Not as simple as ABCs: Sesame Street execs on the Middle East

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Click photo to download. Caption: Avigail, Elmo, Alona Abt (Rehov Sumsum's director on its set in Herzliya), Melvin Ming (president and CEO of Sesame Workshop), and the Arab Israeli character Mahboub. In center in the Rehov Sumsm (Sesame Street) sign. Credit: D Guthrie.

JERUSALEM—Elmo, Sivan, Mahboub and Avigail are happily enjoying a picnic on “Rehov Sumsum,” Israel’s Sesame Street, when a dispute over whether it’s better to drink their juice with or without straws arises.

Mahboub, the show’s first Arab Israeli character, who was introduced last season, and Sivan, who sits in a wheelchair, take opposing sides. Pretty soon the teams are chanting their positions and divided up with a line down the picnic table between Mahboub and Avigail, who like to drink with a straw, and Elmo and Sivan, who don’t. After some thoughtful conversation with Uncle Shmuel, the only adult character on the show, the four realize they all enjoy picnics, so why not sit together? They break into song: “Sometimes different, sometimes the same. That’s what makes life interesting!”   

The short online episode is part of a curriculum launched in 2012 called “It’s most worthwhile to be fair” by Sesame Workshop and the Israeli children’s network Hop!, where “Rehov Sumsum” is aired. The project includes classroom and home activities, television episodes, and online resources in Hebrew and Arabic. Since the Israeli Ministry of Education approved the curriculum, 900 teachers have utilized it, and 25 percent of those are in Arab schools, according to Hop!.

For the first time this past season, an Arabic special of the show, which debuted in 1983, was aired on Israeli television. A dubbed Arabic version of the show has been shown before. But it’s still challenging to get “Rehov Sumsum” into Arab Israeli households.

Click photo to download. Caption: Melvin Ming, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, in dialogue with Oscar the Grouch. In the background are U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro and Hebrew University's Prof. Gad Yair. Credit: D Guthrie.

“The Palestinian kids are mostly watching Arab television,” says Shari Rosenfeld, Sesame’s vice president of the global education department, during a recent interview with JNS.org at Hebrew University. Rosenfeld and Melvin Ming, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, were attending the “Family, Education and Media in a Diverse Society” conference. 

While the campaign sticks to childhood conflicts for its 3-5-year-old audience, Sesame hopes the furry friends can shape attitudes regarding equality, self-respect and respecting others.

“I think if we give children the means to negotiate the complexities of their world, I think they will be a part of the solution set that is more difficult for adults, because we seem to assume that this cannot be fixed,” Ming tells JNS.org. “Before kids learn about how different they are it’s amazing what can be done.”

While teachers, education researchers and Hop! executives reported on the new curriculum at the gathering, Ming said he was pleased to hear how children’s vocabulary on fairness was expanding as a result.

Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right, Alona Abt (Rehov Sumsum's director on its set in Herzliya), Tamir Paul, Melvin Ming (president and CEO of Sesame Workshop), and Elmo, in front of the Rehov Sumsum (Sesame Street) sign in Israel. Credit: D Guthrie.

“After the engagement, after the modeling, after the exchange with the teacher or moderator, they’re a little broader in their definition, therefore more accepting of more ideas,” he notes.

Multimedia programs like this are what make Israel a laboratory for educational ideas, Ming says, adding that he wants to bring the project to other countries. Sesame airs in some two dozen countries.

According to Rosenfeld, the Israeli and Palestinian Sesame Streets helped inspire “Sesame Street” shows in other conflict zones like Northern Ireland and Kosovo. Ming sees Sesame’s role in tense regions as no different from its role anywhere else.

“If they get the ABCs and 123s you can actually empower them to tell their own story,” Ming says. “Imagine a world where every child is comfortable telling their story and then they share [it]… For me that’s an appealing, powerful concept. Where kids learn the value of their voice but also to respect voices. [That] will lead to a brighter future for all of us.”

During their visit, Ming and Rosenfeld visited Ramallah and met with the Palestinian education minister to discuss renewing funding for “Shar’a Simsim,” Sesame Street’s Palestinian show. It received some $200 million to last from 2008-2011 from the U.S. Agency for International Development and was scheduled to receive another grant for 2012-2014, but its funding was halted. Congress froze the transfer of funds that had included $2.5 million for “Shar’a Simsim” to USAID in October 2011 following the Palestinian Authority’s statehood bid at the United Nations.

“Having been here and having visited I feel a renewed commitment to do what we can at Sesame to encourage the reinstitution of that funding,” says Ming. “If those children are not getting the kind of content that we will create what are they getting?”

But while some see “Shar’a Simsim” as a victim of the political process, others say the show’s defunding through the USAID freeze was a natural extension of U.S. policy resulting from the Palestinians’ actions. A November 2011 Congressional Research Service report (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RS22967.pdf) states that U.S. foreign assistance to the Palestinians is meant to promote U.S. policy interests including preventing terrorism against Israel from Hamas and other terrorist groups, preparing the Palestinians for peaceful coexistence and self-governance, and meeting humanitarian needs and preventing destabilization.

The USAID freeze that impacted “Shar’a Simsim” was “based not only on the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to obtain legitimacy as an independent state outside the framework of negotiations with Israel, but also on the PA-Hamas consensus agreement—under which the Palestinian leadership embraced a terrorist entity sworn to Israel’s destruction,” CAMERA(Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) analyst Ricki Hollander wrote in an op-ed for JNS.org last year.

Hollander argued that instead of lamenting the defunding of Palestinian Sesame Street, the public and the media (which ran headlines on the issue such as “Congress makes Elmo cry by defunding Palestinian ‘Sesame Street,” “Kermit kaput for Palestinian kids in 2012,” and “Muppets soft target of statehood payback”) should focus on the demonization of Israel on Palestinian Authority TV, a channel whose various music videos and other broadcasts glorifying suicide bombers have been documented by Palestinian Media Watch. She also noted a Hamas children’s TV show that “routinely urges youngsters to exterminate the Jews” through the messenger of a Mickey Mouse-like puppet named Farfour.

“Instead of decrying the toll on children forced temporarily to watch Sesame Street re-runs, journalists would do better to cover the persistent assault on Palestinian children’s innocence by inciting them to kill,” Hollander wrote. “Perhaps, readers and listeners would then gain a more accurate understanding of the role Palestinian television plays in thwarting the possibility of peace and coexistence.”

The American “Sesame Street,” meanwhile, has also had a tumultuous year. Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind the American Elmo for the last 28 years, left the show in November after facing allegations that he had sexual relations with minors.

“The fact that such goodwill for Sesame as the icon that it is has permitted us to come through a pretty difficult year,” says Ming.

On top of that, “Sesame Street” gained newfound fame and notoriety during the presidential elections when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in a debate, opposed its small government funding. Ming says the Romney episode ultimately proved positive because it revealed the nation’s commitment to commercial-free, pre-school television. Sesame, however, was careful not to choose sides in the election, and even told President Barack Obama’s campaign to remove Big Bird from its advertisements.

Now that the campaign is over, Sesame is back to exploring how Middle East neighbors can exist side by side.

“Part of Sesame Workshop’s DNA has been to always push the boundaries and… address critical and often times seemingly difficult issues and to do it in a way that is age appropriate,” says Rosenfeld.

Posted on February 12, 2013 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..