Arab Labor, whose title in colloquial Hebrew carries the racist/discriminatory implication of “shoddy or second-rate work,” focuses on the family and work situations of Amjad, an Arab-Israeli journalist. Much of the comedy is derived from the paradox of Amjad’s love-hate relationship with his Arab identity and his simultaneous wish to integrate comfortably into Israeli mainstream society.
- Arab-Jewish coexistence
- Minority/majority identities
- Humor as a means for bridging differences
Arab Labor was the first TV series to air on prime time Israeli Television that featured Palestinians speaking Arabic. Its theme song for the series is performed in Arabic by DAM, a Palestinian-Israeli rap group.
Poking fun at the cultural divide, Kashua’s characters play on religious, cultural, and political differences to depict the mixed society prevalent in Israel.
Season 2, Episode 2
One decent shower in a Jewish neighborhood is enough to make Amjad decide to upgrade his and his family’s life and move from their Arab village to Rechavia, the wealthy Jewish neighborhood in western Jerusalem. In the new neighborhood, there’s great water flow, the garbage is cleaned three times a week, there are marked streets, a machine that cleans them, trees, gardens, and best of all—no Arabs. Amjad, an Arab very well aware of his inferior status in the eye of his new neighbors (he is mistaken for a janitor), will do absolutely anything in order to win their affection and possibly get accepted by the average Israeli bourgeoisie. In every episode, he tries and retries to prove he is an inseparable part of his neighbors’ life. He goes out of his way to please the neighbors, and, in his attempts, completely neutralizes his identity, culture, and nationality, sometimes at the expense of old ties from the village but mostly at the expense of his family members’ mental health as they put up with his suspicious behavior. Poking fun at the cultural divide, Kashua and his characters play on religious, cultural, and political differences to daringly depict the mixed society that is Israel.
Amjad, as well as Kashua himself, might be colloquially called “token Arab” (aravi machmad) implying he is cultured, well integrated, positive, and will not cause trouble.
1. Breaking down mistrust between Jews and Arabs in Israel and creating collaborative projects and businesses is not only a hope. There are many groups and individuals who are building cultural and social bridges between Arabs and Jews. Research online and find at least one such endeavor. Write about their mission and describe their projects and successes.
2. One of the main themes of this series is the dual identity of Amjad. He is a part of an Arab minority in a predominantly Jewish state. He is trying to fit in, not always successfully. In episodes 2 and 3, what are some of the assumptions the other characters make about him because he is an Arab? (i.e., he is a janitor, he drinks coffee with cardamom or mint tea, he doesn’t belong in the neighborhood, he is a terrorist, dogs can smell Arabs, etc.) Do you make assumptions about other people? Is it right to make such assumptions? Why or why not?
3. As Jews, we are a minority in the United States. How do you define yourself? Are you an American Jew, a Jewish-American or something else? Is it important? Explain.
4. In an interview to Yale Daily News in 2018, Kashua said: “I wrote Arab Labor in a naive period of my life,” Kashua said. “Humor is the weapon of the weak? I wanted to subvert that through popular media.” At that point in his life, Kashua still subscribed to the saying, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh.” He thought he could bring the politics of Arab discrimination into Israeli living rooms, as long as he was “soft and easy,” with “lots of humor.” Do you think using humor makes the issue of Arab inequality in Israel more or less persuasive? Explain.
The creator of the series, Sayed Kashua, found the political situation in Israel unbearable for an Arab and moved to the United States with his wife and children in 2014 as a fellow of the Israel Studies Project at the University of Illinois. He explains some of the reasons in an exchange of letters with his friend Etgar Keret, a popular Israeli writer, in the pages of the New Yorker magazine.
To read the letters and the article that sparked the exchange:
“Why I Have to Leave Israel” by Sayed Kashua (The Guardian)
Creator of the series and acclaimed Arab-Israeli writer, Sayed Kashua draws from his own experience as a journalist in Jerusalem.
Kashua was born in Tira (about 18 miles north of Tel Aviv) and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Interestingly, Kashua often writes in Hebrew, as opposed to his mother tongue, Arabic. His novels Dancing Arabs (2002), Let It Be Morning (2006), and Second Person Singular (2010) have won numerous international prizes and have been translated into several languages.
Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life, a collection of interrelated essays on life in modern Jerusalem written between 2006 and 2014, includes his humorous columns from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, in which he anecdotally addresses the experience of being Arab in Israel.
He also used humor and satire to explore ignorance and prejudice on both sides of the Israeli-Arab ethnic divide as the screenwriter of two Israeli hit television series, the semi-autobiographical The Writer and Arab Labor. In 2010, Kashua was given the Freedom of Expression Award at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.
Although he devoted much of his adult life trying to tell Israelis (and others) the Palestinian story, he ultimately found the task fruitless and the political situation untenable. Kashua moved to the United States with his wife and children in 2014 as a fellow of the Israel Studies Project at the University of Illinois, then became a visiting professor there.
He is currently a graduate student in comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also recently served as a Hebrew instructor.
An English translation of his fourth and latest novel Track Changes came out in January 2020. It follows an Arab Israeli man as he deals with his memories, his past and his cultural identity.
Sayed Kashua’s Israel Resource Card (The iCenter)
“Palestinian Israeli writer, creator of TV comedy ‘Arab Labor,’ to speak in S.F.” by Laura Paull (The Jewish News of Northern California)
“Why I Have to Leave Israel” by Sayed Kashua (The Guardian)
“Tell Me a Story with a Happy Ending” by Etgar Keret and Sayed Kashua (The New Yorker)
The series highlights the precarious nature of Arab-Israelis’ civil and societal status. Representing 21% of Israel’s population, and formally equal according to Israeli law, many Arab citizens of Israel experience discrimination in many aspects of life. Are they Arab citizens of Israel, Arab Israelis, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Israeli Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians in Israel, or Palestinian Arabs? The abundance of identifiers hints to the complexity this population faces in defining their identity.
Amjad’s family and their friends and relatives speak Arabic peppered with words and phrases in Hebrew. Most Arab citizens of Israel are functionally bilingual, their second language being Modern Hebrew. Amjad, much like Kashua, navigates between two cultures trying to fit in seamlessly without much success. While it might not be good for his split identity, it sure makes for great comedic moments.
Arab-Israelis Israel Resource Card (The iCenter)
“The Status of Arabs in Israel” by Mitchell Bard (Jewish Virtual Library)
In Arabic culture it is customary to be named after the firstborn son. Abu Amjad is father of Amjad and Ohm Amjad is mother of Amjad.
“To Change Tomorrow” (in Arabic: Nghayer Bukra) by DAM
The song expresses pride in Palestinian identity and heritage, and hope for equality and a better, more peaceful future.
DAM (Arabic: دام; Hebrew: דָּם) is a Palestinian-Israeli hip-hop group based in Lod, Israel. DAM was founded in 1999 by brothers Tamer and Suhell Nafar and their friend Mahmoud Jreri. Their songs are largely about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and poverty. The group’s name is the Arabic verb for “to last forever/eternity” (دام) and the Hebrew word for “blood” (דָּם). (Source: Wikipedia)