Some viewers saw the “Um Haroun” TV series dramatizing Gulf Jewish history as a symptom of increased normalization of Arab-Israeli ties while others called it a political ploy. What the show truly represents is something more sinister: it attempts to rewrite the historical context surrounding Arab-Israeli relations from a perspective that justifies the political abandonment of the Palestinian people by Gulf Arab states—while manufacturing a perception that prioritizes power over people.
By creating a narrative of multicultural tolerance, the show forms a bubble around the conversation of Palestinian freedom, creating an echo chamber, effectively built by Gulf Arab soft power, to gag the Jewish and Arab voices fighting for Palestinian human rights. When the voices of humanity and justice are forced out of the picture, the effects of a show like “Um Haroun” eliminates a common ground for progressive change.
The colorful narrative of the series forces a future where Palestinians and Jews are unrealistically unaffected by the Zionist enterprise.
Instead of preserving and amplifying the conversation of a Jewish-Arab alliance, the colorful narrative of the series forces a future where Palestinians and Jews are unrealistically unaffected by the Zionist enterprise. And when the colors of the narrative translate into black-and-white politics, Jews and Arabs are again imprisoned inside the dehumanizing box of being eternal enemies.
Throughout Ramadan, the TV series “Um Haroun,” (“Mother of Aaron”) aired by Saudi-owned and U.A.E-based television network MBC, played on many Gulf television screens, possibly reigning at the top of viewership ratings as much as it did on controversy.
The nightly series, loosely inspired by the real-life events of Um Jan, a famous Bahraini Jewish midwife of Turkish descent, and set in a 1940s Gulf village, provoked an onslaught of online commentary even before it aired. Coupled with other provocative Ramadan TV shows related to Arab-Israeli relations, the public discussion of “Um Haroun” presented either uproar against or approval of its normalization of these ties.
What the polemic around “Um Haroun” missed is that the show was a means to a political end, one that further silenced Palestinian calls for freedom and conflated Jewish identity with docility separate from the actual situation. By doing this, under the guise of depicting the Gulf’s tolerant pluralistic past, the fiction in “Um Haroun” disparages contemporary facts.
The Locomotive of Normalizing Apartheid
Before “Um Haroun,” a series of events recently unfolded showcasing the disturbing reality behind normalized ties between the Gulf states and Israel, where in the past only Jordan and Egypt held official ties with the latter.
Soft power like the production of “Um Haroun” is a more elusive continuation of Arab officials’ rapprochement with Israel.
Unlike previous backchannel relations, now the Gulf states are more apparently entwined to the force occupying Palestine. As Arab officials backed the “Deal of the Century,” soft power like the production of “Um Haroun” is a more elusive continuation of rapprochement with Israel to the detriment of Palestinian rights.
Some of the many Gulf Arab-Israeli normalization events in 2020 alone include: Israel’s announcement of joining Dubai’s Expo 2020; Gulf ambassadors co-signing the “Deal of the Century;” and Kuwaiti pundit Fajer Al-Saeed calling for normalized ties on Israeli television.
Another flagrant example was on display when U.A.E Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed retweeted a New York Times opinion piece by known neoconservative Bret Stephens. The article, titled “Every Time the Palestinians Say ‘No,’ They Lose,” called Palestinian’s refusal of the pro-Israel peace plan “backward” and sarcastically concluded that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
“Mokhrij 7,” another MBC series, ignited the same abominable rhetoric where selling out morphed into buying in.
“Mokhrij 7,” another MBC series which was cancelled after 20 episodes citing the pandemic as a production barrier, ignited the same abominable rhetoric where selling out morphed into buying in. And this time, the rhetoric didn’t come from a neoconservative camp but from an Arab one.
In one episode, a character lamented his failing business and shifted blame on the struggle for Palestinian human rights overriding the prospect of conducting profitable relations with Israel. In the middle of his disgruntled rant, the character said, “Palestine is not my cause,” prompting the phrase’s equivalent in Arabic to take the online world by storm with #فلسطين_ليست_قضيتي.
This media portrayal pattern, distilling pro-Israeli sentiments within the soft power channels of television, aims to shift perception. The pattern, although receiving the disapproval of many, isn’t new to MBC and seems to be an increasing part of media coverage of other Gulf-owned outlets—not surprisingly, a pattern that often coincides with regional politics.
In 2018, the Kuwaiti-based telecommunications company Zain aired a Ramadan commercial titled “Mr. President.” The musical advertisement, with depictions of many world leaders including Donald Trump, criticized the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. MBC banned the commercial, and added a Turkish drama series to its 2018 banned list as Saudi-Turkish relations plummeted.
Moreover, this year’s Ramadan, Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Jazeera – not to be confused with Qatar’s outlet of the same name – published a puff piece on Israel’s fourth prime minister and “Iron Lady” of Zionism, Golda Meir. The article called her a pioneer and posthumously congratulated her achievements without mention of Meir’s lifelong and relentless stance against Palestinian human rights.
All history is revisionist and selective, to be sure, but the cloak-and-dagger methods mean there are shadows to navigate and public outrage to circumvent.
Perhaps, like the puff piece on Meir, MBC’s choice of actors seems to be a carefully crafted line up. Choosing the Kuwaiti superstar, Hayat Al-Fahad in the leading role, diverts the attention of those critical of the show and attracts those hesitant to watch it—a production recipe almost as sophisticated as Israeli Hasbara (public diplomacy) itself.
Glossing Over History & Ruffling Resistance
“The fictional drama series bears no intent to associate with the current political climate. Instead, the message of the series focuses on tolerance, moderation, openness, and coexistence; showcasing a region before sectarianism,” MBC Group said in a press release responding to the controversy around “Um Haroun.”
Despite being clear on an apolitical stance, MBC’s justification plays on two old, bigoted tropes against the Arab and Jewish people. One is clear in the media empire’s press release and the other veiled under its Ramadan productions.
“A region before sectarianism” is an idea that submits to the Orientalist self-fulfilling prophecy that Arabia is doomed from beginning to end.
For the former, “a region before sectarianism,” is an idea that submits to the Orientalist self-fulfilling prophecy that Arabia is doomed from beginning to end, that its conflicts are an inseparable byproduct of its existence and not a consequence of existing in shifting power dynamics. Essentially, the one-dimensional outlook transpired into the story arc of “Um Haroun.”
In the show, Um Haroun and another Jewish character convert to Islam while the rabbi in the series is confined to the same anti-Semitic tropes that William Shakespeare’s Shylock – an angry and greedy Jew taking advantage of society’s amicable civility – evokes in “The Merchant of Venice.”
In doing so, MBC asks public opinion to hand over two pounds of flesh: one to reduce Jewish identity into a docile, subservient one, and the second to squelch Palestinian resistance, aiming to overpower both for the sake of regional politics.
Kuwaiti professor of Gulf Jewish history, Yousef Al-Mutairi, encourages the production of more truthful depictions, adding how important it is for a society to engage with its history.
“As for the issue that’s nonnegotiable is what’s declared and what’s kept secret in normalizing ties with Israel, which is unfortunately more of a Gulf endeavor lately,” he wrote in a tweet. “And what’s meant here is normalization with the Zionist enemy not Judaism. There is no religious, moral, or logical reason not to cooperate with Jews as a people of faith.”
What the series does is unfortunately blur the lines between Judaism and the repressive Zionist colonial enterprise.
Al-Mutairi is on point. What the series does is unfortunately blur the lines between Judaism and the repressive Zionist colonial enterprise. Arab audiences should not see themselves as the enemy of the Jewish people. They should resist the racist Zionist narrative that is not only intent on erasing Palestinian identity but also rewrite the history of the region. By pushing for normalization of ties and turning a blind eye to what Israel is perpetuating on the ground, the Gulf states are now embracing their blatant complicity.
Hard-line critics may rightfully say, “you can’t converse with a beast while your head is in its mouth,” or they may use Ghassan Kanafani’s critique that diplomatic relations with Israel is like a conversation “between the sword and the neck.”
However, to dismiss Jewish Arab identity and the Jewish-Arab alliance behind the fight for Palestinian human rights is the same burial of truth that “Um Haroun” proposes. It’s a valiant stance to be uncompromising with principles but it’s an overzealous cruelty to even think that the fight for freedom comes from one side.
If “Um Haroun” succeeds in shifting the perception of the average viewer then Arab governments normalizing Israeli apartheid face no public accountability at all.