Critics Say Gulf Ramadan Show Promotes Normalization with Israel
Promotional art for the television series ‘Umm Haroun’ (Courtesy)

Critics Say Gulf Ramadan Show Promotes Normalization with Israel

Mideast experts note that television’s strong influence on the Arab street could become a soft-power tool

A Kuwaiti TV series called Umm Haroun has sparked widespread controversy in the Middle East, accused of being “a prelude to normalization with Israel” after its first episodes were broadcast during Ramadan.

Umm Haroun (“Mother of Haroun”) revolves around a Jewish doctor who, in the 1940s, after her son and husband die, lives in a Kuwaiti village and faces challenges from her family and the Jewish community.

The show suggests that she lives in a society in conflict between the racism of some villagers and the love of others. It has faced sharp criticism for “changing history” because one of the scenes claims that the British Mandate was established in the land of Israel, not in Palestine.

During the holy month, tens of millions of Muslims watch television in the evening while breaking their daytime fast with their family, consuming Ramadan sweets and refreshments. Activists and Mideast analysts are now calling the show a preface to normalization with Israel.

Hussein Jamal, a leading Kuwaiti writer and media personality, told The Media Line that linking the Zionist project with a historical Jewish presence in the Arab region created confusion.

“Because of the Arab dissatisfaction with the Zionist entity and the rights of the Palestinian people, the Jewish existence in the region was considered part of the Arab-Israeli conflict, making the topic a taboo in Arab societies,” he said.

He affirmed that older Kuwaitis were aware of the Jewish presence in their country although “the new generations don’t know much because of that taboo, meaning anyone speaking about it would be crossing a red line. But we know about that part of history from our ancestors.”

Jamal says some governments and countries might be using “soft power” such as television shows to work toward normalization with Israel, given the influence of these programs on the Arab street, but this was not necessary in Kuwait.

“Art [in Kuwait] covers all files, especially historical ones. We don’t have any normalization project with Israel here… but the Jews were part of the Kuwaiti society,” he explained.

“I personally know several Jewish artists from Kuwait, where some of them left the country [but] some of their grandchildren still live here,” he said. “History can never be changed, and art shouldn’t be politicized.”

The Saudi social satire show Makhraj 7 (Exit 7) and the Egyptian show El Nehaya (The End) also touch on the history of the Jews in the region or on normalizing ties with Israel. El Nehaya, a full-fledged sci-fi series that takes place 100 years from now even, predicts the destruction of Israel.

The dispute has Arab activists and writers split.

Twitter posts about ‘Umm Haroun.’

Karema Bokhary, a Saudi activist and analyst, told The Media Line it was too early to discuss the real messages behind Umm Haroun or to judge it since it was only the beginning of the series, but it definitely had something to do with normalization.

“The main aim is clear. It has to do with normalization and religious tolerance. The aim is to make clear that people can live with other nations, and that’s the reality in a lot of Arab countries,” she said.

“The controversy over the matter has to do with a specific understanding of religions by people – I can’t call them clerics – who imposed it on all Muslims, not only those in the Arab region but in the whole world,” she continued.

“The Arab world needs enlightenment….” She noted. “If we go back to the times of the Prophet Mohammed, Jews were our neighbors and were treated accordingly by Muslims. They used to be enemies [at times], but the Prophet Mohammed never legitimized their killing.”

Bokhary adds: “In fact, one time, a Jew threw trash on the Prophet Mohammed’s home. [The prophet] went and checked on him. Our religion and the platform of the Prophet Mohammed encourage coexistence, love and friendship with other religions, including greetings during their holidays and accepting them….”

Bokhary urges people to differentiate between Jews and Zionists.

“Jews know they have no country, and this represents God’s will for them,” she said, “while the Zionists have a whole different agenda.”

The first episode of Umm Haroun started with a discussion of the Jewish doctor’s good relationship with the people of the village. The relationship is characterized by friendship, love and mutual respect as she gives medical advice and tries to solve personal crises.

Moshe Marzouk, an Israeli analyst and research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, told The Media Line that television shows touching on the history of Jews in the region was not something new.

“Several Egyptian shows highlighted the huge mistake made by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his movement when they unfairly expelled the Jews, when the latter were an active factor in the Egyptian economy, society and cultural life,” he explained.

Marzouk stresses that such shows indicate a very slow move toward normalizing relations with Israel.

It is a move in the direction where, rather than being perceived as a demon, Israel is being shown as “a part of the region, which it defends, in addition to Israel’s contribution to the area’s economy and security, in cooperation with neighboring Arab states.”

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