In first, Saudi TV dramas feature character urging Israel ties, Hebrew monologue

Controversy swirls around two Ramadan productions, screened amid warming Jerusalem-Riyadh ties; 13 Palestinian groups said urging that one of the shows be taken off air

A Jewish character speaking a Hebrew monologue in Saudi Ramadan production 'Umm Haroun' about Kuwaiti Jews, in an episode broadcast April 24, 2020, on the MBC network. (Screenshot: Twitter)
A Jewish character speaking a Hebrew monologue in Saudi Ramadan production 'Umm Haroun' about Kuwaiti Jews, in an episode broadcast April 24, 2020, on the MBC network. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Two TV productions aired on a Saudi network on the occasion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have sparked controversy and accusations of “normalization” with Israel, including by terror group Hamas, after one featured a character calling for better ties with the Jewish state and another highlighted the life of Jews in Kuwait in the 1940s.

The latter show, “Umm Haroun” (The Mother of Aaron), starring popular actress Hayat Al Fahad, features an opening monologue in Hebrew by a Jewish character: “Before our footsteps go missing and our lives fall into memory, we will be lost to time. … We are the [Persian] Gulf Jews who were born in the [Persian] Gulf lands.”

It is the first Arab production to discuss the lives of Jews in the Gulf and their relations with Muslims.

The series, directed by Egypt’s Ahmed Gamal el-Adl and produced in the United Arab Emirates, showcases a Jewish midwife of Turkish origin in Kuwait before she moves to Israel.

The show also has the character of a rabbi, called Rabbi David.

Its broadcast began Friday on the Saudi-owned MBC channel, and comes in the context of steadily warming ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh in recent years, spearheaded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The cooperation has seen Riyadh welcome the peace plan unveiled by US President Donald Trump despite most of the Arab world rejecting it, as well as letting aircraft use Saudi airspace when flying to and from Israel.

A second TV show broadcast in Saudi Arabia, “Exit 7,” features a character portrayed by actor Rashid Al-Shamrani advocating improved ties with Israel and accusing Palestinians of attacking Saudi Arabia despite all Riyadh did for them over the years.

The main character of the show, portrayed by Nasser al-Qasabi, speaks out against this, but refrains from directly attacking Israel, saying Palestinians had faced Israeli tanks during the years of the intifada, or uprising.

Both shows trended on social media as a result, with many users criticizing the filmmakers for their choices.

“We have many successful and heroic women in the Persian Gulf. Why do we need to turn a Jewish woman into a hero in our dramas?” protested Hana al-Qahtan, according to Iranian news site AhlulBayt.

“Would Israel ever produce a series about a Muslim woman in its prisons?” Ahmed Madani asked. “What about the injustices done to the Palestinians? Why not produce a documentary about the suffering of Palestinians?”

The arguments against the show also include that it strengthens claims by Sephardi Jews that their property was stolen from them by Arab states.

Palestinian terror group Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since taking over in a bloody coup in 2007 and openly seeks Israel’s destruction, criticized the show about Gulf Jews.

Hamas official Ra’fat Murra said it was a “political and cultural attempt to introduce the Zionist project to Persian Gulf society,” adding: “The character of Umm Haroun reminds me of [Israeli prime minister] Golda Meir, the head of the occupation, who was a murderous criminal. This is the goal of normalization: hatred, slow killing and internal destruction.”

Palestinian news website Al-Quds reported that 13 Palestinian groups had urged the Saudi network to stop airing the show.

On Sunday, Israel’s Foreign Ministry condemned an Egyptian TV drama produced for Ramadan and set in the year 2120, which predicts the Jewish state’s destruction as well as the breakup of the United States.

The Foreign Ministry statement said the series “is completely unacceptable especially because the two states have had a peace treaty for the past 41 years.”

Israel and Egypt have worked closely on security issues since the 1979 treaty, especially near their border in the Sinai Peninsula, in a shared effort against Islamic jihadists. However, public opinion in Egypt has remained largely against normalized relations with Israel.

The Egyptian series “El-Nehaya” — Arabic for “The End” — is about a computer engineer living in a dystopian future dominated by cyborg clones. It is one of the many dramas and soap operas that air each night during Ramadan, which began last week.

In the first episode, a teacher tells a class of students about “the war to liberate Jerusalem,” which he says occurred less that 100 years after Israel’s founding in 1948. The teacher says Jews in Israel “ran away and returned to their countries of origin” in Europe. He made no mention of what happened to Jews in Israel whose families came from other Middle Eastern countries — roughly half the Jewish population — or Jews whose ancestors had lived in Israel for generations.

A holographic map of a divided US is also shown, with the teacher saying that “America was the central supporter of the Zionist state.”

There was no immediate comment from the Egyptian government.

The series is produced by Synergy, one of Egypt’s largest production companies, which has strong links with the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The series airs on the ON television network, which is owned by a pro-government company.

The show’s writer, Amr Samir Atif, told The Associated Press that the destruction of Israel “is a possible future in the absence of real peace and true stability in the region. … Peace should be based on justice.”

In recent years, Israeli officials have publicly praised security cooperation with Sissi’s government. Israel has granted Egypt permission to deploy troops, armor and helicopter gunships close to the Israeli border to fight jihadists there. The 1979 peace treaty limited the number or troops and type of weapons Egypt can have in the area without Israeli consent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon / PMO)

When Sissi was asked in a 2018 interview if Egypt’s cooperation with Israel was the closest ever, he replied: “That is correct…. We have a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis.”

Since taking office in 2014, Sissi has met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at least twice.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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