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Laughing for Peace

May 9, 2009 | by Richard Rabkin

The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour isn't trying to solve the crisis in the Middle East, although it would be funny if they did.

A man is given an audience with the Almighty God before his death.

"My son," says God, "you have been a faithful servant, and as a result, if there is anything I can do for you -- anything that you have wanted to witness in your lifetime before your death, I will grant it to you."

"Well to be honest Lord," says the man, "since I was a child I have always wondered if you could create a rock that you could not lift. I would love to finally see that."

"I am sorry -- that's impossible," God responds. "I exist outside of time and space, and a rock exists within it. According to the laws of physics, which I created, it simply can't be done."

"Well, there is something else," says the man, losing strength. "I have always wanted to be there to see peace achieved in the Middle East."

"One unliftable rock coming up."

As this joke demonstrates, most people think that peace in the Middle East is virtually unattainable. Countless politicians have tried to resolve the problem and failed. Businessmen and religious leaders have also made valiant attempts, but to no avail. So why not give a couple of comedians a shot?

Ray Hanania, Charlie Warady, Aaron Freeman, and Yisrael Campbell are making their effort with the recently launched "Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour." They have performed across Israel, and recently had their North American debut in Toronto with an audience of over 1000 people.

African American convert to Judaism Aaron Freeman opened up the show. He is a standup comedian, columnist, and commentator on National Public Radio. He revealed to the crowd that when he tells his friends that he is a "Jew by choice" they always ask him why he made that decision, but what that they are really asking him is, "What's wrong with you?"

Charlie Warady, who was a successful stand-up comic in America before he immigrated to Israel about 10 years ago, followed. He marveled at the absurdity of the recent elections in the Palestinian territories where Hamas – a terrorist organization was elected to govern. "But we shouldn't fault the Palestinians for their decision because the ballots were actually very confusing," said Warady. "They were supposed to read, ‘What do you choose -- Fatah or Hamas,' but Arabic being the complicated language that it is, the Palestinians thought that it said, ‘What do you choose - Falafel or Humus.' I would have chosen humus over falafel if I had the choice too."

Ray Hanania, a Palestinian-American Christian and former journalist turned comedian came next. He played on the absurdity of political correctness in the post September 11th world. For example, he marveled at the fact that he made it through airport security unscathed, and a 90-year-old lady found herself spread eagle on the ground getting searched. "Hey guys," Hanania said, "I'm the one you are looking for -- not her." He also commented, "Of course the Israelis aren't going to take our claim to the land of Israel seriously. They've got people like Ben Stein and Einstein and we name it Palestine? That's bad marketing."

They've got people like Ben Stein and Einstein and we name it Palestine? That's bad marketing."

Finally, Yisrael Campbell, a convert from Catholicism, and now an Orthodox Jew complete with black hat, black frock, and peyote (sidelocks), closed the show. He opened by asking, "Is it warm in here or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 1700s?" Aside from telling the compelling story of his conversion to Judaism, he also riffed on the current political situation. "I heard that the Israeli army recently killed a master bomb maker who had only one arm and no legs. Now, I am not expert, but I am going to say that this guy is not an expert bomb maker. Perhaps a mildly proficient bomb maker at best, but not an expert."

The Israeli Palestinian Comedy Tour is not without its detractors. Some have remarked that the comics themselves are not really that Israeli or Palestinian. Freeman has lived all of his life in the United States, Campbell and Warady are relatively recent immigrants to Israel, and Hanania who is Christian, was born and raised in America. Others note that while the comics have gotten a warm reception in the media and in the Jewish world, Arabs have yet to embrace the cause. In fact, since beginning the tour Hanania had several of his gigs before Arab-American groups suddenly cancelled.

Hanania takes it all in stride, "I don't think humor or comedy by itself resolves conflicts. But Israelis and Palestinians need to see each other as human beings first. What we're doing is taking the things that people accept, that drive their stereotypes, and we're ripping them apart. In doing that, it has to leave a positive impact on people."

Howard Szigeti who brought the quartet to Toronto agrees that the show has a positive effect. "There were no incidents, no protests, nothing. Everybody basically rallied to the theme of the initiative: if we can laugh together, we can live together."

While the Israeli Palestinian Comedy Tour may have put people more at ease with one another, it probably hasn't changed anyone's political beliefs. "We don't have to compromise our views to perform together," reflected Hanania. "I'm not trying to convince Israelis that Palestinians are right and they're wrong ... and the Israeli comedians aren't trying to convince audiences that Israelis are right and Palestinians are wrong."

To explain one of the reasons for his involvement, Yisrael Campbell quotes the famous Talmudic dictum, "'It is not incumbent upon us to finish the work. But neither are we free to desist from it.' We should all be striving for peace in the Middle East. In our small way, the four of us are trying to do what we can to help."

To learn more about the Israeli Palestinian Comedy Tour click here

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