Muppets Save Palestinians, Israelis From Each Other
Adam, a young Israeli, gets lost riding his bicycle and finds himself on a Palestinian street. His bike breaks down, and he looks for help. It arrives, in the form of a bug-eyed, orange monster and a rooster with rainbow plumage, who earnestly confer in Arabic.
Adam's bike is soon repaired, and he heads back to his neighborhood, after extracting a promise from his new friends to visit him soon.
Obviously, this is no ordinary neighborhood. Adam is a character on "Rehov Sumsum," the Israeli version of "Sesame Street." And Haneen and Karim, the monster and rooster, are gregarious puppets who will live on "Sharea Simsim," the Palestinian name for a new, multilingual version of that Israeli program set to air as a joint production of the popular children's TV show.
This expanded program has a monumental goal: to break down the deep-rooted hatreds between Israelis and Palestinians. Versions of "Sesame Street" exist in countries from Poland to China, but this one is the first joint production between the two sides - and its creators are determined to teach children the tolerance and mutual respect of friends, even if peace still seems uncertain.
There are many parallels between this new show and the beleaguered Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
The idea of a show for Palestinians and Israelis originated in the Children's Television Workshop in New York in 1994, but it was some time before it could be put together. Both sides liked the idea, but they wanted to represent themselves. Palestinians refused to be merely characters on an Israeli Sesame Street: They wanted their own street. Many Palestinian writers and producers shied away from the project, unwilling to be part of a joint venture with Israelis. Like the peace process, production has been rocky at times, even after a deal was reached, and the joint production has been brokered by American producers.
The Israeli team is eager to present the two sides as good friends, explains resident producer Josh Selig, while the Palestinians want to incorporate what they say are realistic elements of wariness. At production meetings, fierce arguments break out over whether puppets from one street should say they are "afraid" to meet puppets from another, and whether a Palestinian character should explain he learned Hebrew from working for Israelis. The Israeli team wants him to say he has Israeli "friends" - a Palestinian writer scoffs and rejects that suggestion as unrealistic. "At least we didn't say he learned Hebrew in prison or from being a day laborer with an Israeli foreman - that would be more realistic," he mutters.
The Palestinian team is also wary of how the Israelis will react to their presentation of Jerusalem, a city now controlled by Israel but which each side claims as its capital. There has been hesitation about using the word "Palestine" in the scripts. (It's staying.) Even a short Palestinian film clip, which deals with the familiar themes of moving away from home and making new friends, caused tension - because it is called "Coming Home" and features a family of Palestinian refugees coming to live in the West Bank from Jordan.
IN the middle of these debates is Mr. Selig, a Sesame Street producer from New York sent to troubleshoot - rather like the role of a US State Department envoy. Selig says he has gradually learned how deep sensitivities run. A seemingly innocuous script where the characters share falafel was contentious in the eyes of the Palestinians, who resented the Israeli presentation of the snack as their own; they argue it is originally an Arab food. Selig defuses some of the most tense discussions by reminding his colleagues that they should "be looking through the eyes of a four-year-old, who isn't thinking about politics...."
The show will be broadcast on Israeli television, which Palestinians also receive, and have about two-thirds Israeli, one-third Palestinian content (a division based not on any political considerations but on the fact that while there has been a "Rehov Sumsum" in Israel for 15 years, the new Palestinian team lacks the experience, skills, and equipment of the Israelis). This week, the two teams will come together in a studio in Tel Aviv to start filming the scenes where the Israeli and Palestinian characters first meet.
The Palestinian-produced portion of the show aims to teach Israeli children about aspects of Palestinian culture, such as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and local music, using innovative methods. The letters of the alphabet are animated in a style reminiscent of the elaborate embroidery of traditional Palestinian dress and handicrafts.
And while it is introducing Palestinians to Israel, the show will also take Palestinian children from different parts of the West Bank and Gaza to places, only an hour away, that they may never have been able to visit.
The Israeli-produced segments tackle the issue of tolerance, both in terms of Palestinians and inside Israeli society itself. "We talk about tolerance between religious and secular people, between new immigrants and old citizens of Israel," explains Dolly Wolbrum, executive producer of "Rehov Sumsum." "We want to show that we are all the same people underneath."
For Ms. Wolbrum, and most of the Israeli staff, this show is a first experience in working with Palestinians - one she calls, with conscious diplomacy, "interesting."
Wolbrum knows the show has some deeply entrenched stereotypes to conquer. "The only idea Palestinian children have of Israelis is that of soldiers at checkpoints, and the Israelis know only Palestinians who bomb buses," she says. "That's reality - but Sesame Street, with its puppets, is not reality. If we wanted reality, we would watch the news. This is what we believe will be reality in a few years. We have to have hope."
The entertaining but educational format of "Sesame Street" has long been applauded by parents. But does Wolbrum worry that the emphasis on cooperation with Palestinians may be deemed politically inappropriate by some parents who would otherwise encourage their children to watch the show?
"No parent in Israel, even those with the most fanatical views, is going to say that they do not want to teach their children about tolerance," she says emphatically.