Squirming While We Laugh

Don Futterman
Don Futterman
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Don Futterman
Don Futterman

Possibly the easiest thing you will ever be asked to do to better understand Jewish-Arab relations in Israel is watch "Avodah Aravit" ("Arab Labor" ). Television viewing is usually not hard work, but the show, which returned to Channel 2 on Saturday night, makes it effortless because it is blessed with all three of the ingredients required for a top-flight sitcom: excellent ensemble acting with characters we can care about, an infinitely rich subject, and great comic writing.

Three years after the first season was seen by more than a million viewers, with consistently high ratings among Jewish (but not Arab ) viewers, the season premiere thrust us right back into Amjad's world. Amjad (Norman Issa ), a token Arab reporter for a Hebrew newspaper, is repeatedly assigned to write features that only reinforce Jewish readers' stereotypes of Arabs as quaint. He is desperate to enjoy the comforts and freedoms taken for granted by his Jewish colleagues and to be accepted by Jews, but this impossible quest twists his soul into a pretzel.

Writing separates the best sitcoms from the dunghills of mediocrity and "Arab Labor"'s writing is not only first-rate, but, astonishingly, the work of one man. Sayed Kashua is a triple threat: He is the lone scriptwriter, he is a columnist for this newspaper and his recently released third novel, "Second Person Singular," earned flattering reviews. The tyranny of sitcom rules demanding three jokes per page dooms most scriptwriters to be tediously superficial, but Kashua produces scripts that are authentic, moving and funny as hell.

The genius of "Arab Labor" is its ability to use sitcom set-ups to pinpoint both the most banal and torturous dilemmas facing Israel's Palestinian citizens. In Saturday night's episode, Amjad's desire to have sufficient water pressure to allow a decent shower leads him to pop naked into a stranger's bathroom while apartment-hunting - a classic sitcom situation. But when Amjad tries some "Jewish" assertiveness at the Water Authority, instead of improved pressure he gets a demolition order.

In real life, Arab citizens of Israel take such Catch-22s so much for granted - they can't get permits because government authorities want them to evaporate, so they build illegally and pray the axe never falls - that Kashua is able to slip the awful threat of losing one's home into family bickering, rather than playing it up as grand tragedy. Amjad's family is more outraged by his naivete than at the injustice of their situation.

Unlike Kashua's persona in his Friday column, Amjad is unaware of the futility of his quest for acceptance, so there is less neurotic despair. Amjad is ever optimistic - and forever being slapped down. His dilemma is the comic engine of the show, a subject that ranks with Archie Bunker and the breakdown of the racial divide, or Hawkeye Pierce navigating the wreckage of war with jokes and flirtation on "M*A*S*H."

If there were gripes about the first season, they came from members of the Arab community, where ratings of 5 to 10 percent were far below the Jewish average of 19.1 percent, according to Udi Lion, the show's executive director and director of specialized programming for Keshet broadcasting.

According to Lion, Amjad's sycophantic behavior toward Jews was anathema to the Arab audience, though it was the scheming manipulations of the Abu Amjad character (Amjad's father, played by Salim Dau ) that provoked the harshest response. Some viewers felt mocked, and critics charged Kashua with pandering to Jews (and to Keshet ) by lacerating Arab society and behavior.

"Arab Labor" does indeed aim for a Jewish audience, focusing more on points of friction between them and Arabs than on internal Arab concerns. Lion, who feels a sense of mission about exposing Jews to the Arab experience in Israel, suggests that Arab viewers may have sensed the series was not intended for them.

It might also be that Palestinian viewers feel too much the victim to see the comedy in "Arab Labor"; their place too insecure to laugh at the exaggerated archetypes required by sitcoms. But I would dismiss the suggestion that the show aims to please Jews. Jewish characters are skewered regularly for their prejudice, ignorance, power games and hypocrisy, and the series should make Jewish viewers squirm as much as it makes us laugh.

"Arab Labor" wouldn't be worth watching if it didn't raise some hackles. The strident young Arab human rights lawyer (Mira Awad ), an independent, whip-smart, attractive and highly educated Arab woman who has an on-again off-again, passionate affair with a self-centered Jewish photographer (Mariano Idelman ), breaks all sorts of cultural taboos. Later this season, Amjad's family becomes painfully (and hysterically ) torn between programs for Memorial Day, Independence Day and Nakba Day, whipsawed by their young daughter's desire to fit in at her new Jewish school.

This episode, which I saw in preview, has the potential to evoke the critical element absent from all the hate-filled Knesset histrionics about commemorating the Nakba - namely, empathy. Kashua makes Jewish viewers feel what Palestinian citizens already know: Memorial Day and Independence Day are not for Arabs, whose national tragedy cannot be wished or legislated away.

Of course, to improve Arab-Jewish relations, it's not enough to watch "Arab Labor." But until we get off our couches to take some action or meet some Palestinian citizens, at least we can ponder how to create an equitable society in Israel while refining our sense of humor.

Don Futterman, a former lecturer in communications, is the program director, Israel, of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that supports civil society and empowerment of disadvantaged minorities in Israel.