Israeli TV Finds Comedy in Jewish-Arab Relations
May. 30, 1988
JERUSALEM (AP) _ Itzik, an Israeli version of Archie Bunker, can't get used to having Arabs next-door. His Arab neighbor can't get used to Itzik.
The hotheaded pair are the central characters in ''Neighbors,'' a comedy series produced by Israeli television about a subject most people consider deadly serious: Jewish-Arab relations.
The 70-minute pilot broadcast Friday night started off with Itzik, a Jewish insurance salesman, moving into a new apartment.
He's happy until he notices the nameplate across the hall has a distinctly Arab ring: Medawar.
A few minutes later, a middle-aged woman knocks on Itzik's door to ask for help fixing a short circuit. Itzik asks her how she feels about ''the issue.''
''Oh, I don't mind having Jewish neighbors,'' replies Muna Medawar.
But Itzik minds have Arabs next-door.
When Mrs. Medawar's husband, Bassam, a garage owner, shows up in Itzik's apartment with a tire, Itzik exclaims: ''Oh my God, a burning tire in the house 3/8''
The Arab dubs Itzik ''Mr. Transfer.''
The references are clear.
Burning tires have become a symbol of the six-month Palestinian uprising against Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. And right-wing Israelis want to transfer all Arabs out of the occupied lands.
Itzik's wife, Dorit, is more tolerant. Within minutes, she is visiting Muna for coffee and setting off a chain of neighborly interactions.
''The message is simple: we can live together,'' said Victor Kamar, the Arab Israeli who directed the show. Producer Mika Ravid is Jewish, and the actors are Jews and Arabs.
It was not so simple to produce a show on personal relations between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens. ''Neighbors'' is Israel Television's first entertainment show in 20 years to approach such sensitive subjects as racism, prejudice, mutual suspicion and political enmity.
At least one previous attempt on Educational Television failed because critics feared the program's encouragement of peaceful coexistence might be interpreted as extending beyond friendly relations - to romantic ties and interfaith marriages.
''We may just tiptoe around that bombshell,'' Ravid said.
''Neighbors,'' produced on a budget of a little more than $50,000, is considered the brainchild of Yosef Barel, manager of the television's Arabic Department. Nearly two years ago, he suggested a humorous show about ''the problem.''
''We invested a tremendous amount of time and work,'' Ravid said. ''We sat down over every scene and every sensitive point so that it could touch on current issues but not offend anyone on either side.''
One technique that makes the show understandable to all is that the Israeli characters speak Hebrew, with Arabic subtitles, while the Arabs speak their own language, with Hebrew subtitles.
The show is not directly about relations between Israelis and Palestinians from the occupied territories. Its message of tolerance is built around Israel's Arab citizens - a community of 750,000 people who have lived in the state since its independence but who face discrimination despite their status as citizens.
Bassam Zumot, a Palestinian from Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, said he thought long and hard before accepting the lead role, because the theme did not touch on the issue of occupation.
But the burly man, who portrays a character constantly battling his waistline as well as his wife's diet food is a key factor in making the program work. His range of facial expressions is one reason viewers can laugh at the painful topic that few Israelis and even fewer Palestinians feel free to joke about.
When Muna warns him that the rich fried foods he loves will drive up his blood pressure, he says, ''That guy across the hall will give me high blood pressure.''
''He just needs time to get used to us,'' Muna says.
''Get used to us? What are we, asthma?'' Bassam retorts, sneaking a plateful of cookies to eat in the bathroom.
The actor hopes the series, which will be ready for next winter's television season, will be ''a step on the road to peace.''
''I want people to think more than laugh,'' Zumot said. ''I think of the apartment building as this region of the world. The Jewish apartment is Israel, and the Arab apartment is Palestine. And I want the Israelis to learn that when there will be a Palestinian state, it will not be as dangerous as they think.''