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Sesame Street Divided

Lauren Gelfond

Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

That's what the classic U.S. Sesame Street theme song used to ask, and of course everyone wanted to get there, where children of all colours and even animals and monsters - were good, and everyone sang and skipped beneath the blue, blue skies.

In the early 1980s, a Hebrew edition mixed with dubbed U.S. segments aired successfully in Israel. And in the optimistic post-Oslo years, a version for Israeli and Palestinian audiences was also a hit. But that new street buckled under the weight of the Intifada. The program was cancelled.

Sesame, however, was reinvented. Since October, the latest reincarnation is three separate Middle East Sesame Stories - Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli.

Characters no longer meet "the other” in the street or at all. But they

-- human, animated, or Muppet -- must observe a mandate of tolerance. That was the task put to Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian producers by Sesame Workshop, the producers of Sesame Street, which partnered with international sponsors.

Hailed initially as an example of partnership, the producers now say that they have on occasion brainstormed together and shared material, but are not really working partners.

And while producers think local children may be ready to learn about their nice neighbours next door, they don't seem to think they are yet ready to learn about neighbours across the border.

They are convinced that they are planting the seeds for children to "open sesame" to one another - even if the shows are separate and asymmetrical, with the Palestinian and Jordanian shows opting not to include Jewish characters. But they are afraid funding will stop. Regardless of incentives from foreign donors for politically correct productions, producers say the local atmosphere creates real limitations.

The Palestinians

"We have two choices - either do something so politically correct and loving that our kids throw eggs at it and look at you like you live on Mars and lose their trust. Or you try to walk on eggshells and introduce certain ideas and keep it very light," says Daoud Kuttab, executive producer of the Palestinian program.

"Is it the best way to teach tolerance? No. But we can build on it. This is the best we can do under the circumstances."

In a live-action segment, a group frolics at the Dead Sea, caked in mud.

After they bathe, they celebrate that under the brown goop, each has a different hair and skin colour, height, age, and body shape.

The show teaches children to respect others with differences gender, financial, physical, social -- without referring to specific religions or nationalities, namely Jews and Israelis.

While the Palestinians have used some banked segments of Jewish children in Tel Aviv and Haifa, for example, the segments were dubbed into Arabic. In translation, viewers unfamiliar with the Israeli landscape won’t recognize a Jewish or Israeli element.

Shari Rosenfeld, the U.S.-based project manager, says that having a child with a yarmulke on the Palestinian program, for example, would be considered provocative. "A kippa seems for Palestinians highly associated with the image of settlers," she says. "[The show] has to be something acceptable to children and parents and not be inflammatory in any way."

The reverse situation - an Arabic garment shown on the Israeli program - wouldn't necessarily be a parallel, she says. "Look, Israel is twenty percent Arab; we had to create situations relative to the local population."

It's not clear if funders and Sesame executives had envisioned this lack of symmetry in story lines, or in how the three countries would work together.

Press materials celebrated all three programs as a working collaboration between countries promoting cultural diversity.

Says Kuttab, “We had general agreements, but we didn't have to work together physically. We met, shared animation and live action [segments], but in a perfect world, where there is no political context, and where there is peace with each other, I'd do things much better. As TV people and producers we can contribute to peace, but it's minuscule when there are tanks on our streets or children blown up on Israeli streets. Guns speak louder [than we do].”

Twenty-six episodes air on ten local Palestinian stations, created in the local dialect using local actors, writers, researchers, and without Palestinian Authority input.

But Israelis ask why Palestinian children can't be shown humane Jewish children, and Palestinians charge the program is not addressing the reality of the Palestinian streets.

"Some [Palestinian] people think it's politically incorrect,” says Kuttab.

“We say we are producing a program we can put on even in this time."

The Jordanians

Jordanians ultimately signed-on, too, but without using Jewish characters and without using banked Israeli live-action segments. At press time, with twenty-six segments in reruns, the producer declined to elaborate on how the program teaches tolerance, saying he was concerned about how comments could affect the future of the program.

The Israelis

The Israeli team wanted its program to reflect Israel's population of children, including the Arabic-speaking.

"We wanted an Arab Israeli child to be proud of [his/her] culture shown on screen. A Jewish child sometimes lives [close by] but has no glimpse into [an Arab] house. We want to demystify, reduce stereotypes," says Alona Abt, executive director.

In an animated segment, two giggling youngsters scale a cactus bush. As they count their cuttings, their apparent difference comes to light. One counts in Hebrew; the other in Arabic.

A field of bushes in Israel where Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking children play together is not the reality on the ground or on television.

"You will not see Arab children on public or private commercial channels," says Haneen Zoubi, Director of the I'lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel.

But the Israeli segments do regularly introduce sympathetic Arabic-speaking children and adults. A principal human character is Ibtisam, an upbeat art student and good friend of Jewish neighbour, Tzahi, a craftsman.

In the season’s opening, when she comes to borrow glue from Tzahi and sprinkles the conversation with Arabic, Tzahi's two red and orange Muppet assistants wonder how the two, with so many differences, can be friends, but quickly discover it’s okay.

The program stays away from characters - Jewish or Arab - in traditional clothing. Palestinian creators were asked to stop dressing so many characters in headdresses and Palestinians from across the Green Line are unheard of.

"We do not try to manifest Jews and Arabs as holding the torch of national identity, which is a heavy burden for a five-year-old. We give a day-to-day portrait," says Abt.

A scene with a lifeguard and his daughter shows that “Her and him being Arab is just 'by the way,'" and creates normative images of Arabs as neighbours, she adds.

Though the scripting relied on Arab advisers, Israeli producers didn't work hand-in-hand with Palestinians, says Abt. "Under the circumstances, 'working together' is a very big phrase. It's three productions - each one stands alone."

The program also introduces general children’s and Israeli themes.

An Israeli parent, a teacher of the Bible and Jewish history, writes in that the program moved him to tears. "It might be the last program to show people as humans... Your messages are the most advanced type in our divided country torn by violence."

In a shared animated segment, a lonely calf befriends a butterfly and a fish. But when they decide where to play they get stuck. The fish must stay in the water; the butterfly in the air; and the calf on dry land.

Eventually they realize that a long friendship can endure if they continue talking, each from his turf.

They all live happily ever after, it seems, though they have not found a united Sesame Street on which to play.

Lauren Gelfond is a writer for the Jerusalem Post and is the winner in the Israeli press category of the 2003 Eliav-Sartawi Awards for Middle Eastern Journalism, founded by the Zel Lurie Journalism Fund.

Source: Jerusalem Post Magazine, March 5, 2004. This is a shortened version of the article that was originally published in the Jerusalem Post. http://www.jpost.com

Cooperation needed:
From Pullout to Peace
In light of recent speculation concerning Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and maybe some West Bank settlements, this Jordan Times editorial highlights the need for coordinated efforts with regional and international actors. The editorial also points out that, “Israel must start putting its own rhetoric aside and make some political calculations. What is good for the Palestinians is good for Israel. The better life is for Palestinians, the more secure Israelis will be.” (Source: The Jordan Times, March 14, 2004)

Gaza First:
But Not Gaza Only!
Rosenberg, Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum and former editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report, discusses the worsening Israel-Palestinian conflict and the decision by Israeli PM Sharon to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. According to Rosenberg, “This [move] could be very good news. But only if Sharon’s proposed unilateral moves are coordinated with the Palestinians. No warring party has ever made peace by itself.” (Source: Israel Policy Forum, March 5, 2004)

A Palestinian Refusenik's Open Letter:
To the Jewish People
“If we look to find a reason to hate each other, we will always succeed individually, and then fail together. But if we constantly strive to find reasons to come together, to seek hope and to achieve fairness for both sides, not even the worst kind of hate can stop us.” Palestinian American columnist Ray Hanania discusses his efforts in advocating in favour of the moderate Palestinian voices in the face of ongoing violence and hatred in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
(Source: http://www.hanania.com/, January 14, 2004)

Common Ground News Service February 20, 2004
CGNews promotes constructive perspectives and dialogue about current Middle East issues.

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 22-02-2004



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