JERUSALEM (AP) — The goal was merely to promote clean energy in Israel — but television ads starring a pair of male puppets called "plug" and "socket" have instead unleashed a debate about gay pride.
The puppets, named Sheka and Teka in Hebrew, have appeared in ads for the state-owned Israel Electric Corp. for more than a decade. Israelis have long playfully questioned whether they might be gay. But the arrival of a baby puppet in the new campaign set off fresh speculation about their sexual orientation.
The ads highlight a striking paradox of the Holy Land: Although religion holds great sway and there is no civil marriage, gays have gained a widespread acceptance that is increasingly noted around the world. Gay activists demand the ad characters, who have a close but ambiguous relationship, officially come out of the closet.
Some gay rights advocates accuse the company of being intentionally ambiguous about their sexuality in a cynical publicity ploy.
"This should weigh on the conscience of everyone who worked on this campaign, who will come home and ask themselves whether they would want to raise a child in a country where the electric company says: 'Hide, don't be proud,'" wrote Dvir Bar in nightlife magazine City Mouse.
Sheka and Teka have drawn comparisons with another famous puppet pair: Bert and Ernie, whose sexuality also has come into question in pop culture. Sesame Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," has declared that the two are just good friends and they "remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."
In their latest ad, Sheka and Teka are seen in a living room, talking to a pinkish baby puppet with a tuft of orange hair. The scene then flashes back to a hospital nursery, where the baby is sucking on a pacifier and Teka congratulates Sheka on the birth of his child. It's unclear who the mother is.
Later in the ad, the duo sits on a park bench with the child. They breathe in the fresh air the electricity company suggests is made possible by cleaner energy production. Teka sniffs and suggests that the baby needs a diaper change.
Other ads have seen the two on a shaded paddle boat in the Dead Sea, driving a red convertible in crisp black suits and sunglasses, and lounging on the couch in their pajamas. They have also been seen sharing a room with single beds. Many of the ads are public service announcements, warning children about the dangers of climbing electricity towers or getting too close to space heaters.
The Israel Electric Corp. says it does not understand the fuss over the campaign. It says the puppets, who have been on the air since 2002, are merely delivering the company's messages.
"They represent the concerned Israeli, who is really worried about the air quality he is breathing and the environment he lives in. The baby that was born now represents the next generation," said Oren Helman, a senior vice president who is behind the commercial. "There are no hints or ambiguities here."
Although sections of Israeli society — especially ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs — remain conservative and often deeply opposed to homosexuality, Israel is seen as one of the world's most progressive countries in terms of gay rights.
Gays serve openly in Israel's military and parliament, and the Supreme Court has granted gays a variety of family rights such as inheritance and survivors' benefits. Gays, lesbians and even a transsexual are among the country's most popular musicians and actors.
Officially, there is no gay marriage in Israel, primarily because there is no civil marriage. All weddings must be carried out through the Jewish rabbinate, which considers homosexuality a sin and a violation of Jewish law. But the state recognizes same-sex couples who marry abroad, although they are not granted all the rights extended to heterosexual married couples.
Gay adoption is allowed in certain circumstances but activists say same-sex couples are discriminated against during the process. Surrogacy or adopting abroad is also an option and the partner of a parent can adopt the child of his or her partner, at a court's discretion.
In a column on the Walla website, writer and blogger Nir Hoffman lambasted the ad.
"As long as the policy of ambiguity continues, Sheka and Teka are preserving and perpetuating a situation in which there is something strange, funny and mysterious in homosexuality that must be hidden and should not be spoken about," he wrote.
Gil Kol, a spokesman for the Israeli national LGBT task force, an advocacy group, said the criticism was far-fetched and that his interpretation of the pair's relationship was clear.
"Sheka and Teka have represented the Israeli Electric Corp. for years and have been gay for years. Having kids and expanding the family seems to be a natural stage in the evolution of the story. That pretty much represents what is happening in the LGBT community," he said.
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