Can Elmo teach peace in the Middle East

tel aviv, israel (jps) | Where countless politicians and diplomats have failed, Elmo, Cookie Monster and their “Sesame Street” buddies are on a mission to promote peace and tolerance in the Middle East.

A programming experiment using the Muppet characters was launched six months ago and was widely welcomed by parents, educators and the media. But the Muppets are not without their critics in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.

Sesame Workshop partnered with local producers to create “Sesame Stories,” an adventurous initiative to use new and existing “Sesame Street” characters to foster respect and understanding among children in the region.

Gary Knell, president and chief operating officer of Sesame Workshop, says that producers knew that not everybody would be open to the idea of Elmo & Co. teaching Israeli kids to respect Palestinians and vice versa.

“It’s a highly charged environment, and the press is going to reflect some of that,” Knell says. “Yes, some Israeli reports accused us of being lackeys of the Palestinians, while another article accused us of being lackeys of the Bush White House and charged that Elmo was carrying the will of the White House to the Middle East. A Jordanian Internet site accused us of being Zionist lap dogs.”

Daniella Hellerstein, whose family emigrated to Israel three years ago from the United States, says she encourages her four young kids to watch the show.

“I like the overall message — tolerance and respect — and I support the effort 100 percent,” she says. But she adds: “My children don’t completely appreciate the point of the characters — they don’t differentiate between the Jewish and Arab characters.”