By Catherine Batruni
Although I lost exact count of the millions of attempts at peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians over the past sixty-something years, I recently came across one endeavor that left me feeling somewhat hopeful.
Founded in November 2006 in Chicago, the four members of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour were noticeably different than previous intermediaries who preceded them; surprisingly they did not waste much time after their formation as they performed their first show approximately two months later in January 2007 in Jerusalem. The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour strives to bring the two discordant sides together under the pretense that they will be able to coexist peacefully if they can first laugh at themselves and at each other.
The all-star team is composed of three Jews and one Palestinian. Are they trying to mimic the proportional composition of the Knesset, you ask? I don't know; they didn't say. Maybe Israelis are just funnier than Palestinians. All four members are American. Two of the Jewish members, Aaron Freeman and Yisrael Campbell, are converts to Judaism. Aaron Freeman also happens to be black; this provides most of the material for his jokes (an already oppressed black American converting to Judaism by choice is mind-boggling indeed)! Yisrael Campbell converted to Orthodox Judaism and is now considered to be one of the greatest stand-up comedians in Israel. Charley Warady emigrated to Israel ten years ago and has appeared on Comedy Central. As for the sole token Arab member, Ray Hanania was born to Palestinian Christian parents from Bethlehem and Jerusalem; he grew up in Chicago and is now married to a Jewish woman. Along with being a comedian, Ray is also a journalist who writes for a wide spectrum of publications, thus making it impossible for me to try to generalize his political views without reading his articles. Can you guess the political opinions of a Palestinian American Christian who writes for the Jerusalem Post AND a newspaper in Saudi Arabia? I sure cant.
The anecdotes and humor presented by the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour are satirical, political, cultural, and self-deprecating. For example, when Ray Hanania addresses the audience at the Syndrome Theater in Jerusalem with a recount of his wedding, he states, "We had 900 people, we only sent out 24 invitations...We had all the Arabs on one side, all the Jews on the other side. We didn't have a bridal party. We had a U.N. Peacekeeping Force right down the middle, on the Arab side of course". This was greeted with a hysterical outbreak of cackling. In May 2008 at the Bnai Yehuda Beth Shalom Synagogue in Chicago, Ray asks the crowd if there are any Arabs in attendance. After a few seconds of dead silence, he cheerily bestows a compliment upon the synagogue-- "Great security!"--and the spectators erupt in laughter. Always in a jocular mood, Ray goes on to ridicule Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Americans, the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli government, international politicians, terrorists, other Arabs such as Lebanese and Syrians, his own parents, his Jewish wife, himself, and his son Aaron who he allegedly refers to as "Abdellah" (Arabic name meaning "servant of Allah") when his wife is not within earshot. He stresses both his Palestinian and American identity, informing the audience that he "served in Vietnam...[audience applauds with deference]...hummus and tabbouli!".
The ensemble leaves no room for questioning of their insight; they truly comprehend the wide range of perspectives on the conflict in all its platitudinous political sound bites. The troupe claims that when performing in Israel they keep their official name, "The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour", but once they enter the West Bank they become "Ray Hanania And The Three Hostages" and inside Gaza they are simply known as "The Four Hostages". And in the United States where the subjects of Israel and Palestine are too complicated for most Americans, their uncomplicated name is "Three Jews And An Arab".
The tenets of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour are admirable and possibly even realistic. The four comedians support a two-state solution, though it is not explicit whether they advocate controversial but critical actions such as the removal of Jewish settlements from the West Bank, demolishing the apartheid wall, eradicating all checkpoints and mobility blockages, and granting East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, just to identify some substantial impediments on the road to peace. But their resolve is to make us laugh, to help us realize the foolishness of violence, and to reflect on our situations. These goals are accomplished very successfully. People continue to suffer tremendously in the Holy Land on a daily basis, but hopefully not for much longer.
Visit the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour web site.
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