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Arab protesters outside Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel last Thursday night couldn't halt the peals of laughter emanating from the historic inn, where a group of Israeli, Palestinian and Jewish-American comics calling themselves 'The Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour' were staging their two-hour show. It was, they claim, the first time Palestinians and Israelis have ever done a comedy tour together, "not including the peace negotiations."
The standing-room-only event was one of four shows in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem late last month lampooning Arab-Jewish and Palestinian-Israeli relations. While the tour may have failed to "solve peace in the Middle East in a week, at least we put on some good shows," chuckled Jerusalem comedian Charley Warady, who cut his teeth at ABC's Friday Night and Comedy Central before moving here from Chicago in 1996. Today he hosts the podcast Israelisms.com (www.israelisms.com) which runs under the banner "It's a wacky country and we prove it."
"My goal is to get the Nobel Peace Prize from this," he kibbitzed. "I figure if Jimmy Carter can get one, it can't be that tough - except that I'm not as funny as he is."
"I don't think humor or comedy by itself resolves conflicts," reflected Palestinian-American writer and comedian Ray Hanania, turning serious for a moment. "Israelis and Palestinians need to start seeing each other as human beings again. I don't think the shows can do much more than just be funny and successful. But in doing that, it has to leave an impact on people that's positive."
For Hanania, a columnist for Yediot Aharonot's English language website ynetnews.com, it was his first time performing in Israel. He has been featured in and written for media such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Today Show, CBS, CNN and ABC.
The comedy lineup also featured US-born Israeli comedian Yisrael Campbell, African-American and Jewish comedian Aaron Freeman, and emcee Shahar Chason of Channel 10 television.
Hanania hopes the tour will be the springboard for developing a 'Peace Oasis' real estate development on 32 dunams he inherited south of Jerusalem.
Though Hanania grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood as Warady, the two comic writers only met online in November. "It's snowballed," Warady says of their comedy tour. Their instant rapport reflects both comics' abiding interest in finding an alternative way for Israelis and Palestinians to relate, apart from their tortured political framework. "If we can laugh together, we can live together. And that's really the bottom line," says Warady.
Another bottom line lies in comedy clubs in the US and Canada, where Warady hopes the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour will win fans and dollars.
Warady and Hanania's fellow joke-meisters also come from unusual perspectives. Aaron Freeman is a standup comedian, popular columnist and radio commentator who milked his life story of being a black convert to Judaism to tickle funny bones across American colleges and synagogues. Among his many quips: "I'm a political comedian, which of course is redundant; I don't write the jokes. I just vote for 'em;" and "For years I described myself as a Catholic atheist - I didn't believe in God, but I desperately hoped she did exist."
Similarly Yisrael Campbell, though he wears a black fedora and bekeshe symbolizing his being a haredi Jew, also explores the lighter side of religion. His one-man show 'It's Not In Heaven' charts his course from being born Roman Catholic to where he is today, having made aliya six years ago. "Is it warm in here or am I the only one dressed for Poland in the 17 hundreds?" he asked. "These aren't payess," he jibed, referring to his Mea She'arim hairstyle. "This is the beginning of a comb-over."
For Hanania, who complains that people confuse him with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, accusations of treason only highlighted the poignancy of being a Palestinian comedian. "We Palestinians screwed up. We gave this country the wrong name. Feinstein, Einstein, Palestine. If we'd been smart, we'd have called the whole country Gaza."
When flying to Tel Aviv on El Al, he knew it was an Israeli airline when the toilets said 'occupied,' he joked. "And then Alan Dershowitz was there to explain why my seat was given away."