Art as a Hasbara Tool?

Edoe Cohen's shows off Israel's accomplishments in film and the arts.

David Lev , | updated: 4:54 PM

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The old saying, “the way to a man's heart is through his stomach,” has a modern counterpart, with an Israeli twist: The way to a young, politically active person's heart is through their ears and eyes, giving them the opportunity to learn about Israeli life through movies, videos, art and music.

That's the idea behind Edoe Cohen's website, which aims to introduce a whole new side of Israel to people around the world whose only knowledge of Israel comes from the (usually slanted) daily newspaper and network news. “As a college student in the U.S., I wanted to do something to counter the anti-Israel feeling on campus, and I found that stressing Israeli culture really got a positive response,” Cohen tells Israel National News. Students who attended the Israeli film festivals and concerts that he organized told him how empowered they felt.

Long before college, Cohen had been acutely aware of the power of the moving image to impress minds. Cohen was raised in the U.S. by Israeli parents, who returned home when Edoe was about 15. “I was completely lost when I came back here, in shock at how different Israel was from L.A., where I grew up.” Film, he discovered, was one way he could express his thoughts and feelings, and after high school, he joined the army, and enrolled in a special program for IDF soldiers at the Jerusalem Film School.

While in the army, he said, Cohen became more connected with his Jewish and Israeli identity, and when he finished the army, he went on to study at Columbia in New York City. “This was right after the second intifada, and the climate on campus was very difficult for lovers of Israel.” At the same time, he was working at afternoon Hebrew schools and in informal education settings, and realized that even here, young Jews were feeling pressure from anti-Israel forces. “I realized that people were looking for an experience, not more information. Why do people fall in love with Israel? It’s not the politics. It’s the culture and the vibrancy of our society,” says Cohen, and the response was very positive - in line with his expectations.

Around this time, Cohen says, sites like Youtube and Hulu were coming into their own – and the time was ripe for an Israeli version, he said. “I started working as a fellow for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I returned to Israel, and I wanted to duplicate the empowering experience of video as a tool for hasbara,” he says.

While neither the MFA nor any other government agency signed on as a supporter of the project (although they all enthusiastically support it, Cohen says), he went out and raised money on his own, garnering a grant from the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators, a worldwide network of young social entrepreneurs created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman – and became a reality.  In its short existence (the site has been up for barely a month), Omanoot has quickly become an online home for Israeli artistic expression of all types – still, video, and audio – exactly as Cohen envisioned it. "Lots of people have heard of Israel's hi-tech success, but we have a lot of artistic successes, as well - and that's what we aim to show visitors to the site."

There are dozens of films of all types, including full-length features (including the best Israeli 2009 film Ajami, and Freeland, the winner of the 2009 Best Animated Film Drama at th Jerusalem Film Festival) as well as dozens of short films, made by students of many Israeli film schools, including the religiously-oriented Ma'aleh school. Cohen is currently working on including visual arts, music of all genres (from Yiddish to Ladino to Mizrachi), as well as literature by modern Israeli writers.

Besides publicizing new artists' work and popularizing classic works by Israeli artists and filmmakers (both elements occupy prominent places on the site), Omanoot features numerous lesson plans for use by educators in schools in Israel and the Diaspora. The plans teach about Israeli culture and society using film, art and music; for example, there is a lesson plan on serving in the IDF, and the tensions and concerns of parents and prospective soldiers, a plan that uses the well-known film Ushpizin to teach about religious lifestyles, a discussion of G-d's importance using modern Israeli music, and others.

While Israeli filmmakers have a reputation for leftist views (deservedly so, many would agree), Cohen says that he has found many young filmmakers of all types, and that their works are hosted by Omanoot. “We don't push a political agenda – if it's Israeli, that's political enough for us. Israel is a democracy with many points of view, and we want Omanoot to reflect that.” Cohen says he draws the line at clearly anti-Israel works, like “Jenin, Jenin,” which, he says, is not welcome on Omanoot. But the beauty of Omanoot is its freedom of expression. “We want to show that Israel is like a coat of many colors – that it's a true democracy,” he says. “This is what art is all about.”