A blogger on the Maclean’s magazine website has deemed me a “Zionist ffirebrand” – and it was most assuredly not intended as a compliment. “Firebrand” is Canadian for extremist, fanatic, a most non-academic and far too aggressively American combatant in the Middle East wars.
My crime, apparently, was writing a “fiery” defence of a delegation of Canadian comedians who were heckled in east Jerusalem. Their crime, apparently, was mentioning the word “Israel” in front of a group of Palestinians in east Jerusalem.
The story begins in Toronto, when Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuks chain of comedy clubs, decided he wanted to help the Jewish state. “I could write a cheque,” he explained to me, “but so could a dentist.” He wanted to use his particular skills as a comedian and an entertainment entrepreneur to help Israel.
He therefore decided to lead a delegation of six young talented comedians to Israel on a goodwill tour, which took place in June and was sponsored by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. In the spirit of a good comedian, who knows no boundaries – geographic or verbal – and abhors censorship, when he heard that few comedians play east Jerusalem, he volunteered to bring his troupe there.
The comedians appeared in east Jerusalem on a Friday night and ran into trouble immediately. Within seven seconds, Sam Easton was heckled. In typical comedians’ style of acknowledging the site of their gig, Easton, the MC for the evening, had begun by saying, “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”
People hissed and booed. They shouted out “Palestine.” At least one person shouted that Israel doesn’t deserve to exist. The next comedian, Jean Paul, also was attacked for telling an innocuous joke – what does a polite Israeli magician say? TO-dah! Some westerners in the audience called Jean Paul, a black man, “racist” for making the joke. Some Canadian diplomats attending told Breslin that Israel “stole” Palestinian land.
My supposedly “fiery” response involved chiding the Palestinians for forgetting the Middle East tradition of welcoming strangers and suggesting that this kind of Palestinian intolerance and rudeness made Israeli democracy look good.
The Canadian comedians were innocent non-combatants. We should not become so inured to conflict that we accept the politicization of every evening and every innocent joke. So, yes, if defending these kind comedians, who meant no harm, makes me a “Zionist firebrand,” I will wear that designation proudly. And if defending the Jewish state makes me “fiery” and non-academic, I accept those labels too.
But it’s worth exploring the underlying subtext here. At work is the delegitimizers’ delegitimization of the legitimizers. Part of the systematic strategy to attack Israel, isolate Israel, read Israel out of the community of nations, involves making the very act of defending Israel illegitimate. If any defence of Israel, no matter how innocuous, is labelled extreme, the defence of Israel is undermined. And using the term “Zionist” pejoratively, in a world that increasingly demonizes the movement for Jewish national liberation, makes the attack more dismissive.
These attacks often have a chilling effect, putting defenders on the defensive. If I were untenured, or more sensitive, I might be intimidated – which was the intention. Instead, I wear the attacks as a badge of honour – and call out the attackers for their methods. I am a Zionist – not merely an anti-anti-Zionist. And I make no apologies for my passion, even as I back it up with evidence and reason.
On a deeper level, this incident offered a classic example of the pathologization of Israel. If every trip to Israel becomes controversial, if every conversation about Israel becomes headache-inducing, we lose and the anti-Israel forces win. The true, important, resonant headlines about the comedians’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with their rude treatment in east Jerusalem. These comedians loved Israel – they loved the spirituality of Jerusalem, the normalcy of Tel Aviv, the Israelis’ indomitable spirit. They laughed and learned from the Dead Sea to Masada, from the ancient tunnels of Jerusalem’s Western Walls to the chic shops of Tel Aviv’s Kikar Ha’atzmaut.
In short, as the boyish, charming, exuberant Easton said: “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”
So will other visitors, both Jews and non-Jews.
This column appears in the June 28 print issue of The CJN