Sunday, May 18, 2014

  • Sunday, May 18, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
I've been spending the last couple of weeks watching the popular and award-winning TV series Avoda Aravit ("Arab Labor," a Hebrew colloquialism for shoddy work).

I've watched the first season and a little of the third. Episodes with English subtitles are on LinkTV online, for some reason only snippets of Season 2 are available.

The show features an Arab journalist in Israel named Amjad.  Amjad is a nice man who desperately wants to fit into Israeli society and is constantly frustrated by the discrimination against Arab Israelis.

His best friend and co-worker is a photojournalist named Meir.

As with most such sitcoms, wife Bushra is the voice of sanity, and in this case his daughter and mother are also the most sensible and practical people on the show. His father, Ismail, is far more comfortable in his Arab identity and also has a knack for scamming everyone around, including his own son.

Avoda Aravit is, first and foremost, hilarious. It tackles topics that no one ever touched upon before in a comedy and it pokes fun at everyone in Israeli society, both Arab and Jew. The writing is top-notch.

The underlying message of latent and explicit anti-Arab bigotry in Israel is serious, and the show manages to deal with it in a funny way that still lets people understand the difficulty of being a minority group. At a time when the Supreme Court rules that there is no problem with explicit Christian prayers in government meetings I have a keen appreciation for how is feels to be in the minority.

Where the show falls short is that (at least for the episodes I've seen) all Israeli Jews are seen as bigots of one kind or another. Some are overly solicitous towards Arabs but most are out-and-out racists. Even Meir shows his latent bigotry, in a very funny episode where he ends up in a private Arab car service and mistakenly thinks that he is being kidnapped, singing "We Are the World" and invoking his leftist credentials to gain his freedom from Arabs who don't understand a word of Hebrew.

Meir is perhaps the most problematic part of the show. Midway through Season 1, he meets and falls for a friend of Bushra's named Amal, a radical Palestinian Arab nationalist and feminist lawyer (played by famous singer Mira Awad.)  While Amal has great reservations about Meir, who serves in the army reserves, Meir has no national, cultural or religious principles. His first date with Amal was on Passover night so he could avoid going to a seder (Amjad does attend one given by Reform Jews.) Within weeks, Meir tells Amal that he would move to any Arab town anywhere to be with her..."and even Sderot." As the inevitable drama about their parents play out, Meir even tells her he is willing to convert to Islam for her. (In a later episode a potential Arab romantic rival to Meir tells him, "That's what I love about you Jews. You have no self-respect.")

In the world of Avoda Aravit, every Jew is a hypocrite, a bigot and/or a fanatic, all of them roadblocks for Amjad to be accepted in Israel as an equal  but none who actually think of him as truly human. Even after he moves to a Jewish neighborhood he is confronted with nothing but suspicion and disrespect, and his landlord asks him to disappear when he is showing houses to prospective buyers.

In this sense, Avoda Aravit is antisemitic. But to air a TV show that mocks the dominant culture is forgivable. After all, in the 1970s American audiences laughed to Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons - groundbreaking shows that described how blacks try to adapt in a white majority society. The popularity of Avoda Aravit in Israel, as well as the awards it is given, shows that Israelis don't mind the message.

On the other hand, notoriously anti-Israel LinkTV's decision to have this be the only Israeli TV show that they broadcast indicates that they are interested in the anti-Jewish themes of the show more than in the show helping to be a bridge to understanding.

There are some exceptions to the portrayal of Jews as nothing but resentful of Arabs. At times, Amjad is celebrated for being a "good Arab," such as in season 3, when Amjad briefly becomes a celebrity for his appearance on Big Brother in a brilliant episode. Afterwards, Israeli Jews suddenly love him for his fame - and his ability to pretend to be a Jew, as that was his challenge on the show.  His fame is short-lived, as on the next episode he accidentally urinates on a Jewish memorial stone, turning him from a hero to a villain, while he is then embraced by Arab radicals.

I will continue to watch Avoda Aravit, as it is as funny as virtually anything on American TV. But I'm hoping as I catch up to this season I will see the creator (who is an Arab journalist for Haaretz) reduce the stereotyping of Jewish characters.

Given that his success is predicated on keeping them one-dimensional, however, I am not holding out much hope.



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