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Jewish Comedy in Retreat

The following article of mine recently appeared on the UK’s leading comedy web page Chortle ( and will also appear in the next edition of the magazine Jewish Socialist.

It was originally intended to be submitted as a review of a book on Jewish humour that claimed to bring the story of Jewish humour into the 21st century, but as you’ll see it turned into something rather more opinionated:

I hadn’t yet read Simcha Weinstein’s book Shtick Shift: Jewish Humour in the 21st Century but, after reading the review on Chortle, I already felt ill-disposed towards it.

It’s hard to know what to say about a book which claims to bring the story of Jewish humour into the present decade yet doesn’t make a single reference to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. It feels like reading about Germany in the Thirties without any mention of you-know-who; a breathtaking omission that I feel Chortle should have pointed out.

If, as Weinstein reminds us, comedy equals tragedy plus time, how long do we have to wait before Jewish humourists start addressing the subject of Israel? If the art of Jewish comedy stems from self-deprecation, where’s the stuff on imprisoning your neighbours, grabbing their land and then blaming them for all the trouble? Weinstein’s assertion that ‘suffering inspires humour which in turn can be used to fight oppression’, would be easier to stomach if he had added that in the 21st century the general audience no longer sees Jews as the oppressed, but is in danger of seeing us as oppressors.

Israel’s apologists have so assiduously peddled the lie that any criticism of the Jewish state is inherently anti-Semitic that the audience is now in jeopardy of believing it. When you relentlessly tell people: if you dislike Israel then you automatically dislike Jews, eventually they are going to turn round and agree with you. This calamitous backfire-in-waiting has to be prevented and today’s generation of Jewish comedians should take up that challenge.

Of course not all Jews are responsible for the mistreatment of Palestinians and plenty of Israelis are openly against the excesses of their own country. But today’s Jewish comedian inhabits an age of ethnicity; publicly debunking your own nation is acceptable but targeting your own racial group isn’t.  If a Jewish comic wants to do some straight talking about Israel he or she finds they cannot: it isn’t their nation and, to criticise it publicly, is perceived (wrongly) as an attack on their own ethnicity.

Weinstein suggests that Jewish humour is alive and well, often citing Larry David and Sarah Silverman as proof. But however popular or successful these two have become, it doesn’t disguise the fact that Jewish comedy is in retreat. David and Silverman may have updated the public’s taste for Jewish people externalising their anxieties, but they both stay well clear of topics like Israel’s ethnic cleansing, its appetite for apartheid, and its penchant for dropping phosphorous bombs on innocent people.

So what do we Jewish comics do? The real story of modern Jewish humour is the way it deals with today’s pain. Sadly, a small number pocket the Zionist shekel by performing at gruesome pro-Israel flag-waving ‘family entertainment’ shows, which now routinely include singing groups from the Israeli army. Most, however, prefer to keep their heads down and follow the path of perceived success, knocking up a workable set of material: a little bit of politics, a little bit of sex and a little bit of Jewish and slide noiselessly into the swamp of value-free comedy that drowns today’s live scene.

As the comedian knows, words are less potent than the silences in between and Jewish people endorse Israel by keeping quiet. With pragmatism the order of the day, the modern Jewish comic either avoids the subject altogether or tailors his or her jokes about Israel to be as uncommitted as possible. The fear of being smeared as self-hating or treacherous by your own community drives the dominant attitude of ‘maybe if I keep quiet, the problem will go away’. Where have we heard that before? I don’t claim to discern what goes on in the souls of others, but surely, cowardice affects entitlement to the accolade of true comedian.

I recognise it’s a lot easier to talk about cowardice in others than to avoid it oneself. For some years I’ve had my own courage tested and I’ve often fallen short. I’ve been writing and developing a comedy show about how I see the Middle East conflict and I’ve often softened material or declined to perform for fear of rejection by fellow Jews. I’ve often retreated myself, distracted by quiet warnings from other Jews to keep my mouth shut.

My name has appeared on a Zionist internet hate list and I often receive mail designed to insult, threaten and provoke. It’s not the vulgarity of these anonymous slanders that unsettles, but the smell of fear beneath them. It seeps up from the sewer of delusion and self-pity that demands forgiveness for Israel’s outrages of today in return for the persecution Jews have suffered in the past; a nauseating insult to Holocaust victims that reduces their annihilation to a matter of political strategy.

I keep going because my own intellectual and emotional discomfort is embarrassingly small when set alongside the actual suffering of the Palestinian people. The ludicrous claim that Zionism makes to represent all Jews, and the widespread perception that all Jews are implicated in Israel’s actions, forces me confront my own cowardly demons and gets me to try and speak through my work against Israel’s disgraceful behaviour.

Over the years, I’ve worked in comedy with some highly talented Jewish comedians. They’re not just funny but also fundamentally decent people who happen to occupy the privileged position of being paid to say what’s in their hearts and minds. So I call upon us all to start doing the job we’re paid to do and take on an unfolding tragedy that claims to be perpetrated in our name. For my part, all I can say is, if you do, you won’t be alone. You’ll be disliked by some fellow Jews, vilified by others and maybe labelled a trouble-maker. But you have not made the trouble, they have.

The compensations are many. You’ll be writing about something that matters and the audience will applaud you for trying to grapple with the truth and how it affects you. You never know, you might even get a mention in Weinstein’s next book. But right now, rather than celebrate Jewish humour, offerings like Weinstein’s suck the life out of it and speed the process by which it is becoming a relic of a bygone age; a comic heritage viewed through an historical prism from a time when Jews were either immigrants or being truly persecuted.

In fairness, provided you can get over the publisher’s warning that ‘no part of this book may be reproduced’, followed by 116 pages of comic material culled from elsewhere and ‘analysis’ we’ve heard countless times before, Weinstein’s book isn’t entirely without merit: For sure, the early stuff rings true. His account of why notoriously anti-Semitic television stations in America eventually allowed Jewish comedy on screen in the Fifties is worth reading and some of his religious baloney is entertaining in a baffling sort of way. But in answer to the question ‘Is this book worth buying?’ Do what the author did, run away.

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26 thoughts on “Jewish Comedy in Retreat”

  1. Rudolf the red-nosed Rocker

    I’m kind of ambivalent about the argument presented here. At times, it comes close to saying that Jews have a special responsibility to denounce Israel at all times, which leads to the suggestion that it’s fine for gentiles to do silly jokes unrelated to anything important, but for Jews to make the same silly jokes is somehow problematic. As a Jew, I totally reject the idea that that some shitty little settler state should have any claim on my identity, and so I correspondingly dislike the idea that I should be required to take the piss out of it more than I take the piss out of any other oppressive institution.
    I know you can’t actually make things you dislike go away by ignoring them (sadly), but the idea that Jews have some kind of a special requirement to speak out against Israel does come a little too close to legitimising Israel’s claim to somehow define us for my liking. Although I could be wrong, and often am.

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    Your comment: ‘Although I could be wrong, and often am.’

    You know what they say: one Jew two opinions.

  3. hi, just read your piece and found it very thought provoking – living up to expectations after hearing about the site on indymedia UK. I’m not a jew so I’m fumbling about when it comes to understanding the ‘jewish’ way. This jewish humour is surley learned behaviour. If I became jewish and wrote comedy would I start to become self depreciating and consumed by the criticisms of the ‘community’? I’d hope not, as with this foreknowledge it would be like a self imposed prison sentence. In another article on jewish schools, the comments reflect similar experiences to the catholic regime of self loathing adults indoctrinating their young with the same psycological abuse. Good on you for continuing with your writings and not being put off by the critisisers, its their hang up. You mentioned the comedian can have no truck with cowardice, this peice is brave and with lots of insight and depth, thanks for sharing it.

  4. Disagree withe Rudolf up there – I think as Jews, we do have a special responsibility to speak out against wrongs within our own community, because of the hysterical attacks made on anyone non-Jewish who makes any critical remarks about Israel/Rabbis/Bagels/Bubbes. And you use whatever artform you work in to do that – believing in what he does politically, Ivor would be letting himself down if he didn’t bring it into his medium.

    But the bigger problem is that it’s not just comedians, it’s most public-speaking Jews who shirk their responsibilities to speak out. Come on Sir Alan, we want to see you firing someone for not adequately denouncing the Wall.

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    Thank you Robert. Your comment about Jewish humour as learned behaviour is exactly what I’ve been thinking about myself over the last few days and its a notion I plan to introduce into my current show.

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    Thank you Serge. I find the value of famous people like Sir Alan speaking out to be a tricky one. Naturally they bring publicity to the cause but at the same time reinforcie our socially destructive celebrity culture. Mind you, if Sugar returned his knighthood on the simple grounds that Jonathan Sacks has one, I’d find it hard not to cheer.

  7. Rudolf the red-nosed Rocker

    I can definitely see where Serge is coming from (it’s a position I held myself for quite a while), but I still can’t help worrying that by buying into the idea of our “special responsibility”, we run the risk of legitimising the idea that it’s OK for us to say these things, but they’re somehow less valid if gentiles say them, when actually war crimes are still war crimes and kosher wine is still bloody horrible, even if a gentile points these things out. I suppose it comes down to the question of whether we should be using our “authority” as Jews to denounce crimes carried out by “our community”, or deconstructing (horrible pretentious word, but I can’t think of a better one) the idea that our ethnicity does give us special authority, and the idea that Zionists have any claim to represent “our community”.

    “You know what they say: one Jew two opinions.”
    Have you seen that 2opinions1Jew clip? It’s pretty harrowing.

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    Thank you Rudolf. You make an interesting point. I think it becomes a ‘special responsibilility’ when Zionists claim to speak for all Jews when we know that this is imply not the case.

  9. Hi Ivor, I’m gonna be brave or maybe niave,I would be interested in what you think. It’s maybe a bit out of date but it was reported the other day in the JC that Daniel Radliffes (harry potter) jewish joke was over the edge.

    ”Did you hear how copper wire was invented? Two jews fighting over a penny!”

    I thought it was, ‘cos 30 years ago at school a half pence would be thrown on the floor and anybody who even remotely looked in its direction was called a jew. So why is it ok to laugh now if it was wrong then? Does this disrespect from Radcliffe earn him more cred with a non-jewish audience as with his ‘aetheism’? Whats left to be jewish. Why bother referring to your jewishness if you think jews are money mad and their god doesnt exist? Would this joke/description in the Urban Dictionary be acceptable?
    Q. What is jewish math?
    A. When everything adds up to 6 million

    Is that funny or offensive? Do you smile but feel alittle uncomfortable? Is that because the zionists have over saturated the peolple with one particular aspect of WW2 and in doing so trivialised it in many peoples mind and kept everyones attention away from israels own mis-deeds, but now people are openly getting fed up with the repetive reminder of the historical tragic event. Its as if the zionist propaganda machine is using their memory for political self gain which to me is a big disrepect to all the people who suffered. Is what ive written borderline anti-jew? Is it ok to explore these thoughts, or is it dangerous and antisemetic? I watched Louis Farrakhan on utube talking about antisemitism to a semite and it made sense.(louis farrakhan responds to charge of anti semmitism3:23)

  10. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, on friday warned that an Iranian atomic bomb could ” wipe Israel off the map in a couple of seconds,” and that the Iranians could ”acomplish in a couple of seconds what they denied Hitler did, and kill six million Jews, literally”
    Haaretz, July 4th 2009

    As an example of over saturation by zionists I’ve just red this in an article about the planned attack on Iran.

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    Thank you Robert for your comments. As for the first one, Radcliffe’s joke on the face of it is clearly anti-semitic, but when I admit when was first heard the joke it I laughed. It seemed to me it was a joke ‘about’ the stereotyping rather than an attempt to promote the negative stereotype itself. Its so luicrously over-the-top and the image of two men (Jewish otherwise) struggling over a coin and inventing copper wire by mistake is such a comic image that it made me smile. As for the Jewish maths remark I see its point but I find it neither funny nor for that matter particulalry offensive. Its just a trite way of looking at the zionists cynical exploitation of Jewish suffering in ther past to promote their own nefarious aims. As with all these ‘debates’ I guess it boils down to the intent of the teller and the context in which it is told. Tricky.

    As for your second comment about Iran ‘wiping Israel off the map’, it seems to me that the only map-wiping that’s been done over the past sixty years is that of the Palesinian land by the Zionists.

  12. Yeah its real tricky, maybe it’s that quandry of whether to laugh or not, is the ‘potent silence’ magnified, that makes us jolt back and question our reality. Thanks for your reply, it was a good anwer.

  13. Ivor – Perhaps you could start every set by saying, “AsaJew I utterly condemn the actions of the Israeli government…” That way no one will ever mistake you for one of those nasty Zionists. After all, we all know that, truly, the root cause of all terrorism, war, hatred of the West and Swine flu are the result of the actions of the Israeli government and if it were not for those actions then people of all creeds and colour would be able to hold hands and unite in the name of human rights and liberty for all free of the yoke of Zionist oppression.

    Btw it is simply incontrovertibly true that a nuclear armed Iran would be able to kills all Israelis.

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    Thank you Lev for your kind offer of a list of of things to blame Zionism for. Sadly I have to decline it since you’ll appreciate that land theft, war criminality and imprisonment of a whole people as sufficient for the time being. Maybe if you’d included among your suggestions Zionism turning Israel into one of the most despised nations on earth, I might have connsidered that one.

    It is, as yous say, incontrovertibility true that a nuclear armed Iran would be able to kill all Israelis; hardly surprising given that it is a self-defining assertion. As alover of logic you’ll understand that exactly the same could be said about Israel vis-a-vis Iran. The difference I guess is that Israel already has nuclear weapons and there are those in Zionist circles who are already keen to see Iran nuked.



  15. Rudolf the red-nosed Rocker

    Lev – that’s not all, did you know that a nuclear-armed Luxemburg would be able to wipe out all of Kenya? Scary stuff.

    I’m also intrigued by that quote from the Israeli ambassador – when he says the Iranians could “kill six million Jews, literally”, does that mean that they might also kill that many Jews metaphorically? How do you metaphorically kill a Jew?

  16. hi Rudolf, the above ‘intriging’ quote is from ‘indymedia uk’ 17/08/09 under the title ”Israel:Obama’s end-of-year-deadline to Iran has been moved up to September”

  17. Ivor: “It is, as yous say, incontrovertibility (sic) true that a nuclear armed Iran would be able to kill all Israelis; hardly surprising given that it is a self-defining assertion.”

    It’s hardly a tautology in the way that say, “2+2=4” is true by definition. Iran still needs missile delivery systems (which they have) and Israel’s missile defence system needs to be shit (which it is). Lets also add that the President of Iran talks of the
    necessity of wiping Israel off the map and says things like,

    “I warn you to abandon the filthy Zionist entity, which has reached the end of the line. It has lost its reason to be and will sooner or later fall. The ones who still support the criminal Zionists should know that the occupiers’ days are numbered. … Accept that the life of Zionists will sooner or later come to an end.” 30 Jan 2008

    and there is legitimate cause for concern for those who do not want this to happen.

    Ivor: “…Zionism turning Israel into one of the most despised nations on earth, I might have connsidered (sic) that one.”

    Ever considered Christianity?

    “When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of the blood of this Just person. You see to it.” And all the people answered and said, “His blood be upon us and on our children.” (Matthew 27:24–25)”

  18. A comedian called Yariv Perelmuter was in the msm yesterday for having a pop at two israeli embassy officials during his act at the edinburgh fringe after inviting them to his show. He has a couple of videos on utube. The routine (critique of israel wise) only works if the audience know a bit about what the situation is. I suppose thats the same with all things. For me it worked, with no mention of the ‘all justifying’ H word, acceptance of israels unpopularity and a sprinkling of potent pro arab history.Hey its obvious I’m no brian sewell, it’s just an opinion. What did you reckon Ivor?

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    Hi again Robert. I’ve met Yariv and have seen him perform. I also watched his 7 minute atand up clip on You tube. I don’t think he’d complain if I told you that it was filmed at a time when he was still trying to find his feet on stage and disocver has own particular stand-up voice. Some of his jokes are quite good and he’s got a nice comic attitude, but as we see in the clip, the way he shifts around from subject to subject gives the overall thing a generic feel. Nevertheless, its good to see an Israeli taking a few pops at his own country. As for the Israeli ambassador incident, I heard something about it and my guess is that the ‘dignitary’ attended Yariv’s show under the assumption that anything Israeli must be good and therefore it was important to be seen publicly supporting it. If this was the case then it reveals the envoy’s delusional attitude that all Israelis speak with the same voice when we know there are many Israelis who experience disgust at their own country’s leadership. In the past I’ve experiecned something similar when some Jewish people turn up at my own show expecting to enjoy it simply because it comes with a Jewish label. They leave (sometimes before the end) unable to believe what they’ve heard with their own ears. Attacking the Zionist’s false claim about a consensus among the diaspora is of course part of my job, and I sense that Yariv working along the same lines. In so far as that is true, I wish him the best of luck.

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    Hi again Lev. In one short posting you mange to quote the me, the President of Iran, the New Tetament and still find room for a quick lesson in ballistic missile strategy and a reference to tautological thought. Sorry mate, I can’t keep up, so this is where I bail out.



  21. Rudolf the red-nosed Rocker

    Lev: “Lets also add that the President of Iran talks of…”
    This concept may be a new one for you, but in the world I live in, politicians sometimes talk about doing things that they don’t intend to actually do. Shocking, I know, but these things do happen. Do you think that the Iranian regime could launch a nuclear attack on Israel and not be overthrown or annihilated by the USA as a consequence? Or do you think that the Iranian President is so desperate to kill the Jews that he wouldn’t mind losing power and almost certainly being killed himself as a consequence?
    Or do you accept that Iran’s rulers would certainly like to do all kinds of horrible things, but realpolitik means that they’re not actually able to, so it’s dishonest to talk about them as if they’re likely to happen any time soon?
    “Ever considered Christianity?”
    Ever considered the possibility that there might be a difference between a millennia-old myth about the killing of a single Jew who may or may not have existed, and systematic recorded atrocities that have happened this century? Or do you not think that Israel kills civilians? I’m genuinely curious about where you’re going with this one.

  22. hi Ivor, would you do me a favour and read a comment I put on the topic ” are you interbreeding?”. Ive been popping back for a scan and no one seems about. Do you think what I wrote was ‘too far’ or it’s just that this site isnt very busy? I’ve enjoyed reading what people have written even though some of it is hard to follow, especially tony greenstein, as it quickly gets a bit deep and I’m soon out me depth. I’m not over sensitive but these articles are like an invitation to a meeting or a chit-chat,and when you go out for a piss only to return to an empty room. Why do you think there isn’t much ‘traffic’ as the idea of a site for jews and non jews to discuss jew and non jew issues freely, without overt prejudice is a good one. Alot of the political jewish topics are very emotionally charged, so there’s bound to be a bit of ‘to and fro’. Anyway thanks, I’ll check back in a couple of days.

  23. Hello Robert. I’m up to my neck in stuff and connot take on your request right now. Sorry. Ivor

  24. hi Ivor, thanks for taking the time to reply, good luck with whatever you’re doing.

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