'Avoda Aravit' - breaking TV barriers
Milestone show is the first sitcom featuring mainly Arab characters speaking Arabic on prime time.
In a recent episode of Avoda Aravit (Arab Labor), the sitcom's main character, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad, wonders, "Who am I? What am I? Arab? Israeli?... Where do I belong?"
He's talking to his therapist, and this is just one of many scenes in which Amjad's identity crisis bubbles to the surface. Straddling two cultures that often fail to bridge the gap, Amjad constantly examines his place in the world, seeking some sort of resolution.
And just as Amjad's character has undergone analysis, so has the series itself. Since its debut in late November, Avoda Aravit has been dissected in living rooms and in the media nationwide.
The show marks a milestone, as the first sitcom featuring mainly Arab characters speaking in Arabic on Israeli prime time. Airing on Channel 2's Keshet franchise, Avoda Aravit blends The Cosby Show's family fun with a dash of Curb Your Enthusiasm's acerbic wit. Written by and drawing on the worldview of journalist/author Sayed Kashua, the show has been both lauded and savaged in the press.
Most recently, however, it was the catalyst for an engaging panel discussion called "Is Avoda Aravit Breaking the Mold? Minorities Entering Israeli Media."
The event, which took place last week at Tel Aviv's Tzavta theater, was co-organized by the Mideast Press Club and the Citizens' Accord Forum Between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
"In looking at what Keshet has accomplished, it's kudos to them," said Felice Friedson, founder of the Mideast Press Club. "The fact that we can take issues that are so difficult and sensitive and, instead of hiding the issue, tackling it in a commercial way the way they did... is very important."
In fact, bringing uncomfortable subject matter (albeit cloaked in self-deprecating humor) to the average Israeli viewer was part of the program's mission. The point was "to introduce content that is usually not easy to digest by Israeli society," said Udi Leon, director of special programming and multicultural diversity at Keshet.
For Avoda Aravit's executive producer Danny Paran, the aim was also to spotlight Kashua's distinctive voice. "The most important thing for me," said Paran, "is that I found a courageous Arab-Israeli writer who is willing to write for prime time the way he feels about both sides."
Kashua, meanwhile, quipped, "I just did it because I was paid."
Joking aside, the discussion raised serious questions about how to include even more marginal voices in the Israeli media landscape.
In 2004, franchises who submitted pitches to win airtime on Channel 2 mentioned developing original content, including Arabic- or Russian-language programming. But because of lax implementation of these proposals and an intense focus on ratings, some of these ideas have moved to the back burner.
According to a 2006 study by the Second Authority for Television and Radio, which regulates Israel's commercial broadcasting, minorities have been nearly absent from mainstream television. The case is especially dismal for Arab Israelis, who make up 20 percent of the country's population, but who in 2004-05 appeared in just 2% of programming.
Other minorities, including Ethiopian Jews, religious Jews and olim from the former Soviet Union, haven't fared much better. Ethiopian Jews have appeared on reality shows such as HaShagrir, and the drama Merhak Negia features a love story between a religious woman and a Russian oleh. But these examples are few and far between.
"There is increasing awareness about including minorities in the media," said Dr. Nelly Elias, lecturer at the department of communication studies at Ben-Gurion University, who has written extensively about the representation of different ethnicities in Israeli media. "But commercial interests and the desire for ratings outweigh that awareness."
Beyond breaking into dramas or comedies, it's even tough for minorities to make it onto the evening news - in a positive light, that is, said Anat Saragusti, a panelist at Tzavta and a veteran reporter for Channel 2 news.
"If they appear in the media, it's in a negative context, especially the Arabs."
And, Saragusti added, it's equally difficult for minorities to get hired on news or other shows. Often, she said, minority candidates lack journalistic training and rarely do they get a break at such veteran launching pads as Army Radio.
According to the panel, getting more minorities in front of the camera and behind the scenes may require several steps.
The most crucial is securing additional funding to create more series like Avoda Aravit, which Leon said costs about one and a half times what it costs to produce a reality show.
"I'm dying to do a comedy featuring Ethiopians," said Paran. "But it's all about the money."
Another element suggested is introducing affirmative action at the networks, which didn't sit well with Kashua. "I want them to take me because I know exactly how to do the job and I understand Israeli media," he said.
But, Leon asked, what did he lose in gaining that understanding? Kashua himself admitted that his parents had sent him to a Jewish school, where he spoke only Hebrew.
"Right now if we use you as the only example," said Leon, "taking an Arab, breaking his identity... Do we want to pay that price?"
Just as there is no easy fix to many of the region's problems, there is no simple solution when it comes to achieving a fairer representation of Israeli society in Israeli media. However, it might help for more producers to adopt Paran's attitude.
"I look always for minorities and their stories," he said. "And I do it in all of my productions."
If other top Israeli media executives could take this approach, they stand the chance of creating the next Avoda Aravit, which has mostly been in the top 15 ratings-wise, despite an erratic timeslot. And Paran is convinced the show will be around for three to four more seasons - if not on Keshet, then on one of its competitors.
"In Israel, people don't learn unless you hit them over the head with something," said Paran. "I think the industry learned that you can make a great production, even with Arabs. There is a way, there is potential for these peripheral stories."
Leon also said he would do whatever possible to keep Avoda Aravit on the air and explained why it is worth the effort.
"Arab representation on Israeli television is what we call in Hebrew al hapanim [awful]," said Leon. "We proved something that Israeli broadcasters were not willing to accept until today - that doing a show about Arabs in Arabic is possible on prime time."