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
This article was first published on the Saudi Gazette on Nov. 25, 2012.