No Laughing Matter
By Ray Hanania
In the post Sept. 11th world, I learned several things. It is easier to hate a stranger than to hate someone you know. And, anger often appears as “hate” when coupled with excessive fear and lack of knowledge. There is a rising sense of hatred, of “anger gone wild” in America against Arabs and Muslims because of Sept. 11. And there seems to be a growing resignation among Palestinians and Israelis that peace and compromise are no longer possible.Peace and compromise are always possible. What has changed, though, is attitude. People are discouraged by the unending violence, the failure of the peace process, and the increased negative rhetoric and speech.
Do we just stand by and allow extremists to control us? Or do we take unorthodox steps to remind everyone that we are both human beings and that peace and compromise are in fact the only alternatives to the conflict and violence?
After Sept. 11, I decided to turn to the most powerful form of communication that exists between human beings. Humor. Not just any kind of humor, but stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy is a controlled kind of humor, involving social satire and sometimes biting commentary, which not only seeks to entertain but to deliver important messages.
Humor alone can’t resolve conflicts like the decades-long Palestine-Israel conflict, but it can change attitudes. It can restore a person’s belief in the humanity of the other people. It can cause people to see each other in a positive way that can nurture improved relations. If people can laugh together, we can live together.
I first tested the theory in a show in East Jerusalem in Oct. 2004, at the residence of the American Consul General. More than 75 Israelis and Palestinians attended.
To press the need to bring humour to Palestinians and Israelis, I co-founded with Israeli comedian Charley Warady the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour (http://www.IPComedyTour.com), also appearing with Israeli comic Yisrael Campbell and African American Jewish comedian Aaron Freeman.
In January and again in June, we performed 10 shows in Israel for mixed but mostly Israeli audiences, and in East Jerusalem for mostly Palestinian audiences. In May, The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour performed in Toronto, Canada for more than 1,200 people, mostly Jews and Palestinians.
There has been some opposition. Some Israeli comedians said they couldn’t appear with me because it might harm their careers.
For Arabs, appearing on stage with “Israelis” is considered haram (against values) and is not the same as appearing with “Jewish comedians.” Five Arab organizations cancelled my scheduled performances for them in the two weeks after returning from the first tour in Israel and Palestine. Other Palestinian and Muslim comedians have blacklisted me from their festivals and TV shows.
I don’t mind the rejection because the acceptance is overwhelming.
After the 2004 show, the consul general said it was “the first time in three years” Palestinians and Israelis had come together in the same room. After the Toronto show, the auditorium’s entrance filled with hundreds of Palestinians and Jews who actually talked and laughed together.
We need to do more of that.
During the January tour, a suicide bombing in Eilat made us question whether we should continue. We decided we had to continue because we would not allow one terrorist or a group of extremists to control our lives.
The violence of a few should be reprimanded to the few. We must strive to believe that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians who are not involved in the violence are people who are angered and frustrated but not necessarily hateful of others.
We went on with our shows reminding audiences that the terrorists and extremists do not speak for the majority of Palestinians or Israelis, continued with a second tour of the wartorn countries in June, and will return this November for more Palestinian and Israeli comedy shows.
We can have compromise and peace if we stop demonising each other; one of the best ways to do that is through humor.
And that’s no joke.