The cast of Avoda Aravit. Norman Issa in glasses at the back.The latest star of Israeli television isn’t exactly who you’d expect. But actor Norman Issa thinks it’s about time an Israeli Arab was the star of a prime time sitcom, and delighted he’s gotten a chance to do just that in Avoda Aravit (Arab Work), a new drama-comedy on Israel’s Channel 2 that has generated ratings and discussion among viewers, both Jewish and Arab.

Issa plays Amjad, an Israeli Arab journalist living in the Jerusalem area who’s desperate to become a part of what he calls “the elite” but still proudly clings to his Arab roots. There are no sacred cows in this show, hence the sheep who pulls out an identity card from its Arab owner when someone says: “Papers, please” in an authoritative voice.

Israeli television until now was almost bereft of Arabs in prime time, except for a few like singer Miri Awad, who also stars in the program, or a handful of others who made a name on reality or contest programming. Now Issa and his show are working to change all that.

“If you want to know why it’s taken so much time to do something that should have been done long ago, you’ll have to ask those in upper management at the TV,” says the veteran theater actor during an interview in Jaffa, near where he lives. “Why now? I say why not. It’s something that just had to be… We are 20 percent of the population, so we deserve a place in prime time.”

Still, the move by Channel 2 franchisee Keshet to greenlight a program dealing with issues ranging from checkpoints and airport searches of Arabs, to stereotypes held on both sides of the divide between the two communities, is still called a “giant gamble” by Keshet officials, one that Issa sees is definitely worth taking.

Written by journalist/author Sayed Kashua, an Israeli Arab who helped create the show with producer Danny Paran and director Roni Ninio, Avoda Aravit has been criticized by some Arabs as perpetuating stereotypes, but hailed by critics and even other Arabs as making good use of laughter to target prejudices on both sides.

“The show is something that can open Jewish eyes and ears, and help viewers realize that there are people on the other side who are more like them than they know, so why are they always distancing themselves from them?” says Issa.

Issa, who even got to eat horseradish for a scene in which Amjad and his family are invited to a Pessah seder at the home of his daughter’s Jewish classmate, says his character, who has definite identity problems, “gets screwed by both sides, the Arabs and the Jews.”

The humor, he believes, will work towards opening the eyes of both sides. “The moment they enjoy the show, the message will get through. It might take a day, two days or a month, but they’ll get it,” he says.

The program touches on sensitive issues, including suicide bombings, but Issa believes there’s no other way. “You need to go all the way to show how ridiculous the situation is. One needs to keep things in proportion, however, because if we continue blaming each other, we’ll never get to the end of it. We have to look ahead and see how we can move forward,” says Issa.

He is upset that there are so few opportunities for Israeli Arabs in the broadcast media, especially TV, noting that there are no stations broadcasting in Arabic.

“There’s no doubt that we Israeli Arabs are limited by the circumstances we live under,” he explains. “Wherever you go, there’s always a ceiling that limits how far you can advance. We talk about this in the show, Amjad is very optimistic, he thinks it’s possible to overcome this. He believes everything people tell him. He’s really innocent in this regard.

“I personally am not nearly as innocent as Amjad in the way I live my life. I’ve already understood how the game works here. So we have to live with this situation and one has to fight for one’s place, no one’s going to give it to you on a silver platter,” he adds.

Hoping the program will help change that, Issa meanwhile is gearing up for dealing with becoming a celebrity after a long period of hard work in lesser-known theater venues both in Jaffa and Haifa. And he’s confident that despite the criticism, Avoda Aravit will achieve its goal. “I showed it to friends from Jaffa, and they laughed a lot, really loved it and I didn’t hear any criticism… They treated it like a comedy, and a comedy can convey a message – it’s not just funny. It also has a message, often a painful one, under all the jokes.”