On a sun-soaked Saturday afternoon in Levinsky Park, in Tel Aviv’s run-down Neve Sha'anan neighborhood, children lounge between two bookcases, reading. An outdoor public library is a strange sight in a location known to many Israelis as the home of criminals and drug addicts, but for a team of Israeli artists, there is great potential here.
Completed in September 2009, the Garden Library was conceived by a group of interdisciplinary Israeli artists know as ARTEAM. Rather than being housed inside a building, like a traditional library, the Garden Library is simply two bookcases in the middle of the park. ARTEAM’s aim was to create an interactive art installation that would welcome and assist one of the most downtrodden segments of Israeli society - the foreign workers who flocked to Israel looking for employment.
“There are somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 migrant workers in Tel Aviv - no one knows the exact number. [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration has a very harsh policy towards migrants, but not everyone feels the way [it] does,” says Lior Waterman, the library’s director. “The Tel Aviv municipality has been extremely helpful to us, but many of the Orthodox right-wing parties are not happy. They think that [Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai] cares more about migrant children than about religious children.”
ARTEAM considers the library a success, despite the setbacks along the way. Sustaining the library, which is financed solely through charitable donations, has been more expensive than expected. Members of ARTEAM have taken money out of their own pockets to cover the operating costs of the library for now, but without increased donations the future of the project could be in jeopardy.
The library books come from a multitude of sources: an Israeli factory owner in Bangkok who urged his employees to bring in old tomes, a monk in Kathmandu who organized a book drive, unknown donors who drop off boxes of books at the library in the middle of the night. Even with all this generosity, finding enough books has often been challenging.
“It’s easy to get books in English,” Marit Ben Israel, a writer who operates the Garden Library website, explained. “But when it comes to books in Nepali, Arabic, Turkish, and Amharic, it’s much harder. We find ourselves asking friends of friends of friends who live in different countries to try to find books for us. The problem is often that shipping costs from these countries is much more expensive than the books themselves.”
As for the residents of the neighborhood, there have been few problems. “We’ve had a few issues with drunks and drug addicts in the park who come to the library and make trouble, but for the most part we feel very safe here. We’ve actually had more trouble with Israelis than with any of the migrants,” says Waterman wryly.
In the end, ARTEAM hopes the library will spark further collaborations between the Israeli and foreign artistic communities in Tel Aviv.
As Waterman puts it, “We want to welcome these people, not deport them. The foreign worker community can help make Israel a better, more interesting place, if they are given the chance.”
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