This book is an in-depth evaluation of the Arab and Hebrew language versions of the Sesame Street TV show. Sesame Street was created as an American educational children’s TV program that premiered on November 10, 1969, with initial positive reviews - albeit some controversy - and a stable high viewership from its first episode. The format utilized “a strong visual style, fast-moving action, as well as animation and live-action short films and to vary its pace,” presumably keeping it interesting for the young. The show has had a significant educational impact on its viewers. By its 50th anniversary in 2019, it had produced over 4,500 episodes, two feature-length movies, 35 TV specials, 200 home videos, and 180 albums. Sesame Street has been one of the longest-running shows in the world, run in79 languages.
In our specific case, the challenge has been to determine if and what was the impact on an audience through its formative years, a generation born and socialized into a still ongoing violent polarized reality.
To set the context, though exceptional it’s worth noting three types of joint experimental education of Arab and Jewish children citizens of Israel: a) A joint bilingual secular, mixed and integrated educational Hand in Hand primary and secondary school, b) The totally integrated School for Peace at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace), about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv conceived by choice in an Arab/Jewish mixed village. And c) in mixed cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv-Jaffa, we find a small group of Arab children attending by parental choice Hebrew speaking schools. Jewish schoolchildren have the option of learning Arabic language courses in the government secular system. Unfortunately, the Nation-State Law removed Arabic as one of the two official languages in Israel. And there is the Edna D. Leir Peace Kindergarten founded in 1981, a bilingual Arabic/Hebrew kindergarten run by the Jerusalem’s International YMCA where Arab and Jewish infants learn simultaneously to speak in both languages.
The broader issue of early socialization with “peace education” involves learning in separate language-schools for children facing violent confrontations. This question was studied and tested in Israeli schools, but with the deterioration of the Israeli/Palestinian relations across the divide, those projects have almost been forgotten. For decades the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been a laboratory for testing different models pf formal and informal education when they were still possible. However, due to the restrictive policies, most sports and summer camps and many other noble initiatives collapsed when the level of physical escalation and Palestinian appeals to boycott encounters of any type did not permit such exchanges. Or even worse, when the disappointment due to a lack of continuity caused many youngsters to arrive at a closure towards the “Other.” Different models for short or long physical encounters such as summer camps; music, games, popular sports, joint photos or drawing exhibits; the different models of “contact theory” eventually were discontinued, both because the escalation of violence making visits to each other increasingly difficult; or because the hostile environment and the asymmetric suffering brought the Palestinian’s more radical wing to call for a boycott of joint ventures. The overall policy of BDS did not provide exceptions for any age group, hence building bridges at an early age was curtailed as protracted conflict across generations and more than a century of violence zigzagged towards a growing level of mistrust. Far more stories of hatred and asymmetric power than friendship and equality were transmitted through the media. Any attempts at a more hopeful message sent from the TV screen was contradicted by the grim reality that is seen through the window. The author of this research project and subsequently this book has meticulously studied the existing bibliography both in relation to the overall Jewish/ Arab conflict and the professional analysis of mass communication and thus is indirectly adding to a globally relevant issue, the degree of trauma of children undergoing protracted communal ethno political disputes. Her research demonstrates that the analysis of “peace education” through TV media urgently requires learning from the best practices and lessons learnt about potential pitfalls.
Within this context, a specific examination of the Hebrew and Arabic language versions of Sesame Street explains why in the Israeli/Palestinian case study the author considers it as a failure. The author has gathered first hand data from Arab and Jewish children, interviewed adults that worked with them, and reviewed as widely as possible relevant bibliography not only zooming into this seemingly dyadic conflict as well exploring the gap with positive global success. Yet in the early 1980s, a Hebrew edition mixed with dubbed U.S. segments aired successfully in Israel. And in the optimistic post-Oslo 1993 agreements period, a version for Israeli and for Palestinian audiences was received with enthusiasm. “Shara'a Simsim” (Arabic: شارع سمسم ) was a Palestinian educational television program for preschoolers based on the Sesame Street. In 1994, Children’s Television Workshop proposed the idea of a joint Israeli-Palestinian Sesame Street co-production. Work on the series began in 1995s and began airing in 1998, as a joint program with the Israeli version of Sesame Street, Rechov Sumsum. Two separate Israeli and Palestinian teams were formed, with their own producers and writers; the Israeli team was based in Tel Aviv, and the Palestinian team in Ramallah. Each team signed a separate deal with Children’s Television Workshop. The series cost $4 million and was financed by multiple groups, including Israel Educational Television, Al-Quds Educational Television, and foreign donors. The show was nearly cancelled while in production, due to pressures from both sides against cooperation. Several members of the Palestinian team left in May 1996, after Benjamin Netanyahu was elected. The show then was affected by the outbreak of the extremely violent Intifada Al-Aqsa rebellion that began in 2001. The Arabic program was cancelled, while the Hebrew version continued separately until today. The generic Arabic version of Sesame Street returned to Palestinian television screens in Arabic in September 2015, but it is wary of dealing with some of the harsher issues facing the Middle East including sectarian and racial divides. In short, the latest reincarnation is in three separate Middle East Sesame shows - Palestinian, Jordanian, and Israeli.
Multiple reviews of the Sesame Street TV program globally preceded this original work of Prof. Warshel.1 From a methodologic perspective, her book is introduced as “the first to assess audiences’ interpretations of a Peace communications intervention in the context of an ethno-political nationalist conflict.” The field of “Peace Communication” (hereafter PEACECOMM) has been recently developed, and her particular evaluation suggests tools that can build it as a “subdiscipline.” Connecting TV media with peace education and evaluating its impact on a dyadic conflict is, no doubt, innovative.
The groundbreaking nature of her work has been advancing a PEACECOMM and perhaps a wider guiding concept such as “edutainment,” defined as a distinct category for children’s television programs “aimed at reducing negative inter-group and stereotypes to promote inter-group friendship that might build peace.” Warshel’s book is divided into four major parts: The first covers in-depth the methodology used to assess Sesame Street and its effect on three groups of children; the second is producing a rigorous assessment of the audience reception, the third is based on the evaluation of its findings; and the last and fourth part is not only traditionally just to summarize the main conclusions but, more importantly, also to come up with 17 specific elaborated recommendations.
For the experiment undertaken by Professor Warshel selected the last of the three villages - Baqa, Beit Safafa and West/East Barta’a - which were cut into halves by the Armistice Agreement that was signed the year after the withdrawal of the British Mandate in 1948. In 1949, the Jordanian-Israeli General Armistice Agreement, which formally concluded the Israeli-Jordanian front of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War/Israeli War of Independence, divided Barta’a and two other Palestinian villages, Baqa and Beit Safafa, along the agreed-upon border for the cessation of hostilities, or “Green Line.” Families were often physically separated and communicated from the two sides of the fence. But after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war the two parts of the villages got reunited. The entirety of the three villages became part of Israel. Thus, East Barta’a in the West Bank, previously part of “occupied” by Jordan, together with the western side of the village, or West Barta’a (“Bartaʿa al- Gharbiyya” in Arabic), became part of land “occupied” by Israel. I asked her to explain why the Barta’a case was selected and got a long, detailed, and plausible answer. The terminology chosen by the author to describe hyphenated ethnopolitical components’ identity and citizenship rights in pp 128-135 as follows: 1. Jewish Israelis, 2. Palestinians citizens of the non-state institution Palestinian –“National Authority”; and 3. Arab/Palestinian Israelis.
While praising this systematic study, it is regrettable if budget constraints did not allow research in all three of the pre-1967 split villages, since additional intervening variables not covered in the research design could affect the full validity of her hypotheses based on a single case of a split location. I still consider that for a full understanding of the potential impact of a future Arab/Hebrew version of Sesame Street the authors recommendations would have been more relevant if the physical “contact theory” led to an even worse animosity within an urban or suburban shared space – like Jerusalem neighborhoods Abu-Tur or Bet Safafa. That would be necessary, considering the quantitative and qualitative importance of such populations not just an autonomous location but as suburbs of Jerusalem, a symbol of discord in itself.
Back to the bigger picture. Thirty years after its broadcasted premiere, Sesame Street continues to pursue its mission of entertaining and educating children around the world. One colleague summarizes: “This article assesses the impact of the U.S. Sesame Street and several international Sesame Street co-productions, through a review of research on the series’ effects on children’s academic skills and social behavior: Consistent patterns of data collected over 30 years indicate that Sesame Street holds significant positive effects for its viewers across a broad range of subject areas. Measurable effects can endure for as long as 10 to 12 years, and many have been found to be consistent across countries and cultures as well.”
“Whether it is created locally, externally, organically by professionals, citizens, activists or practitioners,” Warshel writes. “The research helps determine whether peace communication interventions make meaningful sense.” If they don’t, Warshel adds, the research, namely, assessment and evaluation, also helps reveal paths for improvement.
I consider this study as “cutting edge” and furthering the subdiscipline of peace communication for children; and concur with her own statement but would like to add the importance of the social responsibility of academics, often called “action research” [Kurt Lewin] and “acknowledgement” explained by Stanley Cohen as “act-upon knowledge.” Similar to the medical ethics, in the social sciences it is incumbent upon our achieved higher level of education to be actively involved as part of the solution. In conclusion, I would like to point out that having known Yael Warshel both in Jerusalem and Maryland I still hope that from my own experience of “learning by doing,” she will do best by translating her own recommendations into constructive projects to implement them. I hope she is already planning to do so.
1 Dr. Yael Warshel has worked at the intersection of media and conflict policy, practice and analysis. She has coordinated communication policy for UNESCO, worked as a photojournalist with the Zimbabwe Inter Africa News Agency, and taught at UCLA, UCSD and American University as an Assistant Professor of International Communication and International Peace and Conflict Resolution. She has conducted icy relevant research with the Center for International Development and Conflict Management, the Jerusalem based Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Center for Middle East Development, and the Center for Research on Peace Education. She earned her PhD in communication from UC San Diego, MA in communication from the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania, and BA in interdisciplinary studies from UC Berkeley, which she combined with a photography major from the USC School of Cinema-Television. Presently, Ms. Warshel is an Assistant Professor of International Communications at the Pennsylvania State University.