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The Peace Process Takes New Road

Television: Israeli and Palestinian producers are partners in a groundbreaking Middle Eastern version of 'Sesame Street.'


JERUSALEM — Courage is not a quality usually associated with the production of the children's educational television series "Sesame Street," on which innocent Muppets teach the ABCs and 1-2-3s.

But put an Israeli Muppet on "Rehov Sumsum" and a Palestinian Muppet on "Sharaa Simsim," let the purple and orange monsters meet and suddenly the words "courageous" and "brave" are being used to describe the Israeli-Palestinian co-production that begins airing today.

This Middle Eastern version of "Sesame Street" is at once a symbol of hope for peaceful coexistence and a sign of how wrong things have gone with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: It strives to teach mutual respect but risks being seen as subversive on both sides.

"You did it," executive producer Lewis Bernstein, with the New York-based Children's Television Workshop, told his Israeli and Palestinian colleagues at a preview celebration last week. "We knew it would not be easy. We were right. . . . You have persevered."

And now, Bernstein said, "this is likely to be seen as a Rorschach test. We still don't know how, in the end, children and parents will react."

The fear is that the participants in the joint project will be accused of selling out to the other side, of creating a fantasy peace in an area still mired in conflict.

Israelis and Palestinians won't be the only ones watching the reaction. Children's Television Workshop already has had queries from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Ireland and South Africa about the production by Israel Educational Television, or IETV, and Al Quds University's Institute for Modern Media.

"Rehov Sumsum/Sharaa Simsim" was conceived in 1994 during what many believed was a new era of peace brought on by the historic handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the first meeting between the two sides was delayed when a Jewish law student assassinated Rabin in November 1995 over the deal to trade land for peace.

When Rabin's successor government was ousted in the May 1996 elections and the more conservative Benjamin Netanyahu was elected, several members of the Palestinian team quit the project, despairing over the prospects for peaceful coexistence.

As if to prove them right, an Islamic extremist suicide bomber killed himself and four Israelis in a chic Tel Aviv cafe on the eve of the filming of Palestinian segments at IETV's Tel Aviv studio.

But Palestinian producer Daoud Kuttab and Israeli producer Dolly Wolbrum were committed to carrying on.

"During production, it was very hard emotionally for both sides," Wolbrum said. "But we felt we must do this despite the assassination and bombings, because this is what the show is all about."

The "Rehov Sumsum/Sharaa Simsim" producers have not only created two streets for two peoples, they also have made two versions of "Sesame Street" with several "crossover" shows in which the Muppets meet. Israel, which already has had "Sesame Street" for several years, will air 60 episodes of 27 minutes each, with many segments on tolerance among different sectors of Israeli society as well as all of the Palestinian-produced material. About a fifth of the Israeli population is Arabic-speaking.

The Palestinians, who are just being introduced to "Sesame Street," will get 20 shows of 15 minutes each that include the crossover segments but otherwise very little of the Hebrew material.

The crossover segments teach tolerance and respect for each other's language and culture. While stressing similarities between the two peoples, however, they are a sad reminder of how little Israelis and Palestinians really know about each other.

In one segment, a 3-year-old Israeli Muppet named Dafi visits the Palestinian "Sharaa Simsim" to deliver a falafel to Adel, a bilingual music teacher, sent to him by his cousin Amal, an Israeli-Arab who lives on Rehov Sumsum. There, Dafi meets a 3-year-old Palestinian monster named Haneen.

"We eat falafel on Sharaa Simsim--do they eat falafel too?" Haneen asks Adel.

"Of course, Haneen. They eat falafel on Rehov Sumsum too," Adel answers.

When the two monsters, standing side by side, hear from Adel that they also share a taste for hummus, Haneen asks the music teacher, "Would you ask Dafi if she can talk to me for a minute?"

Kuttab, the Palestinian producer, said that Israelis on the project had wanted an introductory segment in which the two sides meet and become fast friends but that the Palestinians rejected the idea.

"We said no, that in reality it takes time to get to know each other. The political situation doesn't permit hugging and kissing when people are still dying. It is more credible to have a gradual build-up," he said.

The two sides agreed before production began that they would stay away from sensitive political issues. No soldiers in uniform, no flags, no other symbols of nationalism. And yet they ran into problems a few times when the Israelis felt the Palestinians were taking political stands.

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