Immigrants changing cultural face of Israel, panelists say in S.F.

Minority voices have transformed Israeli culture over the last five decades, said participants in a conference on Israeli-U.S. cultural ties.

"You had in the past a kind of conformist nature, whereas now it's more diverse and multicultured," said Fred Astren, director of San Francisco State's Jewish studies program in his opening remarks at the fourth annual Western States Conference on Israeli-U.S. Cultural Ties. The two-day event took place earlier this month at SFSU.

Participating in a panel discussion on "Israeli Culture at the Turn of the Century," Tel Aviv author Savyon Liebrecht had similar thoughts.

"It used to be one voice," said Liebrecht, who relayed some of the changes she's seen since moving to Israel as a child. But "Israel is a country of immigrants," she said, adding that it "was inevitable" that all the different voices from different backgrounds would "speak up."

Liebrecht, who is a playwright, television script writer and short story writer, added: "The voices of the minority are more interesting than the voices of the mainstream."

Moderated by Daniel Shek, Israel's consul general in San Francisco, the three-person panel set the tone for the conference on uniting the separate paths of Israeli and American-Jewish cultures through forging a deeper understanding.

While Liebrecht applauded cultural changes in Israel, panelist Dan Kiram expressed some concerns, including economic obstacles.

"The culture of Israel is struggling for its survival in more than one way," said Kiram, who is deputy director general for cultural and scientific relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. "The state cannot support the arts — music, literature, theater — as perhaps we would like to see."

Kiram said it is widely hoped that the situation will improve, but he said that right now, the funding is insufficient.

As for the younger generation of artists, Liebrecht described a developing political apathy.

They "openly declare they don't have an interest in politics," she said.

Donny Inbar, cultural affairs officer for the Israeli Consulate General in San Francisco, offered his insights: "The younger generation doesn't deal with anything as heavy as…their parents did," he said. "They're not as into politics and issues. They're more into pop culture. Things are changing."

Only by taking an interest in such issues can Israelis and American Jews understand one another's cultures, said panelist Raphael Gamzou, the New York-based Israeli consul for cultural affairs in the United States.

"By looking with curiosity into our local issues and matters, by both sides becoming experts, we can develop some common language — a real dialogue and exchange," Gamzou said.