Art for Israel's Sake

Web initiative offers musical, visual portal into cultural Zionism

When Edoe Cohen moved with his parents from Los Angeles to Israel as a teenager, he was in "complete culture and linguistic shock." But he quickly felt at home here - thanks to his passion for movies. "I went to an art high school where I studied film and I've been making films since I was a kid, so the one language I did understand was films," he recalls. "That's when I came to see the arts as a universal language."

On Wednesday, Cohen launched Omanoot.com, a web portal aimed at strengthening people's connection with Israel by speaking to them in the language of art. On the site, surfers will be able to access movies, music, literature and visual arts. Currently, Omanoot - which means art in Hebrew - offers 40 to 50 documentary and short films as well as the trailers of a handful of feature films, which can be viewed in streaming video free of charge. Cohen, 32, says he plans to eventually offer streaming video of commercial movies as well. Cohen and his staff of 15 volunteers - most of whom are Anglo immigrants to Israel - also have plans to add music and other visual art forms on the site, starting with underground and less commercially successful art forms from the other art forms while aiming for better-known works as the site's popularity grows.

"Everybody knows about Israeli technology and start-ups. But the same creative energy is going into the arts as well," Cohen told Anglo File this week. "I discovered that people who come to Israel on Taglit [Birthright-Israel] and the other different Israel programs are not falling in love with the politics. They're falling in love with the culture, with the people, with the landscape. And that energy comes across through arts, through Israeli music, which is very avant-garde, through film, through the visual arts and definitely through the literature. That's our idea: take that energy and bring it to the world."

Taking activism in a different direction

Before Cohen went back to the States to get degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he served for six years as company commander in the Israel Defense Force's elite infantry units. "In the army, I became very connected to Israel and the Jewish people," he recalled.

"This was right after the second intifada and the climate on campus was very problematic towards Israel, very hostile. A few of my friends asked me to get involved in hasbara [pro-Israel PR] and advocacy." Cohen followed their advice, but chose to take his activism into a somewhat unconventional direction.

"I figured there's no use preaching to the choir or trying to bringing more talking heads to campus. Students are all day in class, the last thing they want to hear is more lectures. So we started bringing a lot of Israeli bands, like Hadag Nachash, Idan Raichel, video and film festivals, and we saw the power of the arts in connecting people."

Two years ago, Omanoot started as a nonprofit, which besides the website also included developing curricula for educators to teach about Israel through the arts. Before this week's launch of Omanoot.com, the organization split: the educational platform remained a nonprofit while the website has become a for-profit outfit. While the site's content is free of charge, Cohen seeks to sell sponsorships, advertisement and some of the art because he says the initial funds he received from private American donors and foundations has run out.

While Omanoot is driven by what Cohen calls "a Zionist 2.0 impulse," he stressed it is not be understood as a narrow-minded, flag-waving pro-Israel PR project. "We're really trying to show that there are many different colors besides blue and white here in this country. We're also not just doing Jewish art: There will be art from different religions and ethnicities, showing cultural diversity and really the depth to the country that's really accessible through the arts."

Cohen says that while Omanoot does not seek out art that unduly condemns Israel the site doesn't shy away from pieces of art expressing frustration with the country. "Art can be very critical, but we argue that that's part of a thriving democracy," the Tel Aviv resident said. "A country that's able to support its artists, picking its scars and putting salt on those scars even, that's healthy. But we're trying to keep a balance."