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Israel at 70: A Piece of Hollywood in the Middle East

Seventy years after it established statehood in 1948, modern Israel is a country wrapped up in contradictions, a place where the same person who barges ahead of you in line will invite you over for dinner. And he’ll mean it, and you’ll go. (“Sabra,” a prickly pear-like fruit, is a word often used to describe native-born Israelis — spiky on the outside, sweet on the inside.) Thanks to political clashes and ever-boiling arguments over peoplehood and land, Israel is a culture of distrust and suspicion, but also one of insurmountable joy and celebration, of vibrant clubs and cafes humming with fiery conversation and lazy Saturday outings at a Mediterranean beach.

Sociologically, Israel is the exact opposite of Los Angeles, a city in which everybody threatens to get together, but rarely does; in Israel, entire neighborhoods turn up at weddings. If you’re looking for subtlety and refinement, you won’t find it in Israel, a place where Starbucks failed because its coffee is just too weak.

“We have a great deal of passion toward life, and I think that can be misinterpreted as aggressive because of the delivery and the manner with which we conduct our business and our lives,” says Israeli actress Moran Atias, who stars in Fox’s “The Resident.” “There’s a sense of efficiency — it cuts right to the chase.”

Israel is also one of the most heavily scrutinized nations in the world, boycotted by such rock icons as Roger Waters and, most recently, Lorde, entertainers whom media mogul Haim Saban unapologetically refers to as “ignorant wusses who don’t understand the issues.”
Jerusalem-born Keshet CEO Avi Nir calls Israel “a closely knit but diverse society with huge, intense and emotional differences.”

Perhaps it’s this emotional wattage that has helped to foster an environment in which Israel has emerged over the past decade as a global powerhouse of arts and entertainment, a pulsating hub of creativity in film, TV, dance, music and technology. From small screen series “In Treatment” (“BeTipul” in Hebrew) to “Homeland” (“Hatufim”) to Gal Gadot and internationally renowned mentalist Lior Suchard, Israeli imports have taken Hollywood — and the world — by storm.

“‘In Treatment’ gained attention quite immediately because of its unique format and its universality, which made the series easy to pitch, easy to produce, easy to use the scripts as they are and can attract big names everywhere,” says series creator Hagai Levi, who’s since gone on to create Showtime’s “The Affair.”

“From the moment HBO bought ‘In Treatment’ in 2006, things have been changed here. The country was flooded with agents and executives trying to buy the rights for everything they could.”

Born of tiny budgets and tight deadlines, Israeli fare lacks the gleaming bells and whistles of big Hollywood productions, but it’s these limitations, says Levi, that nourish heightened creativity and keeps Hollywood wanting more.

“When I created ‘In Treatment,’ the option to sell a show or a format abroad just didn’t exist, as it never happened before, and that actually allowed me to be totally free from any speculations or business considerations and to be absolutely faithful to my personal vision, to dare to do something completely new and risky,” he says. “The combination of total creative freedom that I had, which you can get only in a place where the industry is not money-driven but art-driven, plus the super tiny budgets TV productions had in Israel, and still have, gave me the needed space to be innovative.”

Fauda” creator and star Lior Raz, who based the idea for the dramatic series on his experience as an undercover operative in the Israel Defense Forces, was shocked that anybody outside Israel would be interested in watching it.

“When we sold our show to Netflix I thought, ‘it’s in Arabic and Hebrew — why would anybody watch the show?’ Still I don’t have an answer,” he says. “Maybe it’s because our budget is so very low, so you have to be very creative in order to have action, dramatic tension and a compelling story. You have to develop the relationships at a much higher level.”

In part because of Israel’s steadily growing position as a bastion of arts and culture, celebrity tourism to Israel has spiked — when shooting “Homeland,” Claire Danes stayed at the boutique-y Brown Tel Aviv; Mick Jagger and Michael Douglas vacationed at the city’s luxe Hotel Montefiore.

“Despite the efforts of a vocal minority,” notes David Renzer, chairman of Spirit Music Group and co-founder of the Creative Community for Peace, artists such as Elton John, Alicia Keys and Justin Timberlake continue to perform for Israeli audiences.

“Israel is an open-minded place to be,” says Raz. “If you are in Tel Aviv you feel the atmosphere — the amazing beaches, great food and restaurants, amazing people. And they are warm people. That’s the most important thing. People think [Israel] is just camels and guns and desert — but it’s not. It’s a real fun country to live in.”

To those nervous about visiting Israel, dissuaded by whatever they see on the news, Saban replies with his signature deadpan humor. “Lots more people die on the 405 [freeway] than die in Israel,” he says. “Don’t get on the 405.”

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