Jewish Characters Star in Saudi TV Show, Igniting an Arab Debate

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Um Haroun’ Ignites Arab Debate on Jews and Israel

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Um Haroun’ Ignites Arab Debate on Jews and Israel

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Um Haroun’ Ignites Arab Debate on Jews and Israel

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In a mud-walled village in the Persian Gulf, a Christian woman sheds tears of love for a Muslim merchant. But he is stuck in a miserable marriage to a woman who longs for another Muslim man. But she can’t have him, because he is crazy about the local rabbi’s daughter.

These tangles of interreligious intrigue unspool in a new blockbuster television series that has set off heated debates across the Arab world about the region’s historical relationships with Jewish communities and the shifting stances of some of its current leaders toward Israel.

Fans laud the program, set in the 1940s and 1950s, for highlighting an often overlooked aspect of the region’s past — Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf — while providing a much-needed example of coexistence among different faiths.

But critics have blasted it as a blatant effort to reshape Arab views of Israel to pave the way for formal relations, or what many in the Arab world call “normalization.”

But the virus’s effect on the Islamic holy month is just one aspect that will be long remembered, a prominent Palestinian journalist, Abdel Bari Atwan, wrote this week.

The other reason this Ramadan won’t soon be forgotten is because “it witnessed the largest normalization campaign, driven by the Saudi media, with help from the government, and coordinated with the Israeli occupation state,” Mr. Atwan said.

Suspicions that the historical TV drama, “Um Haroun,” or “Mother of Aaron,” is part of a state-sponsored push to sway opinions are widespread. The show airs on MBC, the Arab world’s largest private broadcaster, but one ultimately controlled by the Saudi state.

The same network is also broadcasting a comedy program that has made light of Arab attitudes toward Israel, further fueling a sense that both shows are mixing entertainment with propaganda.

The two shows will run through Ramadan, when television viewership skyrockets as families binge-watch programs over the evening meals that break the dawn-to-dusk fast.

While MBC denied that including positive depictions of Jews was part of any government mandate, this year’s shows do coincide with a quiet but clear warming toward Israel among governments in the Persian Gulf.

Historically, animosity toward Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians were some of the few sentiments able to unite Arabs across the Middle East. But in recent years, wars, insurgencies and economic crises have left many Arab governments focused on domestic issues, pushing the Palestinian cause down the priority list.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia has spoken of overlapping trade and security interests between the kingdom and Israel, and an Israeli delegation is expected to participate in a world expo in the United Arab Emirates next year, although both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates lack formal diplomatic relations with the country.

Michael Stephens, who studies Gulf politics at the Royal United Services Institute, said the shows appeared to be part of that shift by countering a history of anti-Jewish rhetoric and showing a new openness toward the possibility of official ties with Israel.

Given the level of state control in Gulf countries, he was confident that the show’s messaging must have been officially sanctioned.

“They would not have done this unless there was some guidance from the top that it was OK,” Mr. Stephens said.

The comedy show, Makhraj 7, or “Exit 7,” a Saudi slang term used to avoid unwanted conversation, pokes fun at contemporary views of Israel in Saudi society.

In one episode, a father discovers his son playing an online video game with an Israeli child and fumes about his offspring fraternizing with “the enemy.” In other scenes, one relative suggests using the boy’s new connection for spy work while another wants to exploit it for Israeli business contacts and accuses the Palestinians of being ungrateful for the support received from Saudi Arabia over the years.

Those scenes have enraged Palestinians, who long counted on Saudi backing.

“Even in my political nightmares, I did not expect an Arab to dare to speak so openly and comfortably about normalization with Israel,” said Ziad Khaddash, a Palestinian writer and journalist in the West Bank. “It is frightening, shameful and strange that this is happening.”

“Um Haroun,” which is drawing a huge audience, centers on an elderly Jewish nurse in an imaginary village in the Gulf around the time of the creation of Israel in 1948.

The show, all of whoseactors are Arab, chronicles the lives and intrigues of the community’s Muslim, Christian and Jewish families, who run shops next to each other in the market, visit each other’s homes, and attend each other’s weddings and funerals.

In one scene, a Muslim man gets engaged and his Jewish friends wish him “mazel tov,” or congratulations in Hebrew. In another, a group of Muslim, Christian and Jewish women cook together before the start of the Jewish Sabbath.

Religious tensions flare now and then, for example, when a Muslim declines to drink tea from the same glass as a Jew, or when a group of children taunt the rabbi. And some incidents play off Jewish stereotypes.

But in general, the show lays itself out as an idealistic, fictional prequel to the last seven decades of Middle Eastern history, during which Israel was created, most Jews fled or were kicked out of Arab states, and a string of regional wars followed.

The village’s idyllic and largely ahistoric life is shaken early in the series, however, when the news of Israel’s creation is broadcast on the radio and a Jewish man is murdered by an unknown assailant. Interreligious tensions mount, which will play out for the rest of the show’s episodes, airing one per night throughout Ramadan.

The show’s creators and distributors insist it has no relation to contemporary Arab politics.

In a statement, MBC, the Saudi-controlled channel, said the show focused on tolerance, moderation, openness and coexistence, showcasing a region before sectarianism.”

In an interview, Ali Shams, the Bahraini who co-wrote the script with his brother, Mohammed, said its main character was inspired by a Jewish nurse known as Um Jan who worked in Bahrain in the middle of the last century.

The show, he said, was “as far as possible from what people have said about Zionist politics. Our goal was to bring people together on the idea of mutual acceptance.”

Reactions around the region have been fierce and varied.

Writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Hussein Shobokshi, a Saudi, described the show as a “qualitative shock” to Arab audiences who were unaccustomed to seeing Jewish symbols such as the Star of David and the menorah, not to mention hearing Hebrew monologues.

He praised the show as “daring” by talking about the history of Jewish presence in the Arab world.

Many Palestinians cried betrayal.

“As for some voices of normalization, they are abnormal voices that do not express the united conscious of the nation,” Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for Hamas, the militant Palestinian group, wrote on Twitter after the show launched.

The cast expected the show to cause a stir but has been surprised by the ferocity of the debates.

Abdulmohsen al-Nemr, the Saudi actor who plays the town rabbi, said he had been excited about the role because he knew it would trigger a reaction. He sought guidance on his character from a Jewish member of Parliament in Bahrain and practiced with Hebrew recordings to improve his accent.

But he dismissed the show’s critics as unwilling to accept that the region was once different than it is now.

“The show hasn’t changed anything in history,” he said. “Jews used to be in the Gulf. They have their cemeteries, their homes.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, Adam Rasgon from Jerusalem, and Mohammed Najib from Ramallah, West Bank.

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