Kotor, Montenegro, a town on the Adriatic coast, was the scene this month of an effort to strengthen relations between the Balkan state and Israel using art.
In an act of cultural diplomacy, Israel’s foreign ministry teamed up with a Montenegro-based American Jewish businessman to exhibit the work of two Israeli artists — one a Jew, the other a Muslim — while welcoming them for a two-week residency.
“Art is the universal language and it plays a unique role in bringing peoples and cultures together,” Neil Emilfarb, founder of the Dukley European Arts Community which hosted the artists, told more than 100 people — including of diplomats, clergy and civic leaders — at a reception on Sept. 15.
At the center of the cultural diplomatic effort are Shirley Siegel and Shuruq Egbariah. Both women were tapped by the Israeli government to be citizen ambassadors delegated to bring communities together through their art.
The Israeli artists were to “share their experiences with the local artists” and be “influenced by the energy and the spirit of the citizens and visitors of Kotor,” according to the Israeli embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. (Israel has no ambassador to Montenegro.)
Siegel, who is Jewish, specializes in painting portraits on unpolished rocks, while Egbariah, a Muslim, is known for scenic paintings.
This was not Siegel’s first visit to the Balkans as a citizen ambassador. She worked with the Israeli foreign ministry to restore an ancient cemetery in Bitola, Macedonia, a town which had a thriving Jewish community until the Nazis deported the population to Treblinka.
She said she met Egbariah for the first time at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport for the flight to Montenegro, and they quickly became friends.
“We are both mothers, so we share stories of our families. We both have a young son that we miss very much,” Siegel said by email. “We talk about how easy it is to see each other as a woman and an artist, with no regard to our nationality.”
They decided to share an art studio which they named “The Small Peace.” Siegel said as an Israeli, she feels at home in Montenegro.
“With today’s global political situation and the growing anti-Semitism, it is very important for Israel and Israelis to have friends in Europe. This project brings the people of our countries to learn to know each other,” said Siegel.
Egbariah, whose comment was translated from Hebrew by Siegel, sees the ambassadorship as an opportunity to bridge cultures between Israel and foreign countries, as well as Israel’s Jewish and Arab populations.
“I believe in Arab-Jewish partnership as a path toward peace. This is reflected in the partnership between Shirley and myself,” she said in an email. “Each one of us comes from a different culture, yet we believe in creating peace also through art.”
The artists’ residency came on the 10th anniversary of Montenegro’s independence from Serbia and its opening of diplomatic relations with Israel.
A reception celebrating Montenegro’s independence was held in Jerusalem in June.
Irene and Gary Tabach of Philadelphia were two of a handful of Americans at the reception in Kotor. Both were born in the Soviet Union, she in Ukraine and he in Moscow. They lauded Emilfarb, who leads an international investment company and was born in the Soviet Union, for his support of the cultural diplomacy program.
“Any time a Russian-Jewish immigrant gives back to community and supports Israel, [we feel] it is important for us to see that [positive] public relations for Israel and Russian-speaking Jews,” said Irene Tabach.
Organizers say the celebration was the first time Israeli food was served in Montenegro, but Siegel, who returned to Israel on Sept. 25, was more impressed by what didn’t happen.
Siegel said: “There are few other places that a welcome reception could fly the flag of Israel and display the logo and not have security or protests.”