Israeli government aims to be seen promoting liberal policy

Aside from being the epicenter of the Israel film industry, Tel Aviv is quickly earning a reputation as the hottest gay destination in the Middle East. Or, as screenwriter, producer and journalist Gal Uchovsky says, “It’s good to be gay in Israel.”

In some Middle East countries, being gay is cause for punishment, including a death penalty. However, Israel’s right-wing, conservative government is putting a great deal of resources into promoting the country as a place that accepts and welcomes homosexuals.

Tel Aviv, where 70,000 marched in this year’s Gay Pride parade, has long been a place where attitudes and dress codes are laid back and gay clubs are a prominent component of the city’s thriving nightlife.

So confident is Tel Aviv’s tourism association in the city’s appeal to the gay community that it recently launched a massive branding campaign, dubbed Tel Aviv Gay Vibe, hoping to entice gay and lesbian visitors from all over the world.

Tel Aviv hosts an industry that creates, produces and exports a disproportionate number of movies with gay themes and characters.

“Israelis have really accepted gays as a fact of life,” says Uchovsky. “And if you accept gays as a fact of life, there is glass ceiling. … When I come to pitch a series for cable, they know that I’m gay.”

Uchovsky and his longtime partner, director Eytan Fox, are the creative team behind “Walk on Water” (L’Lechet al HaMayim), the second-highest-grossing Israeli film in U.S. box office history, and the critically acclaimed “Yossi and Jagger.”

The two are prominent gay activists, and played a major role in Israel’s “gay revolution” of the late 1980s, which created an atmosphere of acceptance and equality.

“Because Israel is a small place and its film industry is small, a few very vocal and talented people in the industry — gay people — have played a significant role,” says Itai Pinkas, Tel Aviv city councilman and adviser to the mayor on LGBT affairs. “Artists really took the lead (in the late 1980s) and inspired people to go the courts (to fight) discrimination.”

In 1983, Amos Guttman made Israel’s first openly gay film, “Drifting” (Nagu’a), which tells the story of a lost young man with a dream of making it in the movies. By the time Guttman died of AIDS 10 years later at 38, a series of government reforms had made Israel a very different place for its gay citizens.

Another filmmaker, Assi Azar, a 32-year-old TV personality named one of the 100 Most Influential Gay People in the World by Out magazine, has spent the past month in the U.S. promoting his coming-out documentary “Mom & Dad: I Have Something to Tell You,” a government-backed project about the perils kids face when telling their parents they are gay.

Israel’s pro-homosexuals stance is admired by many, though some detractors say it is an attempt to divert attention from its treatment of Palestinians.

“Some people tell me, ‘They’re using your films, your liberal message of gay-oriented films as a fig leaf,’?” says Fox. “I’ve been accused of cooperating with the government or the establishment to create that fig leaf.”

Israeli films with gay subject matter are not, however, confined to secular themes.

“Eyes Wide Open” (Einayim Petuhot), which won the John Schlesinger Award at the 2010 Palm Springs Film Festival and the Grand Prix at the 2009 Ghent Film Festival, is about a married ultra-Orthodox father and husband tormented by his love for a younger man. Avi Nesher’s “The Secrets” (HaSodot), in which a lesbian love affair is just one forbidden arena explored by two students at an all-girls seminary in the mystical town of Safed, was nominated for the 2010 GLAAD award.

Fox believes that the government’s motivation for embracing the gay community is far less important than the results. “The fact that my films are as successful as they’ve been in Israel gives me hope that there is a potential to embrace the ‘other,’?” he says. “When I was growing up in Israel and when I started making films, the gay ‘other’ was almost as big a threat as a Palestinian or an Arab. So maybe I’m too optimistic, but I feel that the ability to love gay characters … one day will transfer itself to the ability to understand our neighbors, enemies, future friends.”

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