Savir's Corner: Humor in conflict

A sense of humor is innate in all human beings; in situations of hardship, it serves as a mechanism to cope with it.

Bibi laughing hysterically 370 (photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO)
Bibi laughing hysterically 370
(photo credit: Moshe Milner GPO)
Francis Bacon once said that “imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.”
Indeed, people who lack a sense of humor suffer more as they tend to take themselves too seriously. Humor is often also defined as a shield to protect ourselves from the imperfections of reality and human nature. It can balance the ego, which tends to lead us to dangerous delusions and illusions.
Humor is not merely about being funny; that is comedy. Humor is a language in itself, a perspective on life, with a smile.
Only humans smile and they mostly do so in company.
HUMOR HAS played an important role in Jewish history and life, even in the days of the Bible. One of our forefathers was virtually named after it – Yitzhak (“he will laugh”), as his mother, Sarah. said: “God has made laughter for me” (Genesis 2:16).
Oftentimes Jews faced the oppression that they were subjected to with humor – take for example the two Jews suffering from anti-Semitism who met in Stalin’s Soviet Union: Question – “Rabinovitch, what is fortune?” Answer – “Fortune is to live in our socialist motherland.” Question – “And what is our misfortune?” Answer – “Misfortune is to have such a fortune.”
Across the ocean in the United States, Jewish humor has an important cultural role – from Yiddish theater to stand-up comedy and, of course, Woody Allen.
Allen gives a brilliant human perspective to life, never taking it too seriously: “Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.”
In Israel, humor is an important part of our nation-building – from writer Ephraim Kishon, the Gashash Hahiver comedy group to the Eretz Nehederet satirical TV show – all influencing our language and thinking.
The other day Eretz Nehederet poked fun at the prime minister’s apology to Turkey on the Marmara incident. An Israeli tourist travels around Antalya and every Turk he meets he embraces firmly, shaking his or her hand and apologizing in all seriousness: “I am sorry, I am really sorry,” before ending up pool-side at an Antalya five-star hotel consuming Turkish Delight.
I encountered a similar sense of humor among the Irish, having had the good fortune of becoming friends with the author Frank McCourt. I shall not forget the long Irish nights in Manhattan bars decorated in green, in which McCourt made a group of compatriots and some strangers stand in a circle and recite a funny story before each sip of Guinness. Humor created a strong sense of camaraderie and enjoyment of friendship, of wit and of life. To that McCourt pronounced with a heavy Irish accent: “The Master says it’s a glorious thing to die for faith, dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland, and I wonder – is there anyone in the world who would like us to live?” We from Israel knew what he was talking about.
When I began the secret back-channel negotiations in Oslo with the No. 3 of the PLO, Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei), a common sense of humor replaced the initially nonexistent common language between enemies who were hoping to become former enemies. When I was introduced to Abu Ala, exactly 20 years ago, I did not know what to expect. After all, his organization and boss had been engaged in the past in terror against civilians and wanted us to disappear from the map (not that on our map there was much room for Palestinians).
We began with formalities, grand political phraseology about mutual recognition, security, independence, etc. replacing small talk.
After dinner Abu Ala, I believe, wanted to prove to all negotiators present the surprising revelation that we were all humans when he asked: “May I tell you a funny story?” Our intelligence services had not prepared us for that. He got up as if he was going to give a major policy speech and began to tell what was actually a very sad story about an old couple married for over 50 years.
“One sad day,” Abu Ala recounted, “the lady of the house passed away, leaving the husband a distraught widower. Day after day hundreds of friends came to console him, filling the terrible void and taking him to their hearts. He appreciated the friendship and warmth of his guests. Day after day, as happens on such occasions, fewer people came. After a week, only close family showed up. Then one morning he wakes up, looks around him and waits for a knock on the door. Silence. He finally recognizes that he has been left alone. He stands all alone and sad in the middle of the living room, reciting with great sorrow: ‘I am alone, I am alone...’” Imitating him, Abu Ala was virtually weeping.
“‘I am alone, I am alone,’ then looking up in bewilderment, ‘I am alone?’ and finally bewilderment turns to jubilation and he proclaims with great joy ‘I am alone! I am alone!’” recited Abu Ala with the greatest of laughter.
We all followed his lead, laughing at the story and the situation. Even today “I am alone” is our code for a laugh. When I told Shimon Peres about the incident, he, who appreciates a good laugh, asked me to pass on to Abu Ala an Indian proverb. “I am alone, you are alone, let’s be alone together.”
And indeed we were alone, as conflict is very much about isolation, but alone together. That moment, as trivial as it may seem, was an important ice-breaker between arch-enemies beginning the long road to resolving a bloody conflict. The essential first step is to recognize the humanity of the other side. Conflict is about dehumanization, about hate, about prejudice, about death. Therefore the other side is “it,” not he or she. With the beginning of conflict resolution, one must recognize that the other side, the enemy, is as human as oneself. In such a dialogue, at the outset, there is no common language, as language is filled with notions of conflict and prejudice. Getting to know one another as human beings is all-important and in that process, humor can play an essential role in creating a new common language. Only humans laugh together.
THAT IS true also in other conflict areas – one of the great peacemakers of our time is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who knows, not only how to tell the truth and forgive, but also how to be humorous about it. He even poked fun at racism, of which his people were a victim.
Once on a visit to London, he complained to his host that his hotel phone was not working. The British host immediately came to fix it, at which point the archbishop commented: “I always knew that the British phones were racist, only responding to white people.” He once defined racism as “just a pigment of the imagination!” Tutu is a symbol and example to all involved in peacemaking – he knows how to view conflict from a humanitarian perspective.
He is filled with humanism, never with vengeance and with honest forgiveness. And he always leaves his audiences with inspiration and a smile. Similar characteristics can be attributed to the Dalai Lama, who accompanies his words with rolling laughter.
So we need to ask ourselves: How come humor is often the language of those who have suffered or were oppressed? The source of the word humor gives us an indication: The term humor derives from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks; it created the balance of fluids in the human body, knows as humors, and was supposed to control human health and emotion. In other words, it was a healing effect, which is probably why people who have suffered use it so often.
One of the greatest comedians of modern times knew it all too well: Charlie Chaplin, a man who grew up working in a workhouse before the age of nine, with a mentally deranged mother and without a father. Chaplin once said: “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it ...”
A sense of humor is innate in all human beings. Yet it seems that in situations of hardship, it serves as a language, perspective and mechanism to cope with it. In getting out of misery or conflict, it can be a ladder to climb up to a better reality.
Humor gives a different perspective to human pain, faults and flaws, with needed distance and self-criticism, both of which, as we can learn from the ancient Greeks, have a healing effect.
Humor may be funny, but it’s a serious matter. As Winston Churchill once said: “A joke is a very serious thing.” So, smile!
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords. Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.