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A Perfect Subject for Comedy

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Woody Allen lookalike, in his own words, is a fairly accurate description of London Jewish standup comedian Ivor Dembina, who was in Israel/Palestine this month for a tour of the chaos and for three performances of his show "It's Not a Subject for Comedy."

The hall of Bamat Etgar was full of anglophones and anglophiles who had come to hear "the joke that would solve the Middle East crisis." Needless to say, this joke has yet to be written, though Dembina is working on it… But the audience was not disappointed, and to his own surprise, Dembina received extremely enthusiastic applause.

Dembina is not a laugh-a-line comedian. Instead, he weaves witticisms into anecdotes about his time in this region, many of which are more moving and sad than funny. These are delivered in a London accent with a self-effacing hesitancy that seems to express something of the bafflement he feels when confronted by the madness of the world.

Dembina was brought up as a Diaspora Jew in Finchley, North London. His family was religious "in the sense that I was Bar Mitzva'd, we kept a kosher home and went to the synagogue on the High Holidays."

The family, unlike many in the community, was not well off. There were no Zionist dreams of moving to Eretz Yisroel, and Dembina's first taste of the country was as a tourist. His second visit was at the invitation of the Jewish Agency for a festival of international Jewish art.

--So what is a 53-year-old British Jew doing, presenting a highly critical show about Israel's policies?

"I was quite left-wing in my youth, but like a lot of Jewish left-wingers, I had a blind spot about Zionism, about Israel. I was quite happy to go out and protest about South Africa, Chile, Vietnam and all those other worthy causes, but when it came to protesting against Israel's activities, I just had a blind spot and never really examined why that was. I just thought, 'Well, Israel is different. There might be bad things going on, but I was brought up to understand that because of the history, especially the recent history, you could let Israel go.'"

The first stirrings of discontent came with the reports about the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982. "But even though I was hearing about massacres in refugee camps, I still couldn't face up to the fact that maybe Israel was doing something wrong… And despite these events, and the obvious discontent of the Palestinians, the first Intifada and later the suicide bombers, I still, still, still couldn't begin to publicly voice my concern and later my opposition to the things that were being done in my name."

When the then opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque in September 2000 (the event that sparked the current Intifada – and a brazen provocation in Dembina's opinion), he thought "enough is enough. I don't care what people think." A benefit gig for the refuseniks followed, which led to contact with other Jews who opposed the Occupation, and ultimately to a tour of the Occupied Territories in April 2003 with a group of Jewish volunteer activists. The fact that they were Jewish was an important distinction for Dembina, who might not have participated "if it was just any group of volunteers."

For years Dembina worked the club circuit. Although successful, but felt something was lacking. One day it hit him – he wasn't especially funny because he didn't care what he was talking about. He resolved to quit doing "generic comedy" – light quips about Princess Di, celebrities and football – and to perform on his own, so that he could get the space to say what he wanted to say. His current show, though not the first he has performed in this independent format, fits the bill perfectly.

"It's really hard to recommend yourself without boasting, but I think I am worth seeing as a comedian who takes a position, who talks about stuff that matters. I try to write shows that will challenge people, including myself. What is happening in Israel has put me into a crisis about my whole Jewish identity, and I want to talk about this crisis, first because it might help me with my crisis, and second because it might help others with theirs."

Anyone who dares to compare the ubiquity of Holocaust memorials to that of McDonalds is unlikely to have an easy time, and the show caused some antagonism between Dembina and friends and family, who wished he had "taken up some other worthy cause, like Nicaragua." He has had his share of hate mail, though he also detects a sneaking admiration for someone who stands up to others, as well as a more critical attitude in Britain at present.

"I think many Jews in England find Israel a bit of an embarrassment. There are some fervent Zionists, of course… but I think I confuse the Jewish population because I am basically a nice bloke, I'm not a nutcase, I'm not peddling a career."

Despite the title of the show, it seems that "Israstine" is a perfect subject for comedy. Dembina points to the lunacy of confused soldiers, who aren’t even sure where their own "home" is anymore, razing Palestinian houses, or the arbitrary regulations at the checkpoint through which Dembina and a Palestinian acquaintance finally passed only to understand that they had taken the wrong road.

Palestinian audiences have first-hand experience of Dembina's subjects, while most Jews have only read about such things. Yet his experience of Israel is ours too – we have simply adapted to the absurdity: "I went to get coffee and a newspaper in Jerusalem one morning and I counted 147 security personnel – in a ten minute walk!"

There are elements of the bashful Englishman encountering the straightforward manner of the typical Israeli, compounded by the brutality of the Occupation itself. “Do you speak English?” he repeatedly and politely asks the soldiers. “No," they answer, "whaddya want?"

Dembina’s connection with his Judaism bubbles below the surface of many gags, and occasionally erupts, such as when he recounts a walk with another Jew on a peace-seeking mission through the streets of a devastated Jenin. They could sense the newly homeless Palestinians studying them. Among them were angry young men. "Jeannie," says Ivor, "I'm scared." "So am I," she says. "Jeannie," he says, "Tell me, what would you do if one of these kids comes up and asks if you're Jewish?" Jeannie thought for a moment. "To tell the truth, Ivor, I would deny my faith. That's how scared I am." After a while she asked, "Tell me, Ivor, what would you do if one of these kids comes up and asks if you're Jewish." He answered, "To tell the truth, Julie, I'm so scared I would tell him you're Jewish."

–With all this Jewishness, does the show target a specific audience?

"The show is aimed at the Jewish Diaspora. I wanted to say, 'You really should have a look at what's going on out there.' But the show is for anyone who wants to listen. It's a show about how the Occupation has affected one Jew. So it's really a show about me. It touches the audience when it is about me, when the events of the last thirty years are a backdrop to me, that's when it's most powerful. People can go away and think, 'Yes, this is interesting, politics has really affected this bloke.' We're all part of it, we're all political, and that's perhaps the main message of the show."

Dembina finishes his show with a brief open discussion. A question that repeatedly crops up is, how does "the other side" respond? The Jaffa performance was preceded by one in Bethlehem, and Dembina went on to perform in Ramallah.

"The Palestinians loved it. To see a Jew voicing his own doubts about Israel in public… that's the thing - doing it in public, sticking your neck out."

– But doesn’t Israel have some importance as a refuge in a world with anti-Semitic tendencies?

"You've got to fight anti-Semitism where it arises. You can't fight anti-Semitism in Golders Green by coming here. The existence of Israel doesn't stop anti-Semitism… Anti-Semitism is always there. It is one trick in a bag of tricks that the ruling class can pull out as they need it. Now it's all anti-Muslim. A few years ago it was anti-Pakistan. And before that it was anti-Black. Jews have had a very easy time in Britain for the last few years."

In contrast to the Palestinian audiences who were able to laugh unreservedly at the spectacle of a confused Jew in the Territories, many in the Jaffa audience may have found the subject matter disconcerting. But the applause and verbal expressions of appreciation made it clear that Dembina had touched a nerve, perhaps especially among immigrants who have gone through a similar thought-process in their relationship to Israel.

--Dembina plans further tours of Israstine, but where does he see it all leading?

"I'm fearful for the region. Of course I'm fearful for the Palestinians who are being driven into poverty and madness, but I'm also fearful for the Jews who have thrown in their lot with a bunch of gangsters [the US government – JP]. And apart from what that does to your soul, what happens when the gangsters don’t need you anymore?"

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