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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.