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A new Web portal, Omanoot.com, is designed to showcase the vitality of Israeli film, music, literature and the visual arts.

Edoe Cohen 311 (photo credit: Avishai Finkelstein)
Edoe Cohen 311
(photo credit: Avishai Finkelstein)
If you were trying to win the hearts and minds of US college students over their perception of Israel, would you bring in a balding, ex-general politician with stilted English (take your pick) to talk about the Iranian threat or invite Hadag Nahash to shake the students’ core, Mediterranean style? For Edoe Cohen, it was a no-brainer.
When the 32-year-old IDF veteran was studying at Columbia University in New York in the wake of the second intifada, he realized that talking heads may not be the answer to Israel’s hasbara woes.
The positive experience and feedback he received by exposing Israeli cultural icons like Hadag Nahash and Idan Raichel to unsuspecting Americans has fueled the engine behind his latest project, the newly launched Web portal Omanoot.com, designed to showcase the vitality of Israeli film, music, literature and the visual arts.
Backed by some heavyweight, forwardthinking Jewish organizations like the Legacy Heritage Foundation and the ROI Community of Young Jewish Innovators, a worldwide network of young social entrepreneurs created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, Cohen has been able to spend the last couple of years since returning to Israel in 2007 developing the concept, which he stated succinctly.
“Why do people fall in love with Israel? It’s not the politics. It’s the culture and the vibrancy of our society,” said Cohen, who was born in Los Angeles to Israeli parents who returned to their homeland when their befuddled son was 15.
Cohen attended the Omaniyot Art School in Jerusalem, where he excelled in filmmaking, winning a prize from the Jerusalem Film Festival for his matriculation project .
“I was totally in culture shock. I had never felt connected to the US because I knew my parents were Israeli, and when I got here, I didn’t feel entirely Israeli,” he said. “Film was a way for me to connect and feel comfortable in Israel.”
After spending six years in the IDF as an officer, Cohen left for political science studies in New York at Columbia and at the Jewish Theological Seminary for modern Jewish thinking courses. He was met with a hostile climate on the Columbia campus due to the negative reactions Israel was receiving for its response to the rash of suicide bombings in the early 2000s.
“I quickly became involved in Israel advocacy, but I decided to approach it from a different angle – through arts and culture,” he said, recalling an Israel fair he organized on campus with Shanan Streit’s crew headlining.
“Students came up afterward to thank me and tell me how much it meant to them to feel pride for Israel. It was my first taste of how powerful the arts and culture could be in connecting students to the country.”
Cohen continued to bring Israeli musicians and filmmakers to campus and also began developing curricula for teaching about Israel through the arts, which he led at New York-area Hebrew and Jewish schools. In 2007, he received a Legacy Heritage fellowship to work in Israel at the Foreign Ministry concentrating on Diaspora affairs.
“That gave me a good chance to witness what they were doing and not doing regarding hasbara and the arts. This was the time when everything was going online via YouTube, Google and iTunes. I came to the realization that it would be amazing to have a site that enabled people to connect to Israel through the arts and provide access to film, music and the visual arts,” he said.
While plenty of sites existed that sold Israeli music CDs or film DVDs, Cohen realized that those formats were already becoming passe.
“People are able to access almost anything on the spot, whether through streaming or downloading. Hardly anyone is buying CDs or DVDs,” he said.
Enter Omanoot.com, Cohen’s commercial platform supported by advertising which, when fully up and running, will enable anyone to stream or download just about any Israeli film or song and view any Israeli artwork.
“All the content on the site is streamed, and the user can see it for free. And because we’re ad-supported, we’re able to pay royalties to the filmmakers and musicians,” explained Cohen, adding that users are also able to download content for a fee.
THE NEWLY launched site is initially focusing on film. In the coming months, it will add the other artistic channels. A quick perusal reveals dozens of films available for streaming, ranging from feature like last year’s Academy Award-nominated Ajami to documentaries like Jericho’s Echo, Liz Nord’s exploration of the underground Israeli punk rock scene.
“Initially, we wanted to launch everything together, but one thing I learned from working on this project is that it’s always better to release something even if it’s not complete,” said Cohen. “It creates a buzz and a community, and it gives our staff the experience of working on a live site. We kept telling people about the site, and eventually they stopped believing that it was going to happen, so we realized we had to launch.”
Another obstacle besides the technical aspects has been obtaining the approval of Israeli filmmakers and distributors to allow their movies to be streamed on the site.
According to Cohen, it’s an ongoing process.
“For visual artists, it’s been really easy, as the artists are excited about exposing their work to an international audience. If you see their painting online, they’re not going to lose any revenue; and they will gain if someone decided to buy it and download it,” said Cohen.
“But the danger exists with a film. Once you see it online, you may not ever rent it or buy the DVD. The same with music. But we’ve had a lot of success in convincing some of the leading film distributors, who have all been impressed with the site. We’re still negotiating with King Features, Israel’s biggest distributor.
I believe that when the platform takes off, they’ll come on board as well.”
Cohen is intent on exposing the entire gamut of Israeli art, even if it’s perceived as not being so positive about the country. It’s not all about being cheerleaders, he said.
“It’s part of being a thriving democracy in which a country can celebrate even its arts that are critical,” he said. “It’s one of the things I find amazing about the Israeli artistic scene – the remarkable cultural diversity that’s presented. We’re not trying to be a hasbara site; we’re not explaining Israel but rather celebrating its creativity.”
However, education leads to knowledge, and Cohen is using his experience in teaching about Israeli arts to develop Omanoot.org, the site’s teaching and curriculum arm, which is already sending lesson plans on teaching about Israel through the arts to Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools in the US, as well as Jerusalem’s Ma’aleh Film School “We’ve identified education as they key to the Diaspora, and the rationale for our site is that if we want to be relevant, we need to give the tools to create an educational experience and not just an entertainment experience,” he said. “We want to give teachers the tools to take a film or a song and teach about the issues that are brought out. So many Israeli films and songs are very introspective and reveal elements of Israeli society,” he explained.
A revelation for Cohen himself, who thought he was an expert on Israeli culture, was how much depth there is on the Israeli artistic scene. “I thought my knowledge was pretty extensive, but it turned out that I had no clue how much quality there is out there,” he said. “Every day I’m discovering a new filmmaker or musician and a new aspect of Israeli arts and culture.”