Seven Canadian comedians on a goodwill tour sponsored by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs walked into East Jerusalem’s Legacy Hotel Friday night. They put on a raunchy, funny show, showering the crowd with dirty words – and descriptions of dirtier actions. But, as the tour organizer Mark Breslin explains, “while we thought we might get into trouble over the darker stuff we do about sex, death, and bodily functions, that’s been no issue. It was one word, one word, that got everybody up in arms. And that word was ‘Israel.’”
The MC that night – the comedians rotate while touring – was Sam Easton, a 32-year-old with a delightfully boyish exuberance. A joke he told the next night was “My name is Sam. In Hebrew, it’s Shmuel, or Shmulik. My brother is Tom. Does that mean his Hebrew nickname is Tushlik?’” Following, what the energetic comedienne Nikki Payne notes, was standard comedian protocol, he started by saying “’Hello – insert town or country here’ – and that’s when the trouble began.”
“It just took seven seconds,” Sam said, days later, still reeling. “I’ve never seen anyone blow it in seven seconds. I said ‘man, what a beautiful country, we are having such an incredible time here in Israel.’” The Palestinian audience objected, with hissing and calls of “Palestine.” Someone shouted “Israel shouldn’t exist!” “From the comedian’s standpoint,” Easton recalls dejectedly, “I made it extremely difficult for the comics who were coming on after me, I dug such a big hole for them, they couldn’t climb out.”
Easton, an innocent whose harsh treatment violated the Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality toward strangers, apologized. “This is a very confusing city,” he said, “I am sorry if I insulted or offended anybody.” Hecklers yelled he should learn more about his audience before performing.
The next performer, Jean Paul, a silky-smooth, Trinidad-born, Torontian, also offended the audience --with a mild joke. “What does a polite Israeli magician say?” he asked. The answer: “To-DAH!” (not tada…) Afterwards, three young Westerners called him “very offensive, very insensitive.”
“It’s a cute joke about Israel, it’s harmless,” he replied.
“It’s not harmless, you don’t know the culture of the people,” one responded. Another accused this black man of being “racially insensitive.” “Sometimes people in thinking that they are helping, are not helping,” the softspoken comedian says. “It seemed like there was an agenda here. They came out to scold. These weren’t Palestinians or Israelis, these were white people trying to tell me they were offended on behalf of others.”
Meanwhile, Rebecca Kohler, a thoughtful comedienne, filled with probing questions about the Middle East situation, was “accosted in the bathroom,” Paul reported, and told to remove her Canada-Israel flag pin.
Perhaps most outrageous, Mark Breslin encountered hostility from “two tables of Canadian diplomats” there. “One of them, an army guy, said something like, ‘well, you know it was a good show, but Israel stole the land.’” Breslin thought “that was kind of shocking coming from a diplomat, who should be neutral.”
Breslin, famous for founding Yuk Yuk’s (pictured above), Canada’s largest chain of comedy clubs, and for discovering Jim Carrey decades ago, believed the critics “could have been more forgiving, shown more tolerance. We weren’t trying to make a political statement, there was just a little bit of ignorance on our part.” Remembering having been told that people don’t perform in East Jerusalem, and “we said we will,” he now sighs, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
These Canadians did the standard Israel tour, visiting the Western Wall, Masada, and Yad Vashem. “It’s the most wonderfully intense trip I have ever taken,” Nikki Payne said. “I think the place is beautiful, the people are beautiful – I love their fiery spirit,” Jean Paul reports. Both he and Sam Easton liked Tel Aviv, but “loved Jerusalem.” “When we left Jerusalem my first instinct was: ‘I want to get out of this intense tense city,’” Easton reports. “And in Tel Aviv I realized that that is what makes Jerusalem one of the most incredible cities in the world.”
Easton can’t get the “images from the Holocaust museum” out of his head. Breslin reports that these comics, “who are famous for making snappy comments and talking nonstop were absolutely silent on the bus afterwards.” Easton was particularly affected because this was a roots trip for him. His grandfather was Jewish but intermarried and was pressured by the priest who officiated at his wedding to renounce Judaism. “My mom is so proud it means to much to her that I am here,” Easton said. Thinking of his last 72-hours in the country, he reports, “I might need my whole life to debrief, after everything I’ve experienced.”
In East Jerusalem, Easton did not “blow” anything; the rude Palestinians did. Once again, Israeli democratic openness defeated Palestinian totalitarianism. A gracious response explaining the Palestinians’ position without humiliating their guests would have worked. But Palestinian public culture cannot tolerate such flexibility – even as off-the-record events, private interactions, life itself, invite more malleability. The brittle, aggressive reaction, echoed by Canadian diplomats violating their mission to be honest brokers, let alone defend democracy, reinforced by white people calling a proud black man “racist” when the conflict is national not racial, lost their audience, the visiting comics.
Meanwhile, Israelis did what they do best – greeting these visitors with warmth, enthusiasm, and an uncensored, uninhibited love of life. Israel’s freewheeling democratic culture feeds cultural creativity, political vitality, and comedy. These cultural contacts, these personal contacts, in rich, nourishing, liberating contexts, work; they reinforce shared democratic values, and build friendships. That is the serious lesson these comics --and their many fans back home -- should learn from this Middle East adventure, soon to be featured in a documentary.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.