The decision by the Academy Awards to give an Oscar to the hit mini-comedy film “West Bank Story” only proves what I and others have been saying all along.
Palestinians, Israelis and even other audiences want humor, even when the humor takes on the complex and emotion-packed Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be resistance.
Last year, I screened the 30-minute long “West Bank Story” film at a theater in Bridgeview for primarily Arab-invited audiences. Only 20 people showed up. It was disappointing.
At past events, as many as 250 people have attended, including even more for a performance by master Jordanian Oud player, Shahar Hattar.
Well, one thing has always been clear. Arabs love parties, weddings, food and lots of Arabian music. They’ll jump to their feet to sing “Babouree Riyyah,” “Ala Asfouriyya,” and “ala Del’Ouna,” and other songs led by the Zajjalleen who prompt audiences into foot-pounding and hand-clapping (wide-open finger style) sing-a-longs.
But, add Israelis and Jews to the mix, and you find a problem.
It’s not that the majority of Arabs hate Jews or Israelis. That’s unfair. There is, after all, an unending, emotional conflict taking place with victims on both sides. It’s hard to expect two warring peoples to dance together when some among them are busy shooting at each other and taking lands and homes.
In truth, most Palestinians want to mix with Israelis but the “taboos” imposed by the small groups of extremists in Arab and Muslim society, who exploit the conflict, prevents it. The real hesitation for most Arabs is not hatred but rather fear of violent reprisal from extremists in Palestinian society.
Ever since launching the unprecedented Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour last January with African American Jewish comedian Aaron Freeman and Israeli comedians Charley Warady and Yisrael Campbell, I’ve tried with little success to organize shows in the Territories.
One Bethlehem group told me with brutal honesty they “love the idea” of an Israeli-Palestinian comedy tour but they lack funding and resources to provide the kind of security that would guarantee everyone’s safety.
It wasn’t an issue when I performed at Israeli venues in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem, although we only performed in mainstream Israeli venues and didn’t go to areas of settler concentration when protests against any Palestinian might have been expected.
Palestinians are living under a military occupation, while it seemed to me that most Israelis are living more carefree lives. The fear of terrorism is always on their minds but it doesn't stop them from "living" and enjoying life.
Still, what I learned from failing to attract Arab and Muslim audiences to watch the hilarious “West Bank Story” film is that in the United States, Arabs and Muslims are more resistant to “normalization” with Israelis than are Palestinians living under occupation.
I guess the way to explain it is that there seem to be a larger percentage of extremists in the Arab American community than in the Middle East.
For example, Palestinian Americans in the states have said they object to me performing with Israelis, even though many Arab comedians perform with “Jews.” Some have blacklisted me from their festivals, their community performances and their networking. (I don't need them.)
But it's the exact opposite in the West Bank where many Palestinians said they want the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour to come to Bethlehem and Ramallah. Palestinians who attended our shows enthusiastically applauded the performances and didn't mind being quoted on camera offering praise and encouragment.
In contrast, five Arab American groups that booked me prior to the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour cancelled me in the two weeks after the tour. Representatives from three of the groups insisted the cancellations and the tour were unrelated.
Of course, in the five years I have been performing comedy in the states, I’ve never had a cancellation. Five in two weeks? what are the odds?
What does all this mean?
Well, things are not quite black and white. There’s a lot of gray area in Arab-Israeli relations. We shouldn't just accept the stereotypes and notions about each other. We should question them. There are many Palestinians and Israelis who want humor and would welcome standup comedy performed by Israeli and Palestinian comedians.
But, we have to do more to overcome the power the extremists on both sides wield over our peoples.
We have to stop blaming each other as people and start distinguishing the conflict not as “Palestinian versus Israeli,” but rather in the more accurate light as “extremists versus moderates.”
The decision by the Academy Awards to give “West Bank Story,” which premiered two years ago at Sundance, the Oscar for best live action short film encourages my belief.
But we have to take everything into one context. Many Arabs object to the notion of a Palestinian woman falling in love with an Israeli man. It has a lot to do with the whole cultural problems of Honor Killings and the oppression of women throughout the world, not just in the Arab and Islamic Worlds.
The film West Bank Story presented the true, ridiculous nature of the conflict. Sometimes, we are fighting over ridiculous issues of pride, prejudice and hatred driven by past tragedies. This generation is burdened by the suffering of past generations and extremists will not let us forget that we still have to live together regardless of how each side views the past.
Humor is a great bridge between two conflicted sides. I saw it in comedy clubs in Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem and even mixed Jewish and Arab audiences in East Jerusalem.
The people want humor and instead of reacting with surprise or even fear of the extremist, we should all be about thumbing our noses at the extremists and insisting that we come together as people.
Not just pairing Israelis and Palestinians at comedy clubs, but at more musical performances like those organized a few years ago by Daniel Barenboim. More joint theater performances. More films like the West Bank Story.
Anything that can bring our people together so that we can be reminded that we’re all good people deep down when you strip away the politics.For me, nothing makes that point more effectively than humor.
Ray Hanania was named the 2006/2007 Best Ethnic Columnist by the New America Media. He performs with the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour -- www.IPComedyTour.com -- and is returning for more shows in Israel in May.