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Bringing Israelis And Arabs Together
A movie about an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian terrorist coming together? It's not as crazy as it sounds, says director Dennis Dugan. "The people living in conflict in the Middle East are the same people living in one neighborhood in New York – except that while there may be rivalries in Gaza, they don't hate each other in Brooklyn. Everybody just gets along,” he notes. "They treat each other more as people than as rival factions. You Don't Mess with the Zohan is a comedic way of sort of getting at the West Side Story aspect of life.”

Amazingly enough, Smigel notes, the story of the movie was reflected on the set. "One of the great things on the set – and we didn't do this intentionally – was that we had many scenes that involved all the Arab guys and the Israeli guys in the same scene, meaning they were all called to the set together,” says Smigel. "Everyone would be eating lunch together. They had a lot of passionate discussions, but it was very friendly, very healthy, very open-minded. It was really cool to see – some of the guys have said to me that it's the most they've every talked to an Arab or an Israeli before.”

One key to bringing You Don't Mess with the Zohan to the screen was to hire the best and funniest actors from Israel and the Arab world to bring to life the supporting roles. "We have an entire squad of people – not just the usual suspects from Happy Madison,” says Dugan. "We went from Israel to Palestine to New York to Anaheim, all over Los Angeles, to find people from the Middle East – Israelis and Arabs alike – to be in the movie. I think we read every SAG and non-SAG acting aspirant for this movie. With 175 roles in the movie, we had to do that.”

"Toward the end of the shoot, I heard from some of the actors that they'd grown up hating or mistrusting all Israelis or all Arabs – until they came here,” Smigel adds. "They actually said the shoot was a life-altering experience. Even though we make the point in the movie, I think it was a shock to everyone to see how much they all had in common. Look, it's not like we think we're solving anything with this film; we just wanted to be funny. But even for me, as a Jew, it was very interesting to feel as close to the Arabs on the set as I did to the Israelis.”

To play Oori, who becomes Zohan's guide to all things American, the filmmakers found Ido Mosseri, who has been an actor in his native Israel since he was eight years old. "I've always dreamt about Hollywood, but it was something I didn't think would really happen. Being in an American movie with Adam Sandler is more than a dream for me.”

"It was a great acting school for me to watch Adam work,” he says. "He's so kind and giving, and he's a very fun man to be with – he's like a child sometimes. It's important to love what you do and I can see all the time how Adam loves his work – and how he enjoys it and how much he wants everyone else to feel the same way.”

"I'm always happy for the opportunity to work with Arab actors,” Mosseri adds. "On the Zohan set, I think the first time the Arab and the Israeli actors met each other, I think we immediately became friends – we have a lot in common. Each of us comes from his own place and his own opinions and his own background. The most important thing that we were sitting together and listening to each other and wanting to learn about the other. So I felt privileged that we had the opportunity to play together, to talk together, to get to know each other. We became real friends.”

About Mosseri, Smigel says, "When I was writing the Israeli characters as horndogs, I worried if it was too much of a stereotype. Fortunately, Ido fulfilled all my dreams. At one point on the set he was raving about Tel Aviv, the scene there, and how I had to visit. Then he paused and asked me if I was married, and I said yes. He said, ‘Well… maybe you don't need<

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