Sesame Street Divided
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
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
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.
"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
"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
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
“We say we are producing a program we can put on even in this time."
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 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,
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
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
"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
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.
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,
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.
http://www.hanania.com/, January 14, 2004)