Humor or hate? Groups see Israeli cartoon differently

McClatchy NewspapersApril 23, 2009 

JERUSALEM — Ahmed and Salim appear to be typical teenage brothers.

They spend hours in front of their computer playing Wii and posting crude updates on Facebook. They jam with Guitar Hero and watch bad American sitcoms. They bicker and call each other names.

The animated stars of an incendiary new Internet cartoon series aren't typical, however. They're young Arabs who spend their afternoons trying to bomb Israeli buses, gun down Jewish girls and incinerate crowded cafes, and in the three months since their debut, their caricature of Islamic extremism has attracted a growing cult following in Israel.

Its creators and fans see a humorous series that resembles "South Park" — at least visually — and mocks Islamic terrorism. Its critics see a hate-filled cartoon that uses crude stereotypes to dehumanize Muslims, intensify Arab-Israeli divisions and inflame the conflict between Muslims and Jews.

"What they do is strengthen old stereotypes of the Arabs and Muslims as radical and stupid and terrorists," said Yizhar Be'er, the executive director of Keshev, an Israeli media-monitoring group. "These episodes are so full of hatred that if an Arab did this about Jews, immediately the Anti-Defamation League would make big noise about it."

ADL officials in Israel said they hadn't heard of "Ahmed and Salim." However, Phyllis Gerably, the director of the group's Israel office, said the cartoon sounded "counterproductive."

The United Arab Emirates has banned "Ahmed and Salim," and Palestinian bloggers have denounced it. YouTube removed one of the first six episodes and warned the creators that it could ban the entire series if new episodes are too offensive.

Created by two young Israelis, 21-year-old Tom Trager and 20-year-old Or Paz, "Ahmed and Salim" are the petulant pawns of a rabidly anti-Semitic father who's constantly trying to send his sons off on terrorist missions that inevitably go awry.

In their three-minute debut, which has been viewed more than 600,000 times on YouTube, the boys' father bemoans the fact that his sons haven't gone off on a suicide mission and killed lots of Jews.

"Why can't you two die already and make your father happy?" the father says before shooting one of his many veiled wives in a fit of rage.

Ahmed and Salim reluctantly head off with a box of dynamite that their father tells them to put on an Israeli bus. Before they carry out the mission, however, Salim throws a tantrum and demands an ice cream.

The brothers then mistakenly put the bomb on a Palestinian bus, killing dozens and disgracing their father in front of his terrorist friends.

In a future episode, Trager and Paz are thinking of featuring the prophet Mohammed as a buffoonish neighbor of Ahmed and Salim. Even many mainstream Muslims are likely to consider that a sacrilegious insult, as they did when cartoons of Mohammed in Danish newspapers triggered a wave of violent protests.

"You can get murdered for a cartoon like that," said Trager, a self-described atheist. "I despise all religion, but no other religion would do that over a cartoon. That's why we're passionately more aggressive towards the Muslim faith."

"We do want to offend, but we have no intention of offending Muslims or Arabs," said Trager. "It's a silly cartoon that doesn't represent any reality, that's about a bunch of idiotic stereotypes with no basis in reality."

Trager and Paz, however, seem to revel in the controversy they've created and hope it'll help boost their profiles so they can turn "Ahmed and Salim" into a television series. So far, though, there've been no offers.

"We love the negative feedback," Trager said. "We love the death threats. We're surprised we're not dead yet."

While Trager shrugged off the substantive criticism from Be'er and others, he said that people take his "silly cartoon" seriously.

"When people watch 'Ahmed and Salim,' they already have a pre-existing opinion about Muslims and Jews," he said. "If the person watching it is a racist, then he was already a racist to begin with. We are not changing anyone's opinions — nor do we try."

While that may be true, "Ahmed and Salim" is generating a cult-like following. "Ahmed" and "Salim" both have Facebook pages, and each character already has more than 1,200 friends who constantly leave crude messages for the brothers that mimic their language in the series.

"Happy birthday d---face," one Facebook fan wrote on Ahmed's page this week as dozens of supporters chimed in to celebrate the cartoon character's imaginary birthday.

One fan in Paris is so obsessed with Salim that she wants to buy him a plane ticket, seemingly not realizing that he's a cartoon character, Trager said.

As the series progresses, Trager said, he and Paz plan to expand their focus to include Israeli society and culture, a prime target of one of their pre-"Ahmed and Salim" cartoons, which lampooned Israel's obsession with reality television.

In that five-minute cartoon, Palestinian militants holding Gilad Shalit (a real Israeli soldier who was captured by Gaza Islamic militants in 2006), bemoan the fact that Israelis are paying more attention to the reality series "Big Brother" than they are to their real captive brother.

The cartoon militants capture one of the most popular "Big Brother" contestants, a brash 56-year-old father who tells crude jokes on the show. The Israeli government decides to hold a phone-in contest to decide which Israeli should go free, Shalit or the loutish "Big Brother" contestant.

As might be expected, Israelis overwhelmingly back the "Big Brother" contestant, who's freed to wild celebrations as Shalit dies in captivity.

ON THE WEB

Watch Ahmed and Salim on YouTube

Ahmed and Salim Home page

Gilad Shalit/"Big Brother" cartoon (in Hebrew)

Home page for "Ahmed and Salim" creators Tom Trager and Or Paz

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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