That night, last June at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, was nothing short of its own miracle – the culmination of a five-year effort by comics Ray Hanania, Aaron Freeman, Charley Warady and Yisrael Campbell to get Israelis and Palestinians to joke about each other on the same stage – without inciting a riot.
“That was an amazing night,” says Hanania, a Palestinian American raised in Chicago. “To have Israelis perform in front of Palestinians was really something.”
“Everyone was laughing at the same material,” adds Freeman, a Chicago-based African American who converted to Judaism in 1991. “That’s the goal – if we can laugh together, we can live together. That’s Ray’s line, but it’s become our mantra.”
Now, with three successful Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tours in Israel under its belt, the quartet will embark on a 15-city US version February 9.
America presents a different kind of hotbed from Israel. Despite praise from individual audience members and guest appearances ranging from aspiring Palestinian comics to Israeli comedy star Shachar Chason, both Israeli and West Bank organizations cancelled shows out of political correctness or insufficient security. But back in Chicago, Hanania lost five booked solo gigs with Palestinian American groups when they learned he’d worked with Israelis.
“In Israel, between personal and public perceptions, and government restriction on both sides, it was like having to negotiate peace every time we did a show,” says Hanania. “But in America, Jews and Arabs kind of live in guilt. They’re away from the thick of the conflict, so they try to be more militant than people in Israel and the West Bank. Palestinian and Israeli comedians don’t perform with each other. That’s why what we are doing is so much tougher.”
The seeds of the troupe were sown when Hanania, an award-winning political journalist began doing comedy in response to 9/11 and looked specifically for an Israeli to partner with. Despite Israeli-Palestinian collaborations between musicians, scientists and businessmen, comedy remained segregated. Jewish and Arab performers would share the stage – in fact Hanania and Freeman sometimes performed together as the Arab-Israeli Comedy Hour – but not Israelis and Palestinians. Even Hanania’s lone attempts to get stage time in Israeli comedy clubs failed.
Then in late 2006, Warady, a 20-year comedy veteran who moved to Israel 12 years ago, emailed Hanania after finding out he was writing a book about the Chicago neighborhood where they both grew up.
When Hanania learned Warady was also a comic, he asked if he would perform with a Palestinian. Warady answered an immediate “yes.” They recruited Freeman and Campbell, a Roman Catholic from Philadelphia who converted to Orthodox Judaism and moved to Jerusalem in 2001, and booked a series of gigs in Israel. The first show, at a small Jerusalem music club called Syndrome in January of 2007, was the first time all four of them met.
“The impetus was that an Israeli and Palestinian comedian had not appeared on the same stage before – and we could make a ton of money,” says Warady. “So far, we’ve just managed the first.”
Their diverse backgrounds and status as immigrants, converts and Americans provides all kinds of comedy fodder beyond the Israeli-Palestinian divide, such as religious and national identity, or, in Campbell’s case, “Are you allowed to be Orthodox and a comic?”
Freeman notes that, in Israel, it’s the ultra Orthodox Jews who are called “blacks,” in reference to their monochromatic dress. “In Israel, when they complain about the neighborhood going black, they’re not talking about me!” he laughs.
Campbell, whose birth name is Christopher, is stumped when airport security grills him on why he converted. “How can I say, ‘I’m struggling to have a relationship with God?’ They don’t even like vegetarian meal requests,” he says.
Hanania keeps it simpler: Asked why he’s flying El Al, he responds, “I need the material.”
In times of reflection, their journey along uncharted and occasionally choppy waters takes on a higher calling.
“I don’t think we’re solving any world problems, but we’re engaged in the process,” says Campbell. “The little part that we could do, we’re doing.”