We Need a Laughter Brigade!
by Daniella Ashkenazy
The Israel dialogue – among detractors and defenders of Israel – is too conflict-driven. And talk that goes beyond the Israeli-Arab conflict and friction points in Israeli society – focusing on Israeli ingenuity, featuring all sorts of “do-gooders” and individual blogs by Israelis – is not enough. We need a Laughter Brigade!
The lighter side of Israeli life needs to be taught alongside the historical facts and the challenges Israeli society faces. Training seminars for Israel activists need to teach the use of humor as a core skill in Israel advocacy: in a hostile environment rife with wild accusations, only skillful use of humor can defuse an ugly mood, undermine hecklers and engage the audience to hear you out. Bravely charging ahead armed solely with the facts simply doesn’t work.
We need to give people – first of all ourselves, then others – reasons to LAUGH about Israel, instead of feeling SAD, ANGUISHED, DISHEARTENED, WORRIED, DISENCHANTED, UNCOMFORTABLE, ASHAMED OR ANGRY. Any debating society or psychologist will tell you that seasoning a talk with humor is a key element in speaking effectively because it engages the audience at a completely different level of consciousness, opening minds to listen more attentively to what follows. This is not only because a joke, an off-the-cuff comment, or an anecdote grabs the attention of an audience and makes any point more interesting. It is also because laughter is a group activity, and when we laugh in social interactions, pleasure hormones are released that promote social bonding. Laughter is infectious, but it’s a hard act to follow.
Like what? The Hebrew press is full of quirky news stories that unfortunately never make the Jerusalem Post, not to mention the Washington Post.
☼ … an Israeli soldier whose ultimate Jewish mother snuck into boot camp every night to accompany her son on guard duty because he was afraid of the dark, another recruit who served as IDF magician and a third who was posted as an ORGANizer – after he donated a kidney to a sibling, going from post to post to urge personnel to sign national organ-donor cards.
☼ … city elders in Hadera who agreed to build a scaled-down replica of the Eiffel Tower for homesick Parisians who settled in the town, Herzliya’s mayor who painted the main drag bright purple, only to have it fade in the blazing Mediterranean sun, or a senior Israeli minister who chose to enchant the press by mesmerizing a chicken, leaving the bird on its back looking like an oversized zapped cockroach.
☼ … an Israeli Supreme Court case filed by a fellow who demanded the right to be consumed by wild beasts after he died – to return his debt to nature as a lifetime consumer in the food chain, and a rabbinical court ruling on a divorce settlement that required the divorcé to pay his former spouse one pregnant goat a year for the next 35 years – raising serious questions over who got whose goat.
You don’t need to read Hebrew to find them. These stories can be accessed on an open source news outlet in English called Chelm-on-the-Med© Online that I launched on Purim 2009, that collects the zaniest and oddest stories. Anyone engaged in hasbara is free to use these stories without any writer’s fee. In the subtext, they paint an accurate picture of Israeli society and how we — its members — tick. These true stories – some universal behavior and misbehavior, some Only-in-Israel affairs – are an antidote to attempts to demonize and isolate Israelis.
During a 2009 focus group at Harvard and MIT, when faced with baseless accusations by non-Jewish participants that Israel was committing war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, Jewish participants clammed up, due to identity politics. I wager that the same Jewish students who sat on the sidelines would have felt more comfortable had they been able to begin countering such accusations indirectly, ‘shielded’ by… a quip. Imagine one of them piping up and saying, “Ah yes, Israeli behavior in Gaza. Let me tell you a story about ‘beastly Israelis’: There was this IDF unit that was hunkering down in Rafiah during Operation Cast Lead and found themselves saddled with two totally frightened and famished lions in an abandoned Palestinian zoo…” (Read the full story in the roundup of wild and wacky news published by JTA in late December 2009.) Following the lions story with serious points would be far less intimidating, both for the speaker and the listeners.
Even ridicule and satire has its place. The video clip We Con the World received 2.5 million hits! If Apartheid Week activists set up a mock roadblock with make-believe Israeli soldiers humiliating and harassing Palestinians – fight back in kind! Send your own Kaffiyeh-adorned actors wearing mock suicide belts into the street drama… and a middle school kid with textbooks, sandwiches and a pipe bomb in his backpack, as well.
Daniella Ashkenazy is a seasoned bilingual Israeli journalist. Her commentary and other columns and features — serious and humorous — appeared in Davar, Haolam Hazeh, Israel Scene and a host of other Israeli print media that no longer exist due to no fault of her own. She currently writes occasionally for The Jerusalem Post, JTA and other media, and is the founder and CEO of The Chelm Project and annual Chelm Awards. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org