad," said a grateful Ori Gabrieli of Gabrieli Weaving.
Bitton knows something about survival. The former paratrooper fled her Sharm el-Sheikh home when Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt. She eventually worked for the Jewish Agency for Israel during the massive Russian and Ethiopian immigrations of 1991. After moving to Los Angeles around 1995, she became a western region board member of ARMDI.
Bitton, 43, envisioned "Art for Life" after meeting Gabrieli in Los Angeles some months ago. He told her he had been forced to close several of his galleries and to drum up clients overseas. When he described participating in bazaars with other Israeli artists across the United States, she asked Martin Cooper, ARMDI's Western Region board of directors chair, to help plan a similar event for Los Angeles.
"It will show that beautiful art is still being created in Israel, despite the political situation," she said.
The event takes place Dec. 11 at Sinai Temple; Dec. 14-15 at Eretz Cultural Center in Reseda, and Dec. 16 at the Jewish Federation of Orange County. For information, call (800) 323-2371.