Punchline politics

Israel's ambassador to the UN discusses Jewish conspiracy theories, Iranian nukes and other funny stuff on 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.'

dan gillerman comedy 88  (photo credit: Comedy Central)
dan gillerman comedy 88
(photo credit: Comedy Central)
The United Nations isn't a place that tends to make Israelis feel well understood, so when British diplomatic correspondent John Oliver sat down last week with Israel's ambassador to the UN, he started the interview by giving his guest a chance to set the record straight.
  • Click here to watch clip "There is a nasty conspiracy theory going around that your country is run by Jews," Oliver began, "a cabal of Jews who set the domestic agenda and run the media. Would you like to put that to rest now?" "Our country," Gillerman responded, "is run by Jews ... We're a Jewish state." His stereotypes about Jewish media domination now confirmed, Oliver made the most of the opportunity, pushing the script for a blaxploitation movie he'd penned - Pimpin' Is Easy - Gillerman's way. "Put it on the desk of any of your friends who run Hollywood," he suggested, and then asked Gillerman to read a few lines. To the delight of viewers of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Comedy Central cable program for which Oliver "reports," Gillerman obliged, voicing the part of "Cinammon" opposite Oliver's protagonist, Rico. Reading the script of a Shaft knock-off on national television isn't normally something an Israeli ambassador does to press his country's case, but then, eliciting laughs when the subject is Israel is also a rarity. Gillerman was glad to have an opportunity to show his country in a humorous light, even if it meant risking being the butt of some of the jokes. "When they called, I really had to think it over. Comedy is one thing, but it's known that sometimes those interviewed for these sorts of segments don't always come out looking positive," Gillerman told The Jerusalem Post. "And it would certainly not benefit the cause, promoting Israel's image through alternative venues, if we came out looking goofy. We knew this. It was a risk - but also an opportunity." So Gillerman accepted the offer. His interview, with accompanying information about Israel and Jews, appeared in North America last week and aired in Israel Saturday night. "Going on a show like this is about being a good sport and taking a risk," he explained. "We thought it would be worth a try, and thus far the feedback has been quite remarkable, largely with younger demographics." Reaching young people and giving them a different view of Israel is an important part of the Foreign Ministry's new public relations strategy, according to Israeli officials in diplomatic missions in America. To do that, the government has to use new means to communicate its message, since surveys show American youth rarely read newspapers or even tune in to network news. One common way the younger generation does learn about what's going on is through late-night comedy programs like The Daily Show. Host Jon Stewart and his crew of faux reporters mix jokes about the day's headlines with pre-made packages such as the one on Israel. Each episode also features an interview with an important personality, ranging from presidential contender Joe Biden to Hollywood starlet Halle Berry to Israeli historian Michael Oren, just a few of the recent guests. Appearing among such company - not the least of them Stewart himself, who has become an opinion-shaper and top-tier entertainer (he hosted the Oscars in 2006) - Gillerman made Israel instantly hip. "It made Israel look really cool," said Gilda Villela, a Jewish student at the College of William and Mary, Stewart's alma mater. "The fact that [Gillerman] would go on The Daily Show is incredible." But another Jewish student, Avi Weinryb, was less enthusiastic about the outcome. While he praised Gillerman for giving the interview, he criticized the show for its portrayal of Israel. "There's satire and there's gross misrepresentation of reality," said Weinryb, Hillel vice president for art and culture at the University of Toronto. He enjoyed the elements of the former in the Israel piece, but objected to what he said was the lack of context in some places. In introducing Israel, for instance, the show talks about Jews' experience of mass slaughter and expulsion from Europe and Egypt, but not their historical connection to Israel. Oliver then gives this readover for images of the IDF firing off artillery: "Jews seem to have trouble getting along with people. So it was better to get them their own place. And where better to give them that sense of peace than in this tiny strip of land which houses both one of the holiest sites of Islam and both the birthplace and deathplace of Jesus?" Weinryb added that the jokes about anti-Semitism didn't bother him, but that "somebody who's a bit more sensitive - even my mother - could be offended." Stuart Miller, The Daily Show producer for the piece, told the Post his team didn't think the package would further anti-Semitic stereotypes or other negative attitudes. He said the goal was to have an interesting interview - the first of a series with different ambassadors - and pointed out that he and many others on the Daily Show staff are Jewish. At the end of the piece, Jon Stewart notes that he, too, is Jewish - at which point Oliver asks him to review his script sequel, Pimpin's is Easy II: The Hood is a Ghetto." Miller stressed that the goal of the show is comedy. "We're not a news show. We're not 60 Minutes," he said. But he noted that the program operated very much like a news station putting on its evening show, and that, as in a real interview, the subject wasn't coached ahead of time or told the questions. Even without advance help, Miller said Gillerman performed admirably. "It was fascinating. He was such an interesting, articulate, bright and funny guy," he said. In fact, the loudest crowd reaction to the segment came from a line of Gillerman's. Asked by Oliver whether Israel would use nuclear weapons against Iran, Gillerman responded that Israel has never said it has nuclear weapons. Oliver pressed him by asking whether a country called "Fisrael," should it be threatened by a country called "Iroon," would use nuclear weapons against Iroon. Gillerman's reply: "I think you'll have to ask the Fisraeli ambassador about that."