JERUSALEM — Amjad is a neurotic Arab-Israeli journalist who desperately wants to fit in. He teaches his daughter Passover songs and wears a yarmulke when he takes his family to a Jewish Seder. He trades in his beat-up old Subaru for a more expensive "non-Arab" car so that he won't get stopped at Israeli checkpoints.
But nothing Amjad does seems to exorcise his feelings of alienation as the central character in "Arab Work," a groundbreaking new Israeli prime-time television sitcom that features an Arab-Israeli family struggling to assimilate in the Jewish nation.
For a half-hour every week, "Arab Work" uses irreverent and self-deprecating humor to challenge the Israeli media's predominant image of Arabs as dangerous adversaries.
The show, which debuted in late November, is an early hit. The first two episodes ranked in the top 10 and were viewed by 22 percent of Israeli households in a country of 7.2 million people. Channel 2, the Israeli network that airs the show, already has agreed to buy a second season.
But "Arab Work" is more than a wacky sitcom about life for the Arab minority in Israel. It's a risky attempt to use slapstick humor to lampoon both sides in this deadly, divisive arena.
"It's not perfect, but under the right circumstances it can be for Israeli-Arabs what 'The Cosby Show' was for blacks in America," said Vered Livne, the executive director of Agenda, an Israeli media strategy firm. "It has a chance to lower the barriers that Israeli Jews put up when they hear an Arab voice."
Since the country's founding in 1948, Israel's Arabs — who live within the nation's pre-1967 borders and hold Israeli citizenship — have faced widespread discrimination and suspicion. Television is no exception.
A recent Agenda study found that Israeli networks, including Channel 2, hire virtually no Arab-Israelis. News programs devote about 1 percent of their time to Arab-Israelis, a group that makes up 20 percent of the country's population. When Arabs do appear on news shows, they're usually presented as threatening.
The psychological divide appears to be growing, despite the near elimination of Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel.
Recent studies have found that discrimination against Arab-Israelis is on the rise. In one poll, 60 percent of Jewish Israelis said they felt hatred or hostility when they heard someone speaking Arabic. Three-quarters said they wouldn't live in the same buildings with Arabs. More than half said Arabs and Jews should be separated in places of entertainment.
For these reasons and more, it took the producers of "Arab Work" four years to get the show on the air.
"I thought it was time to take this conflict into prime time and laugh about it," said Danny Paran, the producer and a co-creator of "Arab Work." "We are both here, and it's an extreme conflict — basically fantastic material for a television show."
The main writer behind the show is Sayed Kashua, a young Arab-Israeli whom Paran has dubbed "the Woody Allen of Arab-Israelis."
Kashua first gained fame in Israel as a columnist for the left-leaning newspaper Ha'aretz. He drew on his own life as his main source of humor in his columns. The same is true for "Arab Work."
The first show, with dialogue in Arabic and Hebrew, opens with Amjad and his family pulling up to an Israeli checkpoint in the beat-up family Subaru.
"Not another word in Arabic, OK?" Amjad tells his wife and daughter. "Only Hebrew. And smile."
When the officer approaches, his daughter cheerfully greets the man — in Arabic.
"Documents please," says the officer, who proceeds to search the car as Amjad's wife and daughter snicker and high-five.
Frustrated, Amjad consults a Jewish colleague at his newspaper about buying a car that won't immediately be flagged as Arab. He buys a secondhand Rover sedan and is overjoyed to find himself being waved easily through checkpoints.
The portrayal of Amjad and the other main characters has drawn sharp criticism from Arab-Israeli television critics and others who see the show not as a trailblazing event but as an Israeli version of America's "Amos 'n' Andy," the 1950s television series that was driven off the air by civil rights groups for its stereotypical portrayal of black characters.
Sonia Boulos, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, watched only a few minutes of "Arab Work" before turning it off.
"It presents the Arab population in a very stereotypical way: They're messy, useless and dishonest," she said. "When you're living in a very racist environment, it's really in bad taste to say I'm laughing about myself."
Norman Issa, the actor who plays Amjad, doesn't think that critics should take the show so seriously, even though he hopes that it will be viewed as something more than a sitcom.
"It's a comedy, it's not a documentary," Issa said. "I believe that comedy can change people, change their opinions. Hopefully it will change something, so that people will be able to talk a little bit and not fight all the time."
(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this article.)
ON THE WEB
For more news of the Middle East go to "Checkpoint Jerusalem," Nissenbaum's blog.