Q&A: Yael Warshel

Yael Warshel uses Sesame Street to understand how media might impact peace.

photo of two Sesame Street characters by Will Yurman/Getty Images


Q: You’ve recently won a number of awards for your book, Experiencing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Children, Peace Communication and Socialization, in which you use Sesame Street as a way to test the efficacy of media efforts to influence opinions in conflict zones. Why this approach?

WARSHEL: I’d been part of projects at the UN and elsewhere that deal with the role of mass communication in trying to manage political conflict. I didn’t see anyone trying to empirically evaluate whether these interventions have an impact on building and supporting the making and sustaining of peace. I used Sesame Street because most peace communication interventions target young people, I think out of assumptions about their vulnerability, and, erroneously, that they’re easier to influence and don’t yet possess prejudices and political beliefs. Importantly, young people also represent the largest demographic in most conflict zones.


Q: You used a version of Sesame Street that was jointly produced by Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans and broadcast across Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. What did you find?

WARSHEL: After screening the series to 5- to 8-year-old children in each of their individual homes, I asked about their interpretations, stereotypes, intergroup attitudes, and political opinions. What I found by and large was that they did not even recognize the presence of the “others” in the series. Ultimately, at least where it concerned trying to change their attitudes or their policy-relevant political beliefs, the show was a failure.


Q: What did the children tell you?

WARSHEL: When I asked Palestinian children to explain their stereotype of someone who is a Jewish Israeli, they defined all Jews as members of an army. Not as a people, a religious grouping, or a nation. They would say, “I didn’t see an army or soldiers on the TV show, so obviously there were no Jews.”When I asked Jewish Israeli children about Palestinians, they drew a blank, then came back and said, “Oh, you mean a terrorist.” They defined a Palestinian not as part of a people, an ethnic grouping, or a nation, but as an individual who carries out terrorist attacks. And they looked at me like I was crazy: “This is an Israeli-produced show, obviously they wouldn't allow terrorists on set."


cover of Warshel's book courtesyQ: What room does that leave for possible solutions to changing attitudes around this conflict?

WARSHEL: What I found living in these communities, since I also conducted ethnographic analyses to explain the children’s reasoning, is by and large the “truth” doesn’t matter. I think any intervention has to be done in a way that accepts people’s narratives; that whether they’re true or not, it’s the truth to them. The best way to manage this conflict is to empathize with that reality. In this book, I’m less focused on where we are or how we got here than I am how we get out of here. The best way forward is to accept there’s a crystalized narrative of how these conflicts are understood, and that everyone hurts. Adopting that approach, those who can best mediate these conflicts are the people who live all said truths: bicultural hybrid populations, typically, Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel.



Yael Warshel is the founding director of Penn State’s Children, Media and Conflict Zones Lab, an assistant professor in the Bellisario College of Communications and the College of the Liberal Arts, and president elect of the Association of Middle East Children and Youth Studies.