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Scholar examines 'Sesame Street’s' role in managing political conflict

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Yael Warshel shares a meal with a family during her ongoing field research project with Moroccan and Saharawi children and youth.
Can something as simple as a PlayStation play a role in promoting peace in Western Sahara? Can “Sesame Street” be used to mediate conflict between Palestinians and Israelis? Very tentatively and with a lot of tinkering and attention, perhaps they can, says Yael Warshel, a visiting research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development, who began traveling through the Middle East and Africa more than 15 years ago with questions related to the impact media has in managing political conflict.
 
Warshel’s interest in the role of media in managing conflict began in 1995 while interning for six months as a photographer for the Zimbabwe-Inter-Africa-News-Agency. There, she was part of the inner media circle that followed President Robert Mugabe during his campaign to support the re-election of his party members to parliament. She also covered the elections of traditional chiefs, something few people are given access to.

During this time her questions began to emerge. What kind of influence do mass media have on voters? What decisions do reporters, producers and photographers make while telling their stories, and how do external pressures shape or motivate their choices?

She has since explored Sesame Street’s influence on how Palestinian and Israeli children think about each other’s cultures. She’s now determining whether gaming centers with coveted PlayStations that require children from opposite sides of a conflict to share can lead to more peaceful interactions.

Warshel, who was educated at UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, USC’s School of Cinema-Television and the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, spent her early career working for UNESCO and the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. These two jobs, one policy-focused and the other devoted to practical application of research, allowed her to learn how television programming, like “Sesame Street,” news and popular programs internationally, are used to help build or make peace.

She will speak about her work, including some of her findings about Israeli and Palestinian children’s interpretations of “Sesame Street,” on April 17 in Bunche Hall, Room A170, from 12-1:30 p.m.

Studying 'Sesame Street'

In the mid-‘90s, not a lot of research had been done to determine empirically whether children’s programs designed to promote peace were having the impact that their producers desired, she says, adding that she was determined to help fill this gap by conducting the necessary assessment and evaluation research to address the issue.

Thereafter, she became involved in studying the effectiveness of an Israeli-Palestinian version of “Sesame Street.” Her work specifically focused on the audience’s interpretation of the show’s use of set design and characters. One major feature of the show’s set design was using not one, but two streets. “That was new and completely different,” says Warshel. “It was predicated on the Oslo Accords and the notion that a two-state solution would be the result.”

During the first season of this transition to two streets, the story plots involved lots of intermingling of the Palestinian and Israeli characters and frequent visits to one another’s streets. That changed during the following season, she says, after a substantial breakdown of the Accords. Instead producers opted to pull back and create parallel stories that offered a window into what was happening on each side.

Using her knowledge and understanding of the two seasons, she edited together a mock episode that she took into children’s homes for them to watch and comment on. Her goal was to learn how kids interpreted the show, its characters and its message, and to discover threads in their thinking, if any, that could be attributed to the popular mindset in their home communities, which she critically interpreted through ethnographic observations in each of their communities.

Her findings suggest that Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian children were largely unable to identify the ethno-political differences between the characters because of the images they’d internally constructed of the “other” and the stereotypical definitions that often framed their perspective.

A Palestinian child’s definition of someone who is Jewish may be that “a Jewish person is someone who is part of an army or someone who carries a gun,” she explains, therefore when asked if they saw any Jewish-Israeli or Jewish people in the show, a child would say no. Similarly, A Jewish-Israeli child may not be able to identify Palestinians in the show because to them Palestinians may be defined as someone who is a “terrorist.” To them, no terrorists in the show meant no Palestinians, she explains.

Arab/Palestinian-Israelis, on the other hand, were found to be “more nuanced” and tended to identify with both sides.

She says that ethno-political categories play the greatest role in how these perspectives are solidified, as well as “what lenses they offer and the filters that come into play to tell the story. These then get reinterpreted through communicatory practices in the given community in which the child lives.” Further, she adds, “It is these wider structural contexts and perceptions that are key to explaining why and how media, like PlayStations or ‘Sesame Street,’ ultimately fail to bring about social change.”

PlayStations in the Sahara

Warshel is currently taking parts of her three-time award-winning Ph.D. dissertation, “How Do You Convince Palestinian, Jewish-Israeli and Arab/Palestinian-Israeli Children That the ‘Army,’ ‘Terrorists’ and the ‘Police’ Can Live Together Peacefully?: A Peace Communication Assessment Model” and developing it into a book. She is also working on several smaller projects, along with a larger-scale study of Moroccan and Saharawi youth amidst the current conflict over Western Sahara.

Morocco claims Western Sahara as part of its state, but the Sahrawi people, who take pride in their spoken Hassaniya Arabic dialect and semi-nomadic heritage that they contrast to Moroccan identity, consider the land to be their future Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic, she says, adding that she is examining how “local children and youth use media to construct their civic identity – together or apart.”

She says one notable example is that the boys enjoy playing electronic games. Because games and gaming systems are expensive many must go to gaming centers where PlayStations are readily available for them to use. This puts boys from both sides of the conflict, when living in the same communities, in a position to play together and become friends.

“They will have to interact if they want to play the games,” she said.

Some girls, on the other hand, tend to enjoy playing peso, which is similar to hopscotch. Because they can play it anywhere for free, she says, the girls tend to play with other girls they already know.

“You don’t have them interacting outside of schools, but the boys are interacting. How does that PlayStation work as a kind of mediating artifact to facilitate interaction between the boys that the girls aren’t getting? While it may simply provide boys with more opportunities to fight, it’s worth looking at whether and how such opportunities will be shaped, and critically, to what or whose ends,” she explains.

This summer, she is returning to the Middle East to complete work on a project in Ghajar, a town with a much-disputed boundary that she describes as “half in Israel and half in Lebanon.”

Comprised of an estimated 2,300 Syrian Alawites, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, the people of Ghajar are Israeli citizens. Although they feel they are part of Israel and make clear their appreciation at having been incorporated at their request in 1967, they hope to return to Syria if and when a peace accord is signed that would return the Golan Heights, says Warshel. Until then, they are in uncertain circumstances, with the people now also grappling with Hezbollah claims to the northern part of their village. Ghajar’s residents, however, tend to oppose those claims, pointing out “We are not Lebanese.”

“They’re in a tenuous position because they don’t know how to plan,” she says. “For example, if they send their kids to university in Israel and they hone their Hebrew rather than Arabic writing skills, and tomorrow they are made Lebanese citizens instead, how is that going to work?” she asks. “You kind of need to know what your citizenship will be tomorrow.”
 
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