Real Israel: Comedy of errors

A bill ostensibly aimed at fighting stereotypes turns punch lines into a hit-and-miss affair.

May 28, 2010 16:55
4 minute read.
Real Israel: Comedy of errors

michael ben-ari 66. (photo credit: )


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A funny thing happened to a Knesset bill recently.

MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) has filed a draft law which could be ultimately turned into a gag order: Ben-Ari’s legislation would outlaw cracking a joke based on ethnic origin or religious identity or place of residence.The bill’s roots are serious enough: It was drawn up following several cases of inciteful public statements against entire sectors, such as immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Sephardi immigrants and the haredim, explained the MK in the preamble to the legislation and on various talk shows.

In fact he nicknamed it the Huldai-Gazit bill after Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and radio presenter Gabi Gazit, both of whom have recently attacked the haredim in ways that are hard to define as anything other than insulting.

Ben-Ari cites, for example, the terms “parasites” relating to the haredim and “fascists” for settlers as being the sort of phrases he wants to be prosecutable.

The MK proved that he hasn’t totally lost his sense of humor as he declared in forum after forum that the bill is aimed at public statements but not necessarily at comedians, the aspect picked up by the media. This is a good thing, because the country’s prisons are already filling up with public officials and there might not be enough room for all the unfunny jokesters.

Still, Ben-Ari might find the joke’s on him. The aim of the bill might be good but how it’s already being interpreted shows that, like a verbal gag itself, once it’s out of the comic’s mouth there’s no saying where it will end up or how it will be used.

Since I have a few weeks left until the bill comes up for discussion I can quickly let you know what stereotypes we’re talking about without, hopefully, being arrested.

There would be no more “tightfisted Persians” (Parsi kamtzan), hotheaded Moroccans with knives (Maroka’i sakina’i), drunken Russians (Russi shikur), skinny Yemenites (Temani razeh) or Romanian thieves (Romani ganav). I guess you can’t quip about all Anglos being rich either.

Hopefully the blondes will be too dumb to realize the bill can be used in their favor, but where will we be without the quips about sending only Yemenites to represent us in the Eurovision Song Contest at this time of year?

There aren’t any Irish or Scottish jokes in Hebrew and no dumb Poles. On the other hand, Polish grandmothers abound. After all, just about anyone can have a Polish grandmother (savta Polaniya) in the Israeli sense of an overprotective, dominating matriarch. And you don’t have to be Jewish to have a Jewish mother, either. But don’t worry about us. You just go out, have a nice time and crack a few jokes at our expense.

If the law passes, despite Ben-Ari’s clarifications, there might come a time when instead of comedians having to ask if there is a doctor in the house, comics will enquire: “Is there a lawyer in the house?” as someone in the audience chokes on the jokes.

Most of these crass gags aren’t funny to begin with – which is why the audience is entitled to boo, leave or boycott racist artists, without differentiating between the religion, race or ethnic origins of the offending comedian.

What I can’t work out is who is going to police the shows, and when a case comes to court, what happens if the judge is a Yekke and doesn’t have a sense of humor?

And what will be when a haredi comedian, for example, wants to poke fun at his own community or a settler crosses a red line as he (or she) traverses the Green Line?

Currently the penal code bans publication or public statements of an insulting nature relating to the “color of skin” or “race” (geza) – which pretty much covers Ethiopian immigrants and Israeli Arabs – but not ethnic groups as such.

Still, broadening the law, as Ben-Ari suggests, will be of limited use.

You fight stereotypes through education, not legislation. Better still, battle the stigmas with humor and you stand a better chance of getting your point across than quoting the Penal Code and filing a police report.

Twice in the past month I have found myself lecturing someone about calling a neighbor “Kurdi” (Kurdish) which has (until now) had a negative connotation. In the first case, in the supermarket, it turned out that the person ostensibly insulting the cashier was herself a Kurdish Jew (as, indeed, are about 50 percent of the residents in my neighborhood) and on the second occasion, the person at the receiving end (also Kurdish) took it as a compliment. Both told me I was too “Amerika’it” – which, being British born, I didn’t think was funny (or meant to flatter me), but I wouldn’t sue them (which probably just shows how un-American I am).

The biggest problem with the proposed law can be found in Ben-Ari’s own explanation, as a religious settler: “The Arabs are better protected than us,” he declared. This shows that whatever motivated the National Union MK, it was more political than correctness.

So just who has the last laugh? If passed, the law itself could turn into a joke.

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