Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Muppets and Middle East Peace

NEW YORK – Can furry puppets in Day-Glo colors provide the lessons we need to calm the fires of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The Muppet empire is now worldwide. Those who grew up with the children’s educational TV show Sesame Street know that it gives five-year-olds easy-to-take lessons in literacy, numeracy, and social skills. But Sesame Street has a loftier agenda, finding partners in the developing world – including Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Pakistan – to bring the fuzzy little creatures, with their message of peace and tolerance, to local audiences.

A new documentary, “When Muppets Dream of Peace,” tracks the harrowing joint production of Sesame Street in Israel and Palestine, with a Jordanian production team brought in to help facilitate. This program, like so many educational or cultural Israeli-Palestinian partnerships, began in starry-eyed idealism. But, based on the film – and on a recent panel discussion with the filmmakers and a Muppets spokesman in New York City – it was undermined by a common flaw in such partnerships.

The original plan – like with so many of these programs – was based on a notion of parity: Israeli and Palestinian production teams would work together. But the Palestinian partners vetoed that idea – “We aren’t there yet,” they explained. Could they have a stand-alone Palestinian Sesame Street? No funding for that, came the reply.

The Palestinian team finally agreed to parallel productions with a major “cultural exchange” element – rather than creating segments together, they would produce a series with Palestinian Muppets and adults that also incorporated cartoons and mini-documentaries produced by the Israelis and Jordanians. The other two teams would do likewise. Some unifying characters – such as an Arab- Israeli girl who explains each “side” to the other – would create a measure of continuity.

The New York-based management wanted the Palestinians and Israelis to portray each other in a humanizing way. Again, the Palestinians resisted. Rather than focus on creating scenarios that showed Israelis – even Israeli kids – in a positive light, they wanted to focus on showing Palestinian culture in a positive light, portraying Palestinian youths as role models, and providing images to kids that offered alternatives to violence.

But then reality intervened again. A suicide bomber attacked in Israel, and, in retaliation, the Israel Defense Forces took over Ramallah, where the tiny Palestinian Sesame Street studio was located. Day after day, the talented Palestinian team of animators, puppeteers, designers, cameramen, and producers could not get to work – even as the Israeli team was churning out their own material in a brightly lit, well-funded studio in Tel Aviv.

Then the IDF occupied the TV station itself and destroyed it, along with the team’s computers and cameras. The documentary’s footage of shot-out computer screens and piles of smashed printers and cameras – under graffiti reading “Palestine Never” – makes one despair.

Meanwhile, New York was growing impatient, letting the Palestinian team know that their segments were late – and, under what was essentially a military occupation, the Palestinians began to rethink whether this was the right kind of project to which to devote their energies. The New York producer overseeing the project, a single mother, was reluctant initially to visit Ramallah – so the Palestinian team’s inability to produce their segments on time was, like so many aspects of the Palestinian experience, hidden behind a barrier of fear, not fully witnessed, and thus not fully comprehended.

The co-production has ended. But there is a Palestinian Sesame Street and an Israeli Sesame Street, and there are positive Arab-Israeli characters in the Israeli version. And the creators of these programs, together with the filmmakers behind “When Muppets Dream of Peace,” offer important lessons for all of us.

One quote from a Palestinian TV production team member stayed with me: “This is a shotgun wedding,” he explained when he was advocating for a Palestine-only Sesame Street. “And we want a divorce.”

The Palestinian team is utterly indistinguishable, superficially, from their European or Israeli counterparts: they are hip, young, talented, sophisticated, and more than anything they want to work to create a positive environment for their kids – or at least a psychological respite from the reality of occupation, violence, and war.

But how often does the outside world – even the best-intentioned donors and program creators – reach out to Palestinian civil society on its own terms, without insisting on that “shotgun wedding?” How often are resources invested in Palestinian films, books, newspapers, high schools, dance troupes, teachers, etc. without requiring the recipients to make friendly gestures to Israel?

Many civil-society elements in the Muslim world have turned their backs on possible partnerships with Israeli counterparts. One Egyptian actor was boycotted at home for merely appearing in Cannes with an Israeli actress. But I am certain that the more intently outsiders invest in Palestinian civil society on its own terms, the less exasperated the Palestinian intelligentsia – and the Muslim world – will become with the often-coerced terms of Palestine's creativity. A vibrant Palestinian civil society could become more flexible and open toward possible partnerships – including more natural, holistic Israeli-Palestinian joint ventures – thus benefiting the region as a whole.

The Muppets have taught generations of kids worldwide how to count to ten and share cookies. In the 1970’s in the United States, they taught us about an interracial couple on Sesame Street. In South Africa, the creators asked for – and got – a puppet that was an HIV-positive child, since acceptance of such kids was a lesson that local educators told the New York team they needed to teach.

In the Sesame Street of Palestine and Israel, the failure of the joint venture was really a success: the Muppets and their creators have given us another valuable lesson, this time in how – and how not – to help others.

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