Laughing at Whose Expense

This is not right; this is not what signed up for at all. Here I was, all set to laugh away the (hypothetical, intern) stresses of the day with some lightweight comedy at the London Jewish Cultural Centre’s ‘Before the Edinburgh Festival’, and I’ve found myself in the middle of a macabre version of Law and Order with Ivor Dembina playing the role of the accused, and the audience a taciturn jury.

Minutes earlier, Dembina’s set had been interrupted and sabotaged by an anorak-wearing protester who shouted out mid-anecdote, ‘Tell the audience what you were doing in the West Bank Ivor. Why do you change your material for this audience? Why don’t you do the real stuff?’ For me, the answer was quite simple: I could not imagine this audience weeping tears of mirth over jokes with the punch line, ‘this is Ourschwitz, not Yourschwitz’. Does there need to be more explanation than that?

There was a sense of unease in the theatre from the start. Earlier, as we had approached the gates of the LJCC, we were bombarded with pleas and pamphlets urging us against attending: as there were only 15 people in attendance, it clearly worked. The protesters’ handouts informed that Dembina, the regular host of the Hampstead Comedy Club, was someone who turned the Holocaust into a joke, who was too heavily involved in the anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement and who believed ‘Zionism’ was the root of anti-Semitism.

The show was, undoubtedly, ruined by the heckler. I didn’t know what to think. On the one side, sat my friend, a die-hard liberal, who was red in the face with anger that such a man had been permitted to enter the theatre: this is not a political forum, she cried, this is not the place for politics. On the other side, stony-cold with disapproval, sat my mother – a Zionist that would give Golda Meir a run for her money, a woman who used to lull me to bed at night with the dictum ‘for as long as we have Israel, we will be safe’. I was, quite literally, caught in the middle.

Because, yes, it’s not right that a man be attacked for his political beliefs during his show. We would not stop a train driver or a milkman whilst he goes about his business to ask for his political views, so why do we feel it is acceptable in this case? I suppose the answer is two-fold.

Firstly, as I pointed out to my beetroot-faced friend, we Jews aren’t the same as other groups: we cannot go around recklessly giving fuel to anti-Israel, anti-Zionist arguments (like those in Dembina’s ‘This Is Not a Subject for Comedy’), because, we, historically, are more vulnerable to criticism. For me, Jews in the Diaspora have to be hyper-aware, hyper-conscious of the language and manner with which we criticise the state of Israel – for there is no greater threat to one’s existence than an internal one. I see the words on the lips of my Uni friends constantly – ‘jews criticise too, jews agree with us’.  I feel a particular sense of awkwardness as I try to explain, in the same way that an Israeli waiter will bring you food you didn’t order, or two rabbis will fight over the middle seat openly on Easy Jet flight to Tel Aviv, ‘but it’s different.. We’re family’.

In this respect, I feel Dembina’s presence on the London comedy circuit is counter-productive for Jews. As more and more anti-Zionist views are publically aired, the language with which we talk both of the past and the future becomes increasingly casual and flippant. The message last night was clear: we are not the kind of audience who are willing to laugh at our painful past. The question of whether this counter-productiveness negates Dembina’s right to perform is, of course, up to you.

Secondly, when it comes to matters of the state of Israel, there cannot be a differentiation between the public and the private sphere. Dembina tried to retort, ‘what I do in my private life should not matter here’. But, unfortunately, it does.  There is a certain loyalty that one feels towards Israel that even if whispered in hush tones, or hidden within fluffy language, or, indeed, at one’s ‘other’ comedy show in Hampstead: anti-Israel sentiment will always rile Zionists up, Holocaust jokes will always stir unwanted emotions and, sadly for Dembina, there will, always, be someone who shouts out.

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