Last Sunday the New York Times Magazine published an article by Samantha Shapiro entitled "Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah?" Well, sure they can. But will their influence blunt that of the current predominant hate-filled children's programming aired on stations such as Palestinian Authority TV and Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV? Unlikely.
The Palestinian version of Sesame Street entitled "Shara'a Simsim," in which the Muppets star, is filmed and broadcast via Al-Quds University's television studio located in one of the schools several satellite campuses.
Al-Quds became the center of controversy in 2006 when it was awarded a $2.3 million grant by USAID amid reports that the Islamic university hosted student groups affiliated with designated terrorist organizations, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In 2007, Al-Quds University held a weeklong celebration honoring Yahya Ayyash, better known as "the shahid (martyr) engineer" and the man credited with designing and building the first suicide belts as well as with training the next generation of suicide bomb-makers. After Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch alerted Congress to the ties the university has with designated terrorist groups, the US government passed a law making it illegal for any US funding to continue to go to the school.
During the Israeli military offensive in 2002, the university was defined by the IDF as a source of incitement and terrorism and its campus in El Bireh was subsequently raided. Two years later, three masked Palestinian men carrying automatic rifles stormed the offices of Al-Quds Educational Television and assaulted its staffers while destroying production equipment for reasons that still remain unknown.
Referring to Palestinian television in general, Shapiro claims that "there is very little programming created with [children] in mind." Unfortunately, this statement is far from the truth. Hamas TV, or Al-Aqsa TV, is popularly broadcast throughout the region and is best known for its children's programming inciting hatred, violence and child suicide-homicide bombing. Programs aired include a puppet show featuring a child puppet killing George Bush and turning the White House into a mosque, music videos teaching children to become suicide bombers, and most famously violating Disney's trademark Mickey Mouse by staging his brutal beating and subsequent "martyrdom" by an evil Jew.
A recent show aired on Sept 22, 2009, teaches Palestinian children to kill Jews and contains the following dialogue:
Nassur: “There won't be any Jews or Zionists, if Allah wills. They'll be erased.”
Saraa: “They'll be slaughtered.”
Nassur: “And just like we will visit the Qaaba [in Mecca]... everyone will visit Jerusalem.”
[Seven-year old Palestinian child on phone tells how his father, a member of the Hamas Al-Qassam Brigades, “died as a Shahid (Martyr).”]
Nassur to child on phone: “What do you want to do to the Jews who shot your father?”
Child on phone: “I want to kill them.”
Saraa: “We don't want to do anything to them, just expel them from our land.”
Nassur: “We want to slaughter (Nidbah-hom) them, so they will be expelled from our land, right?”
Saraa: “Yes. That's right. We will expel them from our land using all means.”
Nassur: “And if they don't want [to go] peacefully, by words or talking, we’ll have to [do it] by slaughter.” (Shaht)
Curiously, Shapiro makes no mention of the out-in-the-open and widely disseminated incitement to violence against Jews and Israelis being pumped daily into the living rooms of Palestinian families by Al-Aqsa television. Instead she describes Hamas' media arm simply as using characters that "teach ideological lessons" such as memorizing the Koran. Moreover, most of Al-Quds' adult programming has so far towed the official Hamas line of virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda. For example, during its first day broadcasting the station aired a eulogy of Yasser Arafat in which it was claimed that "Zionists and their proxies" had murdered the late PA leader by poisoning him. In a documentary about life in Nablus, Al-Quds aired interviews with Palestinian school children expressing their anger at Jews and claiming, "This is my city, this is not the Jew's city," and "This is not the Jew's home, he is dirty."
So, we are to believe that the Hamas-linked university's new venture into children's programming is apparently meant to be "apolitical," as described by one of its writers, with chosen themes for the upcoming season such as "respecting others." According to the U.S.-based nonprofit Sesame Workshop's official website, Shara’a Simsim “does not contain and (any) direct references to the region’s political situation. It does, however, include age-appropriate stories intended to help children develop tolerant and sympathetic attitudes toward other people.” Apparently it’s Sesame Workshop’s policy that every episode of “Simsim” receive prior review and approval before broadcast, though this is not written anywhere on its website. As reported by Shapiro, the show’s parent Sesame Workshop rejected an idea for a poster marketing “Simsim” to preschoolers because it depicted Palestinian children banging down the separation wall with hammers. The New York office scrapped the idea because of its “political ramifications” and the obvious safety issues involved when encouraging three year olds to venture into militarized areas guarded by armed soldiers to perform ad-hoc de-construction work. The new poster, showing a Palestinian family peacefully picnicking on a hill by the sea, was described by one staffer in Shapiro’s article, as a “disaster.” Other ideas Shapiro reports have been proposed for shows include a girl Muppet hiding in fear under a table while bats, representing the Israeli army, flock above her, or a scenes of a dove being shot as it attempts to fly into Gaza.
It is refreshing to know that there has begun an effort to air responsible children’s programming in the West Bank and Gaza. After all, Palestinian children have suffered enough. Surely they do not deserve to be subjected to further abuse at the hands of television programmers teaching hatred and suicidal violence, as has been the disturbing case so far. Yet it is unlikely that the show will successfully avoid political issues altogether given the culture of the society it is targeting. Back in the late 1990s Palestinian television stations refused to air the show at all because it had been co-produced with Israelis. Daoud Kuttab, executive producer of “Simsim,” told Shapiro that recreating the “let’s-get-along diversity of the American show” is “the wrong approach,” while another staffer charged with supervising the day-to-day operations of the program stated her refusal to air segments with anything “recognizably Israeli in them” including a truck with Hebrew lettering. Moreover, Shapiro reports that following 9-11 everyone involved in “Simsim” remains convinced that “it no longer makes sense to try to create segments featuring Israeli and Palestinian characters interacting.” How then are they encouraging respect for the other?
It is not entirely evident how Sesame’s New York based offices will conduct their reviews or what may slip through the cracks, nor is it clear how “Simsim” will bridge gaps as opposed to create them between the two societies living side by side. One also wonders why Sesame Workshop partnered with a Hamas-linked institution to create the show in the first place, as opposed to bringing in non-terrorist affiliated producers and entities. Most troubling however, is that any positive effects the show might have on Palestinian children will no doubt be diminished by the plurality of hate-programming available 24-7 and the systemic state-sponsored indoctrination occurring through state-runs schools, television radio and print media and well as by their religious and political leaders. Having visited the West Bank myself, and having interviewed programmers at PA TV as well as their child-viewers, I witnessed first hand the devastating effect such hate propaganda has on impressionable children. If Simsim’s producers are indeed successful in presenting a non-biased perspective that encourages peace and co-existence, against a background of incitement to violence and martyrdom, the most likely scenario is confused Palestinian children as a result of the contradictory messages. In order for “Simsim” to have any real and lasting effect, the status-quo negative media must be removed.