A failed mission to find Israeli peace activists

A failed mission to find Israeli peace activists

Saudi Gazette, Sunday, November 25, 2012
By Ray Hanania

JUST after the terror attacks that changed the world on Sept. 11, 2001, I launched a campaign to address one of the core problems of the conflicts in the Middle East, the need to get Palestinians and Israelis to see each other as human beings.
As a Palestinian, I reached out to Israelis with open hands, offering to work with them in pursuit of peace.

I spent nearly a decade working to give substance to the belief that peace between Israelis and Palestinians is possible.

My efforts involved journalism and commentary, writing words that might encourage peace through compromising gestures from a Palestinian to Israelis. I wrote hundreds of columns speaking to the need for Arabs and Israelis to recognize that while they might disagree, they must prevent those disagreements from fueling their mutual conflicts and tragedies.

The columns seeking to “define the moderate Arab voice” were published in many Israeli news publications and online sites including in the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s most conservative English language voice.

It also involved entertainment. Without any professional experience in standup comedy, I helped found Comedy for Peace and later launched the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour. The tour performed internationally in London, Dublin, New York, Iowa, Los Angeles, East Jerusalem and for small audiences in Israel.

Humor is the most powerful force in the world of communications. I believed the premise that I crafted, “If we can laugh together, we can live together.”

Humor is powerful because it is not something that can be orchestrated.

True laughter is involuntary, not intended. If you can make someone who “hates” you or “fears” you, laugh, you can create a bridge of reason that can serve to bring two sides together.

But the truth is that despite the truisms of both strategies, neither can work if one side intentionally refuses to engage in compromise.

In other words, you can’t make someone laugh if they refuse to be in the same room with you. You can’t make someone reconsider their fears and anger, if they refuse to read your columns.

I realize now that both efforts were failures.

My initial obstacles were extremists in the Arab community who condemned me. When they learned I performed with “Israelis,” not just “Jews,” they cancelled my shows.

Several of the most vicious Palestinian fanatics libeled me in their columns in Houston and online, and websites were created to disparage me with false accusations and lies.

One of the worst campaigns began right in the heart of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) where I had worked as an activist fighting for Arab civil rights and Palestinian freedom since the very day the organization was founded, first as a Chicago board member and activist and then one year as a national board member, a position I decided was not worth keeping because local ADC chapters were so ineffective in championing civil rights cases.

But the real obstacle that prevented my success was the refusal of mainstream Israelis to accept the fundamental basis of peace.

Yes, you can make an enemy laugh. But, only if you can get them into the room to hear the comedy. The audience I targeted, Israelis, refused to engage compromise in a substantive way.

With only a very few exceptions, it was the Israelis who refused to compromise. They refused to embrace peace. They rejected the heart of peace, the two-state solution in Palestine.

Israelis would embrace non-Palestinians because doing so did not carry the price of compromise with Palestinians. They compromised with Egyptians.

They compromised with Jordanians. They even compromised with non-Arab Muslims. But the majority of Israelis rejected any and all compromise with Palestinians.

To understand how bad the situation really was that I faced, when I was asked to perform comedy for a show hosted by Americans for Peace Now, they made me sign a letter stating that I recognized Israel’s right to exist.

The synagogue where my wife, who is Jewish, attended most of her life, refused to support the Comedy for Peace campaign.

Despite a few successful shows organized in Jerusalem at a liberal synagogue, and supported by a handful of progressive Jews who believed in compromise, the majority of shows were snubbed by mainstream Israelis.

The shock of how deep the tragedy is embedded in Israeli society surfaced when we were invited to perform in Long Island for a conservative Jewish group raising funds to help children in need.

The organizer told one of my Jewish colleagues that they didn’t realize that the “Palestinian” in the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour was really Palestinian.

The organizers offered to put the comics up in homes of the sponsor’s conservative Jewish members, except me. I was to be put up in a hotel. My three fellow Jewish performers all refused to stay in Jewish homes if none would take me. We all stayed in a hotel in Five Towns. In a second performance arranged by the same group, one family was found that put us up for the night.

The comedy shows were successful. The audiences laughed. But they never found life in the pro-Israel community and the shows were “dead on arrival” in the Arab community.

The effort was a complete failure. I continue to perform comedy for selected shows, mainly for my own enjoyment, and my columns appear in many Middle East publications but rarely for Israeli audiences any more.

But I realize now that the real obstacle preventing peace is the fundamental refusal of most Israelis and most American Jews to accept the right of Palestinians to exist as a people with a state.

Most Israelis and Jews reject compromise. They reject the two-state solution. They reject swapping land for peace.

And until Israelis and Jews accept the right of Palestinians to exist, Palestinians have no option but to struggle and resist and defend themselves against violence, land confiscation and theft, and ethnic cleansing from historical Palestine.

That tragic truth is sadly not funny at all.

— Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist. He can be reached at www.TheMediaOasis.com

Categories: Middle East Topics

5 replies

  1. There are some GREAT Israeli peace activists but the challenge is there are so very few and many are hypocritical because they REFUSE to criticize Israeli atrocities. Others are afraid to loudly proclaim the truth fearing they will be called traitors, like Americans for Peace Now and JStreet. But the majority of Israelis are fanatics and don’t want peace. That’s what my decade-long mission proved to me. Despite some courageous Israelis like the many writers at Haaretz, one of the only real newspapers providing balanced news and opinion coverage, especially Bradley Burston and a few others like Gershon Baskin, the effort to find peace in Israel is an all out failure. The Israeli peace movement doesn’t exist in substance. And what little does exist, is ineffective.

  2. HI, Ray. Excellent column again though a sad one, for sure. Are you and our wife also familiar with the Jewish Voice for Peace? I like them a lot. http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/

  3. Reblogged this on social justice and sustainable living – new media: tony serve blogs and commented:
    Ray’s story broke my heart. I;ve tweeted alongside for some time and work for the same goals via Hudna and other avenues. Our Israeli bros & sisters need to grow some betsim and stand up against the madmen ruling them.

  4. Mr. Hanania:

    Let me start by saying that I’m a fan of your work.

    I originally read this post on the Saudi Gazette site. I tried to post this comment there, but they haven’t approved it. (Saudi censors at work? But I digress…)

    I’m an Orthodox Jew, and most people would describe me as right-wing where Israel is concerned. I support a two-state solution, as do most of my Jewish friends (who are overwhelming Orthodox and pro-Israel).

    Every survey I’ve seen shows a large majority of Israelis support a two-state solution; indeed, the most recent survey shows Israelis support a two-state solution in significantly higher numbers than Palestinians.

    The survey was published in September, and it found:

    Israelis: 61% for a two-state solution, only 36% opposed.
Palestinians: 52% for, 46% opposed.

    Source: http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/poll-majority-of-palestinians-israelis-say-attack-on-iran-would-result-in-major-war-1.465863

    Is it possible your shows didn’t attract interest for cultural reasons? Americans patronize comedy clubs in great numbers, and every major city has one or several such clubs.

    Are there any comedy clubs in Israel or the disputed territories?

    This article suggests they aren’t that common: http://israelity.com/2010/04/02/ladies-and-gentlemen-in-jerusalem-jim-gaffigan/

    When I look at the numbers, I think you’re given Israelis a bum rap. I encourage you to rethink your position on this matter.

  5. “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” — Yasser Arafat UN 1974.
    He only threatened to drop the Olive Branch, he never offered to drop the Gun.
    On the other hand, the Israelis dream of Peace and Security, but have come to the point where they are willing to settle for security without peace. American style comedy about our common ethnic customs does not translate well culturally in Israel. We all have giant weddings, and there is nothing strange about the KH sound in Hebrew or Arabic!

    Right now Israelis are focused on internal problems: The role of religion in daily life, housing, social welfare, economic and political refugees from the third world. The peace process is on the back burner until there is something to be gained from engaging the Arab world to entice the electorate (think hi-tech, bioengineering, travel opportunities). Israelis want more that a cold peace on paper (like Egypt), that is little different than a low level state of war (like the current situation).

    The government is comprised of coalitions of opportunistic factions cobbled together by the party with the plurality of the vote rather than a majority. No recent Israeli government has lasted a full term! (with the exception of Sharon who pulled out of Gaza) or has had the stability to seriously engage in negotiations.

    Israelis and Palestinians can best be described as intimate enemies. We know exactly how to trigger the irrational fears that radicalize the other. Israelis know that the demands for recognition as a Jewish state are unpalatable. Palestinians know that using the catchphrases of European Antisemitism (not native to Islam or the Ottoman Empire) brings about a reaction that is best described as allergic.

    The American Jewish community is willing to fight to the last Israeli but Israelis have to live with the consequences and deep down know that any military solution is temporary at best. Thus, the writers and activists who are writing in the Israeli media and in Hebrew have more latitude to criticize Israeli policy (and do so). This contrasts to the Arab world where the voices for peace are in English for outside consumption rather than Arabic.

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