Palestinian-American comedian Aron Kader and Jewish-Israeli actress/philanthropist Naomi Ackerman shed some light on what you may have missed in the latest episode of "Arab Labor."
Everything about this episode is classic to me. It uses dogs to point out that humans are trained to behave and conditioned to think in a certain way. It also plays on a stereotype that Arabs don't like dogs, which actually rings true.
In my experience, the disdain for dogs comes from the belief that they are dirty animals often referred to as "najis," meaning unclean or impure. As a matter of fact, most Arabs consider dogs to be just above pigs. To compare anything or anyone to a pig or a dog is a huge insult in Arabic. A typical Arabic curse might use the word dog ("kalb"). You will hear Amjad's father say that word a lot, especially in this episode.
All the dogs in Amjad's building seem to recognize that he's Arab and bark at him every time he walks into the apartment complex. When he asks a Jewish pet store worker whether dogs can recognize Arabs, he acknowledges this as a well-known fact. This seems to confirm Amjad's irrational fear of dogs, and he resorts to donning a yarmulke -- a small round cap traditionally worn by Jewish men -- to fool the dog into thinking he's Jewish.
This episode is also the beginning of Bushra's character arc as a professional therapist. She starts to observe Amjad and ends up using him as a case study in her class. It's hard to miss the Pavlov's dog metaphor in this episode, which is meant to be a statement on Jews and Arabs living together. Everyone knows that dogs can be trained to do anything, including attack or guard something. It's also true that Arabs and Jews have been conditioned to fear or have prejudice toward each other. This gets to the root of the entire conflict in one metaphor.
The culture among Arab and Jewish people in Israel has a long history of conditioning that needs to be untrained. Cultures are formed over generations and can take generations to undo. It's a long process. But is there an effort to fix it? Being blind to the culture around you can stop you from moving forward in the right direction.
For example, ultra religious Muslims and Jewish people will fight about something that happened so long ago that it's impossible to settle the differences. Cultures nurture or debunk positive or negative stereotypes and in Israel/Palestine, there is a fight between those that want to be part of a global future and those who want to step backward.
Aron Kader is a Palestinian-American comedian and founding member of The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour that debuted on Comedy Central in 2007. He performs regularly in Hollywood at his home club, The World Famous Comedy Store.
Many biases, generalizations, and racist remarks are based on a small truth that has been taken out of context and exaggerated to a ridiculous extreme. This episode is a clear example of that. It's commonly known that Arabs (and I am generalizing here) are not big fans of dogs. They are not a pet culture. And the conclusion in this episode, that dogs can smell Arabs or bark only at Arabs, is an example of a ridiculous extreme.
There is always great irony in the fact that Amjad himself seems to believe stereotypes about his people, and then tries to do everything in his power to dissolution them. His desire to disprove this assumption makes the situation worse. Bushra, on the other hand, never gives in to what people seem to think of Arabs in general or her in particular. She is confidant and proud so dogs are playful with her and lets her pet them.
Bushra seems to be the posterchild for believing in yourself and your values, as well as having a clear understanding of who the Alayin family needs to be as Palestinian Israelis. By being proud of her Arab heritage and not trying to be something she's not, she fits in on her own terms and finds a way to immerse herself in Israeli culture, even if that means being a bystander sometimes.
Amjad uses a Jewish skull cap to "trick" the dog into thinking he is Jewish. It is amusing that he chooses the most ostentatious kippa (head covering). Wearing a skull cap is a political statement in Israel, with each kind of of scull covering meaning a different thing. He chose a kippa that is usually used by nonobservant Jews at religious events; seldom do people walk around wearing these head coverings as he did.
Amjad is perpetuating a stereotype of his people regarding Arabs and dogs, while his neighbor Timna is yet one more extreme. Timna relates to her dog as if it's her child, she is mortified when the dog barks at an Arab, and calls the dog a "likudnik" (a member of Israel's right wing party). She wants to take the dog to see a psychologist for his problem.
At the end of the day, no psychologist is really needed. What is needed is for two diverse cultures to take the time and make the effort to get to know each other, understand their differences, and not let a dog be the one to prove the truth of a silly myth.
Naomi Ackerman is a Jewish-Israeli American. She is the founder and executive director of The Advot Project -- a non-profit organization that uses theater for transformation with incarcerated youth. Naomi draws upon her vast experience as an actress in theater, musicals, films, and television to develop programs that promote peace, change, and encourage self-empowerment.