Photo courtesy of Rachael Cerrotti/FLASH90.

Waltz with Bashir, Beaufort and Ajami are three Israeli films that were nominated for Oscars in the foreign film category. The Israeli public was hoping that this year’s nomination, Ajami, based on the hardscrabble lives of Arab Israelis in the Jaffa-Tel Aviv neighborhood, would finally win Israel an Academy Award – and not just a nomination – but it was not to be.

In all three films, which unfold against the backdrop of the Arab-Israel conflict, the filmmakers are attempting to come to terms with or explore personal issues. Some have criticized their work as exploitation of the conflict for commercial purposes, while others have said that the films are contrary to national interests. These high-profile films have also been lauded as deeply personal, wrenchingly honest portrayals.

A closer look at the Israeli film world reveals that most local filmmakers are concerned with universal subjects like love, family and society – the same “muses” that move directors to make movies in Spain, China or the US.

With that universality in mind, a new educational non-profit called Omanoot: Israel Through Art (“omanoot” is “art” in Hebrew) is putting Israeli art on the international table, at face value. The portal, which supplies English-language teaching materials about Israeli art and artists to American schools and universities, offers an apolitical window into the rich life of Israeli artists and their work.

Beyond CNN

“Art is a way to get insight into the Israeli people,” says Lindsay Leigh Citerman, co-founder and educational director of Omanoot. Most of the time, art doesn’t reflect a country’s government, but rather a country’s people, she tells ISRAEL21c. “It gives an added layer and another perspective.”

Unlike what Americans might see on CNN or read about in the Wall Street Journal, meeting Israelis through their art narrows the gap that keeps us from knowing one another. Omanoot presents different aspects of art from Israel. In addition to providing a database of artists – categorized according to film, music and visual art – it offers free lesson plans for educational organizations, schools and universities seeking access to the Israeli art world.

Citerman, who runs the Tel Aviv office, says that the organization plans to create more opportunities for Israeli artists around the world, but prefers not to have a role in shaping the scene. “We want to be a conduit, and they [the artists] can shape the place it goes to.”

An art-streaming Pandora

Founded in early 2009, Omanoot is already working with schools, galleries and museums in the US and has been a work in progress for the past two years. It hopes to play a significant part in helping Israeli artists find new opportunities to sell their work or to book shows around the world. Omanoot is also developing a teaching-through-art curriculum for Israelis.

The organization is committed to being a free service for artists. Modeling itself on the wildly popular song-streaming site Pandora, it plans to offer streaming content and media downloads as a fee-based service. While the end-user may have to pay a small charge to access content that would otherwise be inaccessible due to language barriers, “We are very committed to it being free to artists,” Citerman promises.

“The artist won’t need to pay for our services. And an artist who is selling work on the local scene will have the same opportunity as the bigger ones,” she adds, in a reference to the more well-known artists onboard, like iconic photographer Vardi Kahana or Israeli pop band Hadag Nachash.

Artful diplomacy

Funded by two large seed grants and private donations, Omanoot is steadily building up a critical mass of content and relationships, and recently completed a couple of education-oriented pilot projects in the US, one with a non-Jewish school.

“There is definitely interest in this place,” Citerman says of Israel. “It’s historically-charged for many people in the world.” The organization’s New York office also works to liaise with educational groups bound for Israel.

Citerman explains that profits from the site will be invested back into the organization’s goals, by way of grants and special projects.

Omanoot, she concludes, is “coming from this deep belief that art is a cultural diplomat.”

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