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Behind the Headlines: Muppets Cross the Street to Join Israelis, Palestinians

April 8, 1998
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When colorful Israeli and Palestinian muppets met on screen last week for the first time in a new joint production of “Sesame Street,” their reactions mirrored the mutual apprehension that exists in everyday life here.

Haneen, an orange, female Palestinian muppet-monster was frightened by Kipi, a tall, Israeli porcupine, who towered over her like Big Bird from the original American series. Purple, pigtailed Dafi, an Israeli muppet, was spooked by the foreign-sounding cock-a-doodle-doo of Kareem, a friendly, Palestinian rooster.

But with the help of bilingual mediators, they learned to look and listen to one another and see past the differences.

This is the underlying theme of “Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim,” in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively, which was launched last week and will air in Israel and the West Bank during the coming weeks. It consists of 60 shows for Jewish children, 20 for Palestinians and several “crossover” segments in which residents of the two streets meet.

Bringing Israeli and Palestinian muppets together, however, was not as easy as the seamless segments might suggest — even children’s shows are not immune from politics in the Middle East.

For more than two years, Israeli and Palestinian production teams, with the help of American mediators, addressed complex educational issues amid a difficult reality.

“There were no easy moments,” said the executive producer of the project, Lewis Bernstein, who represented Children’s Television Workshop, the American creator of “Sesame Street.”

The project is a joint production of Children’s Television Workshop, Israel Educational Television and Al-Quds University’s Institute for Modern Media, which is located in eastern Jerusalem.

“It started with high hopes at the beginning of the peace process with the handshake on the White House lawn,” he said, referring to the historic launching of the Oslo peace process with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in September 1993.

“But there was a real sense on both sides that the asymmetry between the groups would be difficult to bridge, both on the political and national levels of development and on the level of television development.”

Indeed, the project faced the difficult political realities from its beginning. Just days before a scheduled seminar between the Israeli and Palestinian production teams in November 1995, then-Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated.

And throughout the planning and production stages, the ups and downs of a peace process riddled with violence threatened to scuttle the project. Bernstein was constantly summoned, like U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross is in the political realm, to keep the program on track.

“Our job was to keep them focused on the program, and to say: `With all this going on you still have to give this to the children,'” said Bernstein.

“I had an easier time than Ross,” he said jokingly. “He deals with real people. I deal with muppets.”

But even muppets presented problems, as producers tried to create a fantasy land in which children could learn real-life lessons of tolerance along with the alphabet.

“We wanted to strike a balance between being grounded in reality, and at the same time being positive and forward looking,” said Daoud Kuttab, the Palestinian producer.

Kuttab, a prominent journalist and director of the Al-Quds’ institute, remembers how the Israeli team wanted the children and muppets to meet as friends in the first program, while the Palestinian team “thought it would be more credible to the children to have the relationship build up gradually.”

But where would they meet? Both sides had already agreed that the Palestinians and Israelis would have their own streets. They discussed a park to link the two streets and serve as a meeting ground.

But in true Middle East style, land was a loaded issue.

“We had to decide who owned the park,” said Kuttab, “and we didn’t want to create a border in the middle. It just produced more problems than solutions.”

Dolly Wolbrum, the Israeli producer, protested because, she said, the Palestinians were imposing adult norms on the children.

“Only adults could ask who the park belongs to,” she said. “Children just want to play.”

Kuttab and his crew proposed a compromise. Residents of “Rechov Sumsum” and “Shara’a Simsim” would meet in specially designed crossover segments.

In one segment, Amal, the Arab Israeli doctor of “Rechov Sumsum,” brings Kipi the porcupine and muppet Dafi to “Shara’a Simsim” to visit her Palestinian cousin Adel. In another, an Israeli boy takes a wrong turn on his bicycle and gets a flat tire in the Palestinian neighborhood, where he is helped out by its Arabic-speaking residents.

These scenes created a particular challenge, since the conversations are in both Hebrew and Arabic — “the language of war” to the other side, according to Bernstein.

Wolbrum explains the rationale: “One of the ideas was that even if the children don’t understand the scene, they should get used to hearing the other’s language.”

Research conducted prior to the show’s production showed that children continued to watch the show even when the language shifted to one they didn’t understand. The characters they saw did not fit common stereotypes, such as Leila, a 12-year-old Palestinian girl — and a computer freak.

“We wanted Israelis to realize that there are intellectuals among the Palestinians, and that they are not all dishwashers and janitors,” said Bernstein. “We thought the best way to humanize the Palestinian side was to create a variety of interesting, human characters.”

Program participants also found that their own stereotypes were challenged.

Bernstein, a kipah-wearing modern Orthodox Jew, remembers being introduced to the girl who played Leila on “Shara’a Simsim.” Seeing his kipah, she did not believe he was an American producer; she was convinced he was a Jewish settler from the West Bank.

“We were trying to get both groups to focus beyond the symbols,” said Bernstein. “The whole idea is to teach kids that there are real people behind those things you are sometimes afraid of.”

But when they got to the real symbols, compromise proved difficult. Wolbrum wanted to humanize the image of the Israeli soldier in the eyes of the Palestinians — but the Palestinians objected, as did Children’s Television Workshop, which does not allow soldiers in its programs.

And when the Palestinians wanted to use the word “Palestine,” Wolbrum was afraid of a backlash from the publicly funded Israel Educational Television.

The word was to be included in a script about a runner who represented the Palestinians in the 1996 Olympics — but the scene was never shot because the day the program involving the athlete was slated to be filmed, the Gaza Strip was sealed off because of a suicide bombing.

Jerusalem, the thorniest of all Palestinian-Israeli issues and a potent symbol for all, was included in a scene showing Israeli and Palestinian children discussing pictures they drew of the Holy City for an exhibit at the Israel Museum.

“The scene depicts tolerance and gets a message across that Jerusalem is holy to everyone,” said Wolbrum.

Perhaps, say all involved, Israeli and Palestinian leaders could learn a lesson or two from these pioneering children and muppets.

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