»Shared values too can make you feel at home«
Interview with Ohad Ben-Ari

Born in Israel in 1974, all Ohad Ben-Ari has lived about half of his life in his homeland. The other half was spent between two countries with whom Israel has been sharing a complex, drawn-out relationships: Germany and the US. The choice of these destinations was associated with a key passion in Ben-Ari’s life: music. Aged 16, he arrived at Frankfurt on his own to study music. Embarking on his third decade, Ben-Ari followed this passion to New York and Los Angeles, only to return back to Germany. After taking some pauses from wandering in Israel, he finally settled down in Berlin.

In Berlin, Ben-Ari decided to venture beyond his prolific career as a pianist, composer and producer, and last year saw him launching the ID Festival. This name binds together the initials of Israel and Germany (Israel-Deutschland), in a basic declaration of intent of sorts, while also pointing to a meta-theme that attends it: questions of identity.

This year it has been decided that alongside these two basic elements, a key theme shall feature at the heart of the festival: migration. It requires, so it seems, a liberal dose of openness and creativity if these three themes are to be explored frankly, and in the same spirit, we decided to replace the official salutations usually found in the introductions of such programs with a more personal kind of interview.

Ohad Ben-Ari © Do Hyung Kim

Ohad Ben-Ari © Do Hyung Kim


A news-themed festival – can art offer an adequate perspective?

»Immigration is the focus of life in Europe and Germany at the moment. It’s been a daily issue for the local community, and for us too, the Israeli artists’ community. The history of the Jewish People is replete with tales of migration, transitions from one place to another. We are migrants ourselves, sons and grandsons of migrants. I hope this perspective allows us to make a unique statement on the issue.«

But as ›privileged immigrants‹, coming here of their own choice, are Israelis concerned with the same issues as immigrants forced to arrive here?

»The festival’s participants also number among them artists who have arrived here as refugees, but at any rate, the different categories of migration are not hermetic – different people have different, complex stories. On the other hand, there is ample common ground as well.«

Speaking of common ground – it’s very obvious that beside the collaboration with German artists, which actually forms part of the festival’s mandate, this year’s program mostly includes Turkish and Palestinian artists, despite the fact that Berlin attracts artists from around the globe. Is this a political choice?

»The obvious way to go is exploring our take on wandering and migration with our natural partners from our region. The festival is not designed to cater for political goals, but nevertheless it no doubt generates political statements. We live in a place called Germany, which today, year 2016, can offer a neutral ground to sustain different types of dialogue and collaborative work with people, stuff that would have been impossible, or at least very difficult, where we come from. This place allows to let down some inhibitions and restraints, psychological as well as physical.«

That made me pause, “neutral ground”. Do you actually find present-day Germany to be a neutral ground?

»When it comes to a collaborations between Jews and Arabs, then yes, Berlin is literally more neutral than, let’s say, the middle east.«

Some find that it is precisely here that the German enthusiasm with the Israeli community in Berlin lies: the idea that present-day Germany has become the ultimate place for openness and tolerance.

»It is my conscious choice to live in the present rather than the past. It doesn’t go to say that the past should be forgotten, but people change, places change – that’s the course of history. And anyway, the gap between Germany then and now is no accident: it’s the result of processes, of trying to learn from past mistakes.«


Speaking of processes, are you concerned about the rise of the extreme-right party ›Alternative for Germany‹?

»I’m concerned about this issue just as I’m concerned about the prospect of American society electing someone like Donald Trump, or the right gaining traction in Israel.«

So let me make the same question that German journalists ask me: do you plan on staying here?

»I’m here at the moment, and have spent a total of ten years living in Germany. But I couldn’t and wouldn’t commit.«

Why is it that this question always pops?

»I don’t mind it, it’s the product of a mentality that looks 50 years ahead. You can feel it everywhere around here. We Israelis are more concerned with how the next war, next protest, are going to play out – we don’t really think about what it’s going to be like two generations down the road. I don’t think this question, when broached by Germans, is spurred on by criticism or mistrust. I have spoken to some people at the decision-making hub here in Germany, inquiring whether they feel that temporary immigration exploits the local system, to which their reply was as progressive as they get: ›no, even if you’re only here for a year or two, it’s good for us, it enriches us, it injects us with colour, it allows us to learn from you, while you can take tools and pass them on somewhere else.‹ it’s a winning answer as far as I’m concerned.«

Is local culture really open to take in influences as well? People have been saying for years that Berlin is poised to become Europe’s own New York City, but when someone moves to New York by choice, it’s not too long before they feel like Americans; whoever comes to Berlin will end up an immigrant for life.

»Culturally speaking, you can’t compare the US to Germany. The US was founded on the notion of immigrant state. In this respect, it is more like the Israeli model – you want to get there and integrate as soon as you can. American language and culture provide a common ground that’s simply easier to get into, just look at how American culture triumphs in so many markets around the world. In Germany, things are more complex, with centuries-old tradition and unique character. It’s very challenging to get into this system.«

On a more personal note, after all these transitions, where is it that you feel at home?

»I spent my formative years in Israel, the US and Germany, so as far as my affinity to language, culture, ways and manners – I’m comfortable in all three. When I go to California, I feel very much at home, ditto when I visit Israel, though not necessarily in the pleasant sense of the word. In Berlin, where I also have a partner and child, I also feel very much at home. I feel at home in each place for different reasons. It could be an inner feeling that’s hard to explain with words, but shared values too can make you feel at home. In Berlin I find that the way of thinking – investment in culture, long-term, respectful mindset with a modicum of sincerity maintained in your dialogue with people – agrees with me. It’s natural for me living in this kind of environment.«


Do you have moments when you don’t feel at home here? A sense of longing, alienation, anger?

»I know some people experience it, when confronted with bureaucracy, for example, or the lack of flexibility in certain situations, but I don’t. I’ve lived in the US, so I know that Americans are every bit as rigid as Germans when it comes to certain stuff. They too do some things strictly by the book. It’s actually how things work in Israel that’s less compatible with my personality.«

Still, if you had the super-power to change one thing in Germany, what would it be?

»The weather, no question about it. Then I’d be happy to sign for life.«

Back to the festival itself. Last year you grouped together a symphonic orchestra of exclusively-Israeli musicians living in Germany, which is also the initial vision that gave rise to the festival. Why is there no orchestra this year?

»At first I really thought the orchestra was to become the emblem of this festival. This project turned out really well, the audience and musicians alike had a great time, and it’s hard to put together an opening event to match the impression left by the orchestra. But the truth is that bringing 45 musicians for a single event required tons of resources, budget-wise and work-wise. This year we opted to channel resources for developing original productions: Lights & Vessels, NO-MAD, Makembo!, as well as Beyond Borders, a series of panel discussions, and the exhibition titled, Mother, I have reached the land of my dreams, and the German premier of Tamer Nafar & Friend’s show. It makes me very proud to have so many new, unique productions this year. In general, I feel that this year’s program is more fine-tuned – we’ve learned who our audience is and tried to put together a choreography of events of a better-oriented flow. I personally like to dive in for days at the time during festivals, but last year I realised it didn’t necessarily work for everyone. So we tried to put the program together with the purpose of catering for very different audiences while maintaining the special atmosphere enjoyed last year. I hope we pulled it off.«


Interview with Ohad Ben-Ari (Festival founder and artistic director), prepared by Tal Alon (Editor of the Spitz Magazine Berlin)
You can also find the Hebrew version here: spitzmag.de