Arab Labor

'Arab Labor,' Season 2, Episode 11 Explainer: 'Tension in the South'

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."

Aron Kader:

This is, without a doubt, the heaviest episode of the season. It's truly clever in its ability to address a sensitive subject and get through an obstacle course of issues with humor. The show does an amazing job of showing how war in Gaza causes things to fall apart socially, in the family and in the community. This episode originally aired in 2008 but is just as timely now in 2014 as it was then because the problem has not changed whatsoever.

The episode opens up in Amjad's house where he and Bushra are hosting their Jewish neighbors Timna and Natan. They are having a lovely time drinking tea and chatting about Amjad's upcoming birthday when Natan gets a text message that he should report for reserve duty. When news of the war breaks, the social scene falls apart almost instantly. Bushra and Natan get into an argument regarding the war in Gaza and whom the real extremists are, each blaming the other side.

This exchange ruins the social niceties between them and the entire scene unravels. Amjad starts to panic that the war will ruin his birthday party and drive a wedge between him and his neighbors. After all, Amjad just wants to be accepted. He doesn't want war, resistance, or occupation; he is more selfishly interested in having friends and professional success.

This also shows how Israelis can feel when war breaks out. They have to drop everything and report for duty, which could be life threatening, thus causing more resentment towards Arabs.

Amjad gets asked to appear on a news program about the conflict and shoots himself in the foot when he shows equal sympathy with the Jewish families in the south. The news anchor tricks him into hosting a Jewish "refugee" family as a way of demonstrating his desire for peace. This news station is unapologetically sympathetic with only the Jewish families that are caught in the crosshair, specifically the Cohens.

Bushra answers the door when the Cohens arrive. Unaware of the situation, she tries to politely send them away, thinking that they have the wrong house. The news anchor calls Amjad, who is oblivious about the misunderstanding at home, and questions the value of an Arab's word. Amjad allows the Cohen family to stay with them after saying one of the funniest lines of the episode, "What will people think if I kick out refugees? Nobody will come to my birthday party."

The Cohens themselves are reluctant to stay when they discover that Amjad is not only Arab, but Muslim, too. Later that evening the news follows up the story live from Amjad's living room. Yossi Cohen makes statements that are insulting and racist and actually says, "We need total segregation." Amjad's message of tolerance calls for reason and peace.

This interview further complicates things for Amjad as Bushra is livid that he's opened their house to an Israeli extremist who despises their existence. Ironically, Bushra becomes a refugee as a result, taking their daughter and leaving only to return when the Jewish family is gone. Bushra says, "What refugees? The ones with the Israeli government and military behind them? What about the real refugees who have nothing to eat or drink?"

One of my favorite scenes is when Timna sees Amjad in the hallway after the interview. This is the first time that she has spoken to him since the big blowout and since her husband Natan left for duty. She commends him on his generosity for opening his home to the Israeli refugee family and expresses her sadness over innocent people being wounded. She then receives a call from her husband. Frustrated that he's stuck on duty and worried for his safety, she blurts out "Just drop a 10-ton bomb on them and get it over with." This disappoints Amjad and shows that during wars, even lefties like Timna are capable of saying things that are war hawkish.

Yossi later pulls out a gun in Amjad's kitchen to kick him out of his own house. Amjad has no other choice than to turn to his parents for help. When his dad asks how long the arrangement with the refugees will last, Amjad replies, "Until the IDF finishes the job." Abu Amjad smacks him across the face for implying that the IDF has a job that can be finished militaristically. With the whole community aware that he has opened his house to hostile Israeli refugees, Amjad becomes an outcast in his parents' apartment. Staying there is no longer an option. Displaced and with little hope of recovering his home, he goes to Amal and Meir's apartment looking for a place to stay for the night.

The episode concludes with Abu Amjad cleaning up the mess that Amjad has once again made for himself. He brings a displaced Arab family to Amjad's home to balance out the tension that his son has created. He also brings a camera crew to capture the hostility displayed by Yossi, who is now holding the Arab refugees and Abu Amjad at gunpoint. With both sides embroiled in a screaming match accusing each other of being the aggressor, Abu Amjad calls Yossi an occupier while Yossi calls the Arabs terrorists.

The irony is that the actual war is easier to deal with than the society and politics around it.

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.

Naomi Ackerman:

Jews and Arabs in Israel are constantly caught in the middle of conflict. We go from war to war, one violet situation to the next, always thinking it cannot possibly get worse. And yet it does. The problem is that there is never a solution found, we're just putting out fires instead of fireproofing.

The actual war is between Israel and the Arabs who are in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, not the Arabs that are Israeli citizens, like Amjad and his family.
As we have seen in past episodes, Arabs who are Israeli citizens face many issues, but not full-blown fighting like in other areas.

One of the hardest issues for the Arab citizens of Israel to tackle is what to do regarding their families who live in the war zone. How can you possibly be a loyal citizen to Israel and still care and be devoted to your own people? Occupation, terrorist attacks, and the death of innocent civilians on both sides doesn't make co-existence of Arab and Jewish citizens easy. Alas, at the end of the day, Arabs and Jews that live inside the Israeli borders are close neighbors and have a certain codependency.

Most Jews and Arabs crave, want, and pray for normalcy. Many are tired of the conflict and just want to live side by side in peace. Unfortunately, that is a voice from the region that is seldom heard because the media chooses to show the extreme.

Amjad, Bushra, and their neighbors Natan and Timna are spending quality time together when their normal life is interrupted by the tension of war. Poor Amjad desperately wants to stay normal, he wants to be neutral. He wants to be Switzerland, but that's an impossible task.

The scene in which Amjad's car is stuck between two parked vehicles is essentially a visual allegory for his life. On one hand, he wants to be Israeli and align with the Jews, on the other hand, he cannot be detached from the suffering of his people. The fact that he's trying so hard to be neutral constantly gets him in trouble. As his father says, "you MUST choose a side!"

Everyone is affected by the war. You can argue and compare numbers, but for the individual whose home has been bombed, his suffering feels singular.

Ironically and sadly, the Jew who comes to Amjad's house can't get over his hatred and has no appreciation for the fact that Amjad is hosting him. Comparably, Meir is so used to being a soldier that he sees no harm in standing in his uniform in Gaza and pointing a gun at his future in-laws. He's just so happy to see them.

These situations are exaggerated extremes that show a very important point. We want normalcy, we really do, but to get there we have to be able to see how insane our existence has become. We must acknowledge the fact that this situation can make people lose common sense. And exhaustion with the situation can lead to statements like the one Timna makes regarding Arabs, "Can't we just bomb them all and get it over with?"

Writer Sayed Kashua took a really difficult situation and found humor in it. That is the first step to normalcy.

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.

Watch Kader and Ackerman recap the episode.