RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - It’s always a sunny day on Sesame Street in the West Bank, where the neighbors are friendly and the muppets never see an Israeli army checkpoint all day long.
The Shara’a Simsim version of the popular television program teaches Palestinian children they can achieve their dream of an independent Palestinian state through tolerance, education and national pride — and not anti-Israeli violence.
“Our problem is that for so long we’ve been focusing on resistance and we gave up on other things like culture, education and tolerance,” said executive producer Daoud Kuttab.
“I believe that an educated, confident and tolerant society will help us build an independent, peaceful and non-violent state,” he added.
The fourth series, which airs on Palestine TV in January and has 52 half-hour episodes, aims to teach Palestinian children — mainly boys — non-violent ways of expression, by exposing them to empowered characters who serve as role models.
One such is six-year-old Basel, meaning brave in Arabic, who in one episode is seen brushing his teeth, wearing his clothes and tying his shoelaces alone and then waving a Palestinian flag and declaring: “It’s Basel’s independence day!”
The show’s Palestinian producers chose to make no reference to symbols of the Israeli occupation such as the West Bank barrier and the network of Israeli army checkpoints, which Palestinians say are sources of hardship.
“This is a program for pre-schoolers and we don’t need to show them all the things they see too much of anyway, which are the tensions that exist in their daily lives,” said Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop, which produces Sesame Street.
“This is a way to bring some hope into their lives.”
But a special effort was made to expose Palestinian children to other cultures to nurture their sense of tolerance.
“There are no Israelis in the program but we want to teach our kids to accept different peoples,” said Kuttab.
Although the program skirts issues related to Israel, it touches on the Gaza Strip and its 1.4 million residents who live under the rule of the Islamist group Hamas and are cut off from the West Bank, which is governed by the rival Fatah party.
In one episode, a Shara’a Simsim character is upset after losing contact with his brother, who lives in Gaza. His friends send a paper plane to the enclave carrying a message asking the brother to get in touch. Contact between the two is restored.
In the Gaza Strip, Hamas has its own children’s program which has been criticized for urging kids to fight Israel.
Knell told Reuters Sesame Workshop had asked international non-profit organizations, including the United Nations, to seal a deal with Hamas that would pave the way for Shara’a Simsim to be aired on a local television network in the Gaza Strip.
“It is our goal to expose the children of Gaza to our program. The children there have been in extraordinarily difficult circumstances not by their choice,” Knell said.
In Israel, Rechov Sumsum promotes coexistence between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens through muppets Sivan and Mahboub.
An Israeli-Palestinian version of Sesame Street was made in 1996 but Kuttab insisted on having a purely Palestinian version, which translated into Shara’a Simsim.
The new edition of Shara’a Simsim is funded through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and provides income for some 50 Palestinians, including script-writers, cameramen, actors, muppeteers and soundmen.
“This is 100 percent made in Palestine —- from A to Z,” he said.
Sesame Street celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. Its non-profit Sesame Workshop production firm takes pride in being the single largest informal educator of children in the world, with 30 active co-productions in 140 countries.
In South Africa, Takalani Sesame aims to de-stigmatize HIV positive orphans through Kami, a muppet who is open about his medical condition yet has self-esteem and friends.
Knell admits that fostering tolerance and peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a more grueling task: “When (Palestinian President Mahmoud) Abbas and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu wear Bert and Ernie watches, then our mission will be accomplished.”
Additional reporting by Roleen Tafakji; Editing by Paul Casciato