Muppets bridge gap in Middle East Television: An Israeli-Palestinian version of 'Sesame Street,' to begin airing next year, will teach tolerance as well as traditional educational skills.

September 22, 1996|By Charles W. Holmes | Charles W. Holmes,COX NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM -- Move over Bibi and Yasser, make way for Bert and Ernie.

The peace process may be faltering, but an intrepid group of educators and filmmakers is embarking on a joint Israeli- Palestinian version of "Sesame Street."

The hope is to give children a common ground for learning after years of bloody struggle between the two peoples, and perhaps inch the conflict-torn Middle East a little closer toward peace.

The set will feature two streets, one Israeli and the other Palestinian, converging on a neutral park -- a kind of no-Muppets' land -- where both Hebrew and Arabic are spoken.

"We hope such a 'common area' will become reality for us all in the not-too-distant future," said Dolly Wolbrum, executive producer of the Israeli production. "The most important thing for us to teach is tolerance."

The idea for a joint production, scheduled to begin airing in the fall of 1997, sprang from the historic 1993 accord between Israel and the Palestinians and the dramatic handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

"It is a unique opportunity to break the stereotypes that Israelis have about Palestinians, and there is no better place to start that process than with children," said Daoud Kuttab, who heads an independent film institute running the Palestinian production. "Best of all, we're doing it in a way that we, as the Palestinian creators, are in control of determining our image."

Advancing the $4.5 million project has proved nearly as fitful as the peace process.

"A year ago in the first seminar you could just tell they were, to an extent, still looking at each other as enemies -- as Israelis and Palestinians with all that baggage on their backs," recalled Lewis Bernstein, the project's director at Children's Television Workshop in New York, which originated "Sesame Street."

Early skeptics

Bernstein is credited with initiating the idea of a Palestinian-Israeli production. But Children's Television Workshop's management and some key underwriters initially were skeptical of the idea and the potential headaches involved.

"Sesame Street" is seen in more than 130 countries. But never before has Children's Television Workshop attempted a production between former enemies who still harbor such bitterness.

"This is a project that would scare anybody," Bernstein said in a telephone interview from New York.

The project has stumbled along the way over emotional questions of what images and reality to present to the target audience -- children aged 3 to 6 who live in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians insist that their street, to be modeled after a typical Arab village, should not be open to idle Israeli passersby. If an Israeli character visits the street, he should be there for a reason, and at the invitation of a Palestinian.

"We want to present the Palestinian children with the feeling of a safe and secure home and street and neighborhood -- not one in which an Israeli can come to uninvited and pretend it is theirs, as reality is now with settlers and soldiers," Kuttab said.

The Israeli creators want the production to be more daring in an attempt to break down barriers: Israeli-Arab violence? Show the home life of an Israeli soldier or a Palestinian insurgent to humanize them. The conflict over Jerusalem? Play up the three religions worshiping at a church, a mosque and a synagogue, and reflect the love each holds for the city.

"It is a big task," conceded Wolbrum. "But in my opinion there should be no subjects that are taboo as long as they are communicated to children in the right way."

Even the common area between the streets has not been fully agreed upon. Some sort of park is envisioned, but just how the characters will interact remains undecided.

"Everything for them is loaded," Wolbrum said of the Palestinian creators. "They ask, To whom does the park belong? And I said, Who owns the park? It's not a question the children will ask, it's only a question that we as adults ask."

Delicate balance

Kuttab insists that the joint production must present a delicately refined image of peace that reflects the still-difficult reality, but doesn't overwhelm children with political and cultural discord.

"On the Palestinian side, there are many who are concerned that the show will give a false sense of normalization between the two sides, when reality is far from that," said Kuttab.

In Israel, "Rehov Sumsum" as "Sesame Street" is known in Hebrew, has existed for more than a decade. Because Israeli Educational Television has the production facilities and the budget, it is essentially incorporating the Palestinians in what amounts to a new round of 60 episodes.

The show, to be known in Arabic as "Shara'a Sumsum," will air on Israeli TVA, which also is beamed to the territories and Jordan.

Yasser Arafat's ruling Palestinian Authority declined to contribute to the production, because of the bare budget of the official Palestinian Broadcast Corp. and a need to establish its autonomy from Israel.

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