Sunny days are sweeping the clouds away in the Middle East — with the help of a few furry neighbors.
Even as it emerges that Hamas has been using a Mickey Mouse lookalike to indoctrinate young children for war against Israel, “Sesame Street” is returning to Israeli and Palestinian televisions. New Muppets are joining veteran characters to empower children amid new social and political realities in their respective societies.
“Rechov Sumsum,” a co-production of Sesame Workshop and the Israeli cable channel Hop!, returned last December at Chanukah time. The new Palestinian version of the show, “Shara’a Simsim,” will air on the independent Palestinian Ma’an network starting May 15.
“The entire world is focused on this place,” said Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, which produces the popular educational television program. “We don’t expect the world to live in peace because of ‘Sesame Street'; we aren’t that naive. But we can contribute to a culture of peaceful conflict resolution and self-esteem.”
Knell toured the Middle East productions of “Sesame Street” last week with visits to Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. His last stop was an Arab-Jewish kindergarten in Jerusalem, where he joined Israeli Education Minister Yuli Tamir to launch the distribution in May of 5,000 free educational kits in Hebrew and Arabic to every kindergartener in Israel.
The kits include music from the show, educational computer games and classroom activities that reinforce “Sesame Street” messages.
“We are using ‘Sesame Street’ activities to create a process of tolerance, understanding and mutual learning,” Tamir said. “It opens up a new way to deal with conflict, teaching kids how to work together despite their differences.”
In addition to the Israeli kits, Sesame Workshop is distributing 10,000 kits based on the Palestinian production to every first-grader in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Rechov ! Sumsum,” which aired originally in the 1980s, went off the air in 1997 due to a lack of funding. That lack of support also doomed the Palestinian version in 1997, the year it had debuted.
Funding for the new “Rechov Sumsum” is coming from foundations and private donors. “Shara’a Simsim” is being supported by, among others, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ford Foundation, the government of Canada and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
After the shows ended in 1997, a joint Palestinian-Israeli production in the planning stages was shelved when the Palestinians launched the second intifada in 2000.
Instead, a limited series called “Sesame Stories” was produced in 2004 by independent Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian production teams. The animations and live-action episodes were dubbed and aired on each other’s series.
“The Muppets couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but they connected over falafel and hummus, and a common dislike of onions,” Knell said.
The new Israeli and Palestinian shows are produced independently, placing an emphasis on educating children about their own societies. Like any “Sesame Street,” they also teach basic skills like numbers and letters, good manners and keeping the environment clean.
“Rechov Sumsum” teaches tolerance by portraying a street inhabited by Israelis of varying backgrounds who live together peacefully: Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, veterans and immigrants. The neighbors are real-life children and adult characters, including a Jewish man named Tzahi, an Arab woman named Ibtisam, a Russian woman named Irina and an Ethiopian student named Malkamo.
They are joined by a cast of Muppets that includes past characters Noah and Brosh, the Israeli Bert and Ernie; Moishe Ufnik, the Israeli Oscar, a cantankerous grouch who lives in a garbage can; plus two new Muppet residents: Abigail, a bubbly, pink-haired 3-year-old, and the artistically inclined! Mahboub , the first Arab-Israeli Muppet.
“Children today growing up in Israel are living in a very tense time,” said Alona Apt, the producer of “Rechov Sumsum.” “They are affected at a very early age in terms of their aggressiveness to each other. The main goal is to show a different kind of reality, a different kind of street, to show children what common life can look like.”
Tolerance of diversity is not the only message from “Rechov Sumsum.” A song called “The Sound of Silence” teaches children to consider softening their tone of voice.
“Israelis are very loud,” Apt said. “Many people are upset about it, but no one does anything about it. So it’s a song about thinking twice about using the right pitch for what you want to say. Do you really need to speak so loud with someone who is just nearby?”
“Shara’a Simsim” this season is aiming to empower Palestinian boys, who increasingly are resorting to violence as a result of increasing poverty and unemployment, according to a Palestinian government study. They also are subjected to incitement to anti-Israel violence in Palestinian schools, summer camps and media.
Indeed, news of the new “Sesame Street” shows was overshadowed in early May when it was revealed that a Hamas TV station was using a Mickey Mouse clone to spread its message of fundamentalism and jihad to Palestinian toddlers. Hamas, the terrorist group that heads the Palestinian Authority, announced that it was suspending the show after the news provoked a storm of criticism.
Still, those dark clouds won’t rain on Sesame Street. On “Shara’a Simsim,” a new real-life character was introduced this season as a role model for boys: Salim, a young fix-it man who lends an ear to the show’s two Muppet stars, a rooster named Kareem and his younger female friend, Haneen.
In one episode, a storm destroys a swing set and uproots trees, leaving Haneen and Kareem angry that “things have been destroyed forever.” Salim in turn encourages the tw! o to gat her their neighbors to clean up the mess.
“What they find is that, just as they had built ‘Sesame Street’ in the first place, they can rebuild it and even make it a better place,” said Cairo Arafat, the content editor of “Shara’a Simsim.” “The more we give to our community, the better it gets.”
While the “Sesame Street” messages of tolerance and self-empowerment are aimed at young Israeli and Palestinian viewers, their parents might be able to learn a few things from the show as well.
“I wish that parents would sit down and watch this show more than children, on both sides,” Arafat said. “I think that a lot of what we try to teach children in preschool — the idea of respect for the self, respect for the other, understanding and having empathy — are things that we have lost as adults.”