Satirizing for Israel

Absurd debates over Israel led us to comedy.

No Laughing Matter 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
No Laughing Matter 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When British comedian Peter Cook set up his satirical comedy club The Establishment in London in the early 1960s, he said it was modeled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.”
As we set up our project, No Laughing Matter, to create satirical videos on topics close to Israel’s heart, we recognized that a degree of humility and realism was in order.
It was the sheer absurdity of how debates over Israel are conducted that led us down the comedy route. We also believed you have more chance of people listening to your argument if you entertain them at the same time.
We were very influenced by the great British comedians John Bird and John Fortune, who have used a mock interview technique to satirize targets for so long they even performed at The Establishment club itself. We weren’t parodying them, we were copying their mechanic: If you interview a fictional figure representing an organization or government, and have them be brazenly honest, what they say can be very telling as well as very funny.
What would happen, we asked, if we had spokespeople for Hamas, Iran and the UN tell us what they really thought? We performed the sketches in front of a live audience, and put the videos on YouTube. (You can see them at Although the videos now have more than 100,000 views, the challenge of changing public perceptions about Israel and its neighbors is almost overwhelming.
THE CONDEMNATION that engulfed Israel over the Gaza flotilla is just the latest example of a systemic problem – Israel has completely lost control of the narrative. It is so tempting to get into an argument over say, who was on the Mavi Marmara, or what their intentions were, or what weapons they had, but it is missing the point. If we cannot win the debate over the nature of Hamas, or the threats Israel faces, or even why it has a right to exist, then detailed rebuttals become irrelevant. Nobody is listening.
Instead, UK lawyers are threatening to arrest Israelis on war crimes charges for serving in the IDF. Israeli diplomats and politicians are being shouted down on campus. Israeli artists and scientists are being boycotted.
It is the tone of the attacks that really worries us. They have become crude, blinkered and one-sided. There is no acceptance of legitimate Israeli security concerns. There is no recognition that the Palestinian leadership has failed to prepare its people for the concessions needed for peace.
Instead the Palestinians are portrayed as helpless victims and the Israelis as ruthless oppressors. Israel has become the new South Africa. The prejudicial attacks blindly ignore the reality on the ground: Israel is a democracy struggling with challenges that no country has ever faced.
In the past, it could be argued that the hostile climate of world opinion doesn’t matter. Let the armchair pundits have their say; the solution lies entirely in the hands of the Israelis and the Palestinians.
But recently, outsiders have begun to exert a powerful influence on the conflict and potentially alter its outcome.
There is a strong temptation for the Palestinians to believe that things are going their way, that Israel is being pilloried and that if they just sit tight it will be forced to make more concessions. It is an understandable attitude which postpones tough decisions, but it will lead only to more bloodshed.
From the outside the problems of the Middle East look intractable. They are not. The issues can all be resolved if there is a will. The challenge of peace is psychological not territorial.
IF OUTSIDERS to the conflict have a role to play, surely it is to make peace more likely by calling for reason, not inflaming the debate. By recognizing publicly that there are there are rights on both sides, and that concessions must be made by both sides for peace.
What makes it currently impossible is the climate of hate, and this is asymmetric. In a recent poll, 70 percent of Israelis say that they want peace with the Palestinians and will trade land for it.
By contrast, there is a concerted international campaign to delegitimize Israel’s very existence and make it a pariah.
No movement toward peace can happen without marginalizing these voices of hate – turning the perpetrators and their cheerleaders into the pariahs.
And that battle has to be fought and won first in the publics of Western democracies.
Wearing a T-shirt saying “We are all Hizbullah now” has to stop being radical chic and start being shameful.
Exposing and undermining the hatred, not through using hatred ourselves but through, for example, humor, is a step along that path.
The writer is a founding member of No Laughing Matter.