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Muppets help Israeli-Palestinian relations

JERUSALEM, Nov. 2 (JTA) — Cookie Monster and his friends are breaking down stereotypes Israeli and Palestinian children have of each other.

That’s the conclusion of a group of educational media experts who met in Jerusalem this week to evaluate the first 18 months of “Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim,” the joint Israeli/Palestinian versions of the popular U.S. educational children’s television show “Sesame Street.”

As Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. officials gathered to push the peace process forward in Oslo this week, the experts were learning that colorful Hebrew- and Arabic-speaking muppets can play a role in peacemaking, too.

“We believe tolerance begins at home,” said Michal Arbel, director of Israel Educational Television, which produced the Israeli version.

“We have opened a small window” of “mutual respect for Palestinians and Israelis.”

Lewis Bernstein, vice president of special projects for Children’s Television Workshop, the U.S. producers of “Sesame Street,” said researchers — who presented studies of the show’s impact at the gathering on Monday — found that Israelis and Palestinians develop stereotypes early in life.

“Even preschool children have formed negative attitudes about each other,” said Bernstein, who was CTW’s project manager for the Israeli-Palestinian program.

After watching the show, he said of the children, “they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the other side.”

Bernstein also said parental involvement in the program was another indicator of success.

“Parents understood that the goal of the program is not just to entertain but to teach mutual respect — and they did not shut it off.”

The programs were designed to address problems unique to each culture and society as well as relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

For example, “Rechov Sumsum,” the Israeli version, took on the issues of integration of various immigrant communities and relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

For the Palestinians, the primary goal was emphasizing Palestinian culture.

“Palestinian identity and self-respect will have to come before mutual respect,” said Daoud Kuttab, the Palestinian executive producer.

“The aim is not to make a sea change. It is to make it normal for a Palestinian to see an Israeli in a different fashion, and vice versa.”

To achieve this goal, the show’s developers had to develop creative programming techniques amid difficult political and social realities. Since Palestinian and Israeli children almost never meet in real life, programming directors felt a credible mechanism had to be devised for children and muppets from both streets to come into contact on the show.

They devised “crossover” segments in which an event led them to visit the other’s street. For example, an Israeli boy on a bicycle gets a flat tire and finds himself on “Shara’a Simsim,” the Palestinian street, looking for help — or a Palestinian comes to “Rechov Sumsum” to visit an Israeli Arab cousin.

In one study of the show’s impact, an international team of Israeli, Palestinian and American experts surveyed more than 600 Jewish Israeli, Arab Israeli and Palestinian children aged 4 to 7 who had watched the show.

“Exposure to the program was linked to an increase in the use of pro-social justifications (such as friendship) to resolve conflict,” wrote the researchers. “Other findings included a rise, after exposure, in children’s use of positive attributes to describe members of the other group.”

The results were complex.

They showed, for example, that before the show began, 61 percent of the Palestinian children surveyed had negative stereotypes of Israelis while 19 percent of Israeli Jews had negative stereotypes of Palestinians.

After viewing the show, children from all test groups tended to use more positive attributes to describe the other, but Palestinians had developed additional negative attitudes as well.

The study also showed that in “conflict resolution” scenarios, such as an Israeli or Palestinian child confronting someone from the other side on a swing, both had developed a greater tendency to choose a friendly solution to resolve the conflict.

In addition, although both Israeli and Palestinian children tended to choose their own muppets as potential friends, about one-third of the Palestinian children wanted to be friends with Dafi, the purple Israeli girl muppet, and 25 percent of the Israelis would choose to be friends with Haneen or Kareem, her Palestinian counterparts.

If Israeli children “can start to see Palestinians as a potential friend, even if not a real one, then this is a great achievement,” said Yuli Tamir, Israel’s minister of absorption, who attended the opening of the seminar and could not hide her personal affinity for Cookie Monster.

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