Lear Issa (left) and Shira Yosef in an episode of "Madrasa," an new Israeli TV show from writer Sayed Kashua.
Lear Issa (left) and Shira Yosef in an episode of "Madrasa," an new Israeli TV show from writer Sayed Kashua.

Looking for hope in Israel? You might find it on kids’ TV

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In American news outlets, including Jewish publications, there is a great deal of concern about the composition of the new Israeli governing coalition. American Jews, whom studies show are overwhelmingly liberal, are eagerly ringing the alarm bells, fearful of the direction of the new Knesset majority.

However, sometimes a great storyteller can invite you into a refreshing and nuanced view of Israeli society that departs from the predictability of the news cycle.

That’s what Sayed Kashua does in his new TV series, “Madrasa” (“School” in Arabic), which premiered on the kid’s affiliate of Israel’s Kan 11 broadcaster. (It has also been released on YouTube for free, unfortunately without English subtitles.)

Kashua, an award-winning Arab Israeli writer, who is most famous for his multiple-season sitcom “Arab Labor,” created the show with Guri Alfi, an Israeli actor and director. Both have spoken in the Bay Area before, Kashua at San Francisco State University in 2019 and Alfi at the Z3 Conference in Palo Alto in 2022.

“Madrasa” takes place at a dual-language school in Jerusalem where Arab and Jewish children and teachers alike seamlessly move between Arabic and Hebrew. The series leverages humor to explore complicated topics, such as in its portrayal of Jewish Israeli parents who make the “left-wing” choice to send their kids to the school. However, we learn that their main motivation might be the delicious Arab cuisine at parent potlucks.

Another expert use of humor comes in the show’s depiction of an exchange program in which German students come to Jerusalem to be hosted by the students of the school. In the episode cleverly titled “The Germans Are Coming,” a German student is intent on fulfilling her personal mission of apologizing for the sins her grandparents committed during the Holocaust.

The exchange student doesn’t understand that although her host student is Israeli, she is Arab, not Jewish. The episode vacillates between light and dark humor, questioning the extent to which Arab Israelis are asked to live alongside the memory and historical presence of the Holocaust.

Over the course of the episode, she continues to apologize to the Arab student and family for her grandparents’ sins. Exhausted and determined not to get a bad grade for being a poor host, the Arab family gives up trying to explain their identity and pretends to be Jewish. They purchase Shabbat fixings to continue the charade. But even that proves insufficient when the German student refuses to sleep on the couch because it is “too comfortable” and asks to sleep in the attic.

Other moments in “Madrasa” are deeply serious. The premiere begins with an announcement that yet another Jewish student has left the class. We learn that many Jewish students are leaving the school, craving the more traditional academic offerings at a typical Israeli school and a social context that is not framed by Arab-Israeli coexistence.

By contrast, the Arab students are staying because this school is their best academic option.

Sayed Kashua speaking at San Francisco State University on Oct. 15, 2019. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Sayed Kashua speaking at San Francisco State University on Oct. 15, 2019. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

As the audience watches the students process their peers’ departures, we realize that it is Kashua telling us “the two-state solution is dying.”

There is also an idealistic American donor without whom the school would not survive. When she visits the school, the naïveté of Americans is on display, but also praised.

And there is a budding romance between an Arab student and a Jewish student that is at once romantic and doomed to fail.

Overall, “Madrasa” reminds us of something important: Civil society isn’t built in the halls of government. Rather, it is built in the streets, in the workplaces, in the neighborhoods and, most powerfully, in the schools of Israel.

The idea of a dual-language school might sound like a fantasy in an Israeli society that is portrayed as increasingly polarized. However, the series is a reminder that kids and teens have the potential to build what adults are incapable of. Young people are able to move from refusing to speak with those who are different toward embracing nuance and complexity.

The show hasn’t been set up with English subtitles yet, but I hope it makes its way to a U.S. English-speaking audience. “Madrasa” is a reminder that despite what we read in the news, the best way for us to learn about Israel is to build relationships with Israelis from all cultures, political perspectives and backgrounds.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Adam Eilath
Adam Eilath

Adam Eilath is head of school at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.