The hottest TV show in Palestine right now? A soap opera. About Jews. That's progress.
Soaps might not be your thing, but this one may actually be worth watching.
There's a new Egyptian soap opera that's generating all sorts of buzz across the Middle East.
It's called "The Jewish Alley" and it features a love story between a young Jewish Egyptian girl and a Muslim colonel in the Egyptian army, set against the backdrop of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
So yes, it's very "Romeo and Juliet," but that's not what's stirring up all the discussion.
"The Jewish Alley" is a Muslim-produced show that depicts Jews as ordinary, sympathetic people, which — believe it or not — is a huge deal.
Negative stereotypes of Jews run rampant throughout the Middle East. Just as Muslims in the United States sometimes suffer unfair judgment due to the actions of terrorist extremists, perceptions of Jews in the Middle East are often colored by regional tension with Israel.
A survey in Egypt even showed a majority of Egyptians believe Jews have too much power in the world and are responsible for most of the world's wars, despite the fact that only about .2% of the world's population is Jewish.
Other Middle Eastern countries showed similar biases when polled.
According to Nervana Mahmoud, an influential Egyptian blogger, these stereotypes are perpetuated by the media. Though there are Jewish populations in Turkey, Lebanon, and Cyprus, Jewish characters are often portrayed singularly in Middle Eastern fiction as Israelis, who are shown as "evil people plotting against Arabs and Muslims," she says.
Medhat El-Adl, creator of “The Jewish Alley," wanted to change that.
"By means of this TV series, I show that we (once) coexisted here with Jews, Armenians, and all other religions and nationalities, in a single fabric," El-Adl said in an interview on Egyptian television.
It's also worth noting that Jewish media, particularly in Israel, often reinforces negative public perception of Arabs, as well. Combating these stereotypes may be a crucial step toward recapturing cultural peace.
Reception of the show has been especially positive in one surprising place: Palestine.
"The Jewish Alley" is dominating the Palestinian broadcast market, with exceptional primetime viewership. Even the Palestinian prime minister is a fan, which is surprising because the history between Palestine and Israeli Jews is long and ... complicated.
The conflict dates as far back as 1948, when Israel was officially established as a sovereign nation. Palestinians and Israelis have been fighting ever since over who should control certain lands. A recent U.N. report noted that 2014, sadly, was one of the deadliest years of the entire conflict, with over 2,000 Palestinians losing their lives to fighting in Gaza.
The fighting has been going on so long that animosity has been deeply embedded into both cultures. And the media's conflation of Jews and Israelis does the greater Jewish population no favors in what, for them, is an already hostile Arab world.
Even with the region's history of conflict, the new Egyptian soap opera appears to be making progress — albeit on a small scale — toward bridging that divide. As one Palestinian viewer told The Washington Post after an episode, "It is amazing. It is as if we are one house."
"The Jewish Alley" won't end the violence on its own. But it can challenge the perceptions that lead to hostility in ways that traditional education can not.
Art is sometimes the most impactful form of media there is, for better or worse. For example, the Nazi propaganda film "Süss the Jew" was used to turn the German people against the Jews in 1940. Why can't a television show have the opposite effect today?
"This series is not perfect in its production," says Nervana Mahmoud, in reference to the show's sometimes overly harmonious view of 1948 Egypt, and its anti-Zionist leanings, which have drawn the ire of the Israeli embassy. "But it is the first to break the stereotypes and challenge the perception that all Jews are bad. However, there is still a long way to go."
A good next step? More shows like this.
For example, the new Israeli action series "Fauda," which gives Israelis a balanced view of the brutal conflict with Palestine.
Both "The Jewish Alley" and "Fauda" are pulling in lots of viewers across the region — and hopefully paving the way for even more shows like them to hit the airwaves soon.