NEW YORK – Israeli diplomats in San Francisco are promoting Israel’s thriving gay arts and culture scene as a new mode of hasbara (public diplomacy) in the Bay Area.
“Out in Israel,” a monthlong festival of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) culture in Israel, is a showcase for films, art and literature during the month of April.
“Israel is blessed with an extremely vibrant LGBT community, and the Bay Area is a natural setting to display the many forms of innovative LGBT artistic expression being created by Hebrew culture,” said Akiva Tor, consul-general at the Consulate of Israel to the Pacific Northwest. “Our job in the consulate is to create conduits of understanding... We’re creating deeper levels of understanding, sympathy and cultural synergy between the Bay Area and the State of Israel.”
The festival seeks to present another image of Israel, not related to politics or war. It also seeks to overturn any negative perception following last summer’s fatal shooting at a gay community center in Tel Aviv.
Tor said the Foreign Ministry has been highly enthusiastic. “We’re in 2010,” he said.
Officials said it is the first time Israel’s LGBT artistic creations have been showcased in this format, but it’s a form of hasbara uniquely suited to San Francisco’s liberal constituents and its thriving gay community.
The festival is not without critics. An April 8 film screening was attended by protesters who have accused organizers of using the festival as propaganda, or “pink washing” the plight of Palestinian citizens. When Tor spoke at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, an LGBT synagogue in San Francisco, some members of the audience did not want to hear him speak.
The consul-general said the festival uniquely suits its constituents.
“I think it’s clear that in a region like the Bay Area, this is our mission. Israeli diplomacy and hasbara needs to be innovative and adaptive to its environment,” Tor said.
One of the festival’s programs was a panel discussion on April 15 called Queer Perspectives on Zionism.
“The purpose of the panel is supposed to discuss the specific conundrum: How is it that Israel is this remarkable oasis of LGBT freedom in the Middle East, even by US standards, and yet some of the sharpest and most harsh criticism comes from within the LGBT community and elsewhere,” Tor said. “We’re going to try to delve into this issue and try to understand it better.”
“Out in Israel” will include theatrical productions, cooking demonstrating and literary readings, featuring writers like the author Yossi Avni-Levy. There also will be concerts, featuring Yael Deckelbaum, and a film series including Eyes Wide Open, The Secrets, Jerusalem is Proud to Present, Yossi & Jagger and Amazing Grace.
“When we developed a sample of films showing the diversity of LGBT life in Israel,” said Peter Stein, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which curated the film series, “we wanted to draw from both classic and contemporary films, documentaries and features.”
The festival is co-sponsored by the consulate and a wide swath of local Jewish organizations, including Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the Israel Center of the Jewish Community Federation and the local federation.
Arthur Slepian, a past president of Sha’ar Zahav, recently founded a group called A Wider Bridge, which seeks to get LGBT Jews engaged with Israel and the Israeli gay community.
“There’s a lot of really great work being done on the ground by some remarkable groups in Israel,” he said, adding that it is important for LGBT Jews in the US to support those efforts.
“I think LGBT Jews have a special stake in what goes on in Israel and
ensuring Israel is and remains a good place to be LGBT. That’s the
unique voice we bring to the conversation.”
A Wider Bridge is a co-sponsor of the festival and Slepian cited the
vibrant arts and culture in Israel’s LGBT culture. “To be able to make
that visible to folks here in the US is another part of deepening those
connections,” he said.
Israeli officials hope to tap the commonalities between Bay Area residents and Israelis through the programming.
“Many Bay area people are not even aware that there is a gay community
in Israel, let alone a vibrant and unusually innovative culture,” Neta
Shacham, director of cultural affairs at the consulate, wrote in an
e-mail. “The message is that Israel is a place of incredible LGBT
innovation and expression.”