Brian Blum
October 22, 2006, Updated September 12, 2012

Displayers and attendees at the ICON Festival – ‘You can just start talking to people’.Whether their taste was Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, or just good old aliens, there was something for every Sci Fi fan at the tenth ICON Festival held recently in Israel.

Bringing together more than 5,000 young enthusiasts to the Tel Aviv Cinemateque, the festival was a four-day celebration for fans of science fiction, fantasy and role-playing

15-year-old Gabe Trachtenberg spent the entire four days at the show – his fourth ICON convention.

“People in Israel are very open, you can just start talking to people,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Trachtenberg is an active member of the Star Trek-centric StarBase 972. Earlier this year, he organized a lecture on the evolution of Star Trek’s Klingons.

Having found a common world, the teenagers and twenty-somethings at the ICON show seemed to be having a grand time. While nearly every other person was clad in some combination of goth black clothing or furry bunny ears (the latter to signify that the wearer feels some kinship with animated animal characters known in fan circles as “furries”), the overall atmosphere was free of posturing.

The ICON kids were clearly more interested in catching up with old friends than in pushing either a frightening or snooty agenda. If there was any kind of chic at all, it was geek, and attendees spanned both secular and religious – a true Israeli cultural melting pot.

Filled with tens of lectures and more than 50 film screenings taking place nearly around the clock and into the wee hours of the night, the festival featured screenings from a variety of countries including the US, France, Russia, Britain, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Hungary and Switzerland – and Israel,

Home-grown Israeli productions included the fan film What’s the Deal with Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Director’s Cut while international imports featured a campy Canadian-made vampire flick with a religious spin entitled Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter; the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-inspired documentary Life, the Universe and Douglas Adams; Night of the Living Dorks and Incident at Loch Ness; plus mandatory showings of Star Trek The Motion Picture and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There were also plenty of episodes of current and classic sci fi TV shows, from Babylon 5 to Stargate SG-1.

Lectures at ICON covered such diverse subjects such as “Why do Aliens Always Speak English in Science Fiction?” “Space Stations – Dream or Reality?” and “The Capitalist Nightmare of Harry Potter.” There were stations set up for role playing games (such as Dungeons and Dragons and Magic The Gathering), archery lessons, a mobile planetarium, and a 3D maze in which to lose some time.

Israel’s ICON Festival is organized by four different organizations.

** The Israeli Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, a general group with 400 active members focuses on “anything mysterious,” from dragons to the Bermuda Triangle.

** StarBase 972, with 300 members, is Israel’s official organization dedicated to all things Star Trek; it focused mostly on the film festival part of the ICON program. The group alternates monthly meetings between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to chat and watch episodes of their favorite programs.

** The Israeli Role Player Association organized ICON’s table games and has 500 members.

** The Sunnydale Embassy in Israel – the Holy Land’s home for Buffy fans.

Scattered all around the Cinematheque were tens of booths selling everything a Sci Fi and fantasy fan needs to further his or her obsession: books and videos, 11-sided dice, t-shirts, toys (a whole table was devoted to perennial 80s favorite The Transformers) and mountains of miniatures – miniature dragons, miniature wizards – used in late night role playing adventures.

Yehuda Porath was doing a brisk business at his sprawling booth where had brought some 2,000 items to sell out of a collection of 2,600 paperbacks and 3,500 comic books he has on the shelves of his small Jerusalem apartment. The pudgy-faced student, who says he has a “regular normal job,” claims it’s “all just for fun”… for now, at least.

Despite all the action at this year’s ICON, Israel’s science fiction and fantasy scene is small by international standards says 24-year-old Tomer Shalev, head of StarBase 972.

“There is no dedicated science fiction channel on television like in the United States and you can’t even find Star Trek to rent in most video stores,” Shalev laments.

Star Trek’s Voyager program aired only late at night in Israel, he pointed out and the last in the Star Trek Franchise, Enterprise, was abruptly cut off after the second season due to poor ratings. Neither the original Star Trek nor the Next Generation series ever aired in Israel at all.

That’s mainly because, as a small country, Israel’s publishing houses haven’t translated all that many science fiction and fantasy books into Hebrew, thus hindering more mass interest in the genre as a whole. “Every book that comes out in the US can be read by all the fans immediately,” Shalev says. “Here you have to find someone who thinks it’s economically feasible.” An average of only 40 science fiction titles are translated into Hebrew per year.

While there are a handful of writers creating science fiction and fantasy in Hebrew, it’s clearly not on the scale of the North American market. Up until the last decade, most science fiction fans were, in fact, reading in the original English, says Inbal Saggiv, a Sci Fi fan who wrote a graduate thesis on the genre while a student at Tel Aviv University. She points out that just 20 percent of the material in the now defunct Fantasia 2000 magazine, which published until the mid-1980s, was from local writers and that only two major publishing houses – Masada and Am-Oved – deal with science fiction in Israel.

Saggiv attributes the initial lack of interest in the genre in Israel to the “hardships and inherent dangers of life in Israel,” including ongoing terror, war and economic depression. Science fiction, she says, requires “a detachment from everyday life” that’s hard to come by in Israel.

In addition, Israel, until recently, didn’t have the same “boldly go where no man has gone before” culture embodied in the science fiction ethos. The country is small; borders with its neighbors are mostly closed, although that has changed in recent years with many young Israelis making regular post-army trips to India and South America.

The army’s influence on Israeli society is also part of the reason Sci Fi remains limited, Shalev says. “The people who come to the ICON show can be split into three groups: high school and junior high school students, soldiers on vacation, and university students in their twenties. Our fan base doesn’t go much beyond the age of 25,” just about the point most Israelis are done with their army service and ready to settle down into work or school.

In the US, fans who grew up on the original Star Trek in the mid-1960s can range into their 50s and 60s today. “Here, after age 30, it becomes weird to hang around these people and hear these lectures,” Shalev explains. “Maybe the army makes people grow up faster.”

Do fans of Israeli Sci Fi and fantasy dream of a bigger following some day?

“Not really,” Shalev says. “In the US, some people really live it. They go to conventions all the time. For us, though, it’s really just a hobby.”

So, for most Israeli Sci Fi enthusiasts, the furry bunny ears will go back to the closet – at least until ‘Olamot’, the next Sci Fi and fantasy gathering due to take place in six months.

(Brian Blum is a Jerusalem-based writer and content management specialist. He writes the web column This Normal Life.)

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