Tel Aviv, Israel
It's not clear if the film is a self-help one or a self-help for Israel one.
A new Israeli documentary that is expected to be screen across the U.S. in April has an ambitious goal: Change the way people think about Israel and refocus it on its innovations and spirit instead of wars, religion and falafel.
"Israel Inside: How a Small Nation Makes a Big Difference" tells the story of Israelis' unique characteristics that have made their country the so-called Start-Up Nation, a moniker derived from its absurdly abnormal pace of high tech inventions.
Aimed for release to mark Israel's 64th anniversary next month, the producers enlisted Tal Ben Shahar, a former Harvard professor of psychology and best-selling author, to narrate the film. Examining his reasons for leaving behind a promising career in the U.S. to return to his native Israel, Ben Shahar highlights what is so special about this place.
"When people think about Israel they think about war, or religion, or even falafel," said Ben Shahar. "But to me, when I think about Israel, I think about the triumph of the human spirit … about a country beyond the conflict cliches and controversies and that's where I wanted to be."
As Israel moves closer to April 26 when it marks its independence, it remains largely in the media's focus with regard to its efforts to stop Iran's nuclear buildup or its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
"This film is about change the conversation, changing the focus about Israel," Ben Shahar told a select group of international reporters including The Media Line at a special screening this week in Jerusalem. "I'm glad this film was made to highlight the positive things about Israel."
The glitzy production focuses on six "actualizers" that drive Israel. These are family, turning adversity to advantage, chutzpah, education, taking action and tikkun olam, or fixing the world.
Rebecca Shore, head writer of "Inside Israel," said the film is geared for a "wide audience" of people who held ambivalent views about Israel. "We are stepping up and saying 'This is the real Israel'," said Shor. "It's not just about flexing our muscles but telling others that they can succeed like Israel too."
"This isn't about propaganda. This is an attempt to let people understand the essence of the Jewish people," Shor added.
Ben Shahar is joined on screen by leading Israeli entrepreneurs, businessmen and political figures as they flesh out the actualizers and examine new inventions, like Re Walk, a robotic exoskeleton that helps a paraplegic walk on crutches.
While at Harvard, Ben Shahar's Positive Psychology class was the most popular in the university's history. But he left that and now teaches at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya.
Explaining what motivated him to lend his support for the film, Ben Shahar said he only rarely mentioned Israel in his popular course at Harvard. He said he had tried to explain to his students the importance of visual objects in promoting their well being. Whipping out the flags of the U.S. and Israel, he would say they represented his two favorite countries.
"Afterwards, so many of my students told me that they were moved and were proud to be Jewish or supporters of Israel," Ben Shahar said.
A former squash champion of Israel, Ben Shahar was also a founder of the David Project, a Boston-based non-profit that aims to boost support for Israel through education seminars and workshops. Backers of the film include Jerusalem OnlineU, an online educational portal that connects students worldwide to courses on Israel and Judaism.
The producers of the film have arranged for it to be broadcast on half a dozen Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) stations in the U.S. and shown at 64 events marking Israel Independence Day across America. They said they have also arranged for it to be shown at Jewish summer camps, community centers, synagogues and on campuses.
"We expect this film to have a long term shelf life," said Amy Holtz, president of Jerusalem OnlineU.com.
While the film borders on schmaltz at times, producers said they plan to have it translated into Hebrew for the Israeli audience, which can be highly cynical.
Erel Margalit, founder and chair of the venture capital firm Jerusalem Venture Partners, also appears in the film. He told reporters that Israel should be known for its creativity and become the world's "creative hub." But he acknowledged that the social unrest last summer across Israel could not be ignored, but rather embraced by the technological advances.
"The summer was about entrepreneurship more than anything I've ever seen," Margalit said. "The start-up nation needs to go from profit to social profit."
Ben Shahar dismissed the charges that the film was a self-help production whose main audience was supporters of Israel. "We're not preaching to the choir, but we are teaching the choir to sing better."
Ben Shahar quipped. "I'm for the day when people don't talk about Israel [in the media] but changing the conversation is the key issue right now. I teach that distraction is not ignoring a problem. Distraction could change the focus and take the conversation to a higher level."
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