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NEW YORK CITY - In June 2002, a Jewish-American comedian and a Palestinian-American comedian boarded a crosstown bus in Manhattan. By the time the bus had crossed from the East to the West Side, a comedy show called Standup for Peace was born. What began as a series of benefit shows for Seeds of Peace, the summer camp in Maine that brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, has grown to more than 75 shows at colleges, theatres, Jewish and Arab Community Centres, and Temples across the United States.
Our founding goal was to bring Arab and Jewish-Americans together to laugh, and encourage a dialogue in support of a peaceful, political resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We hope that our comedy can bridge the gaps between Arabs and Jews and help foster understanding. Over the past five years, our show has proved to be a highly effective way of bringing communities and campuses together. And some of that unity is achieved even before we take to the stage. Almost all of our shows are co-sponsored by Arab, Jewish and Muslim campus or community organizations, and we usually meet for dinner before the show, and continue our outreach after the show as well. On college campuses, the sponsoring organizations had often never met or collaborated on an event prior to co-sponsoring our Standup for Peace show. In addition to meeting enthusiastic, idealistic and involved students and community members, the pre-show gatherings give us specific college or community information that we incorporate comedically into our show.
Although some might think our politically liberal humour would play well only in so-called "blue states", we have received enthusiastic responses in bastions of conservative as well as more progressive enclaves. We have had wonderfully positive experiences performing in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, Indiana, and other states perceived as being more conservative, which makes sense since the desire for a peaceful, political resolution of the Middle East conflict should not divide liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans here in the US. In our question and answer period following our performances, we stress that this is not a partisan show. With a few exceptions (Bill Clinton's determined efforts in 2000 for example), Democrats and Republicans have been equally lacking in offering constructive solutions to peace.
Although we would welcome the chance to bring Standup for Peace to the Middle East and around the world, our primary focus is raising awareness of the Israeli-Palestinian issue to audiences in the US who have a passing familiarity with it, or sometimes no connection at all. Since demonising both peoples has been such an obstacle to peace, we hope that by putting a human (and funny!) face on the conflict, people will see that, as is the case with both of us, Jews and Palestinians have far more in common than they have in differences. And while we can only speak for ourselves as Jewish and Palestinian-Americans, these commonalities apply to Israelis and Palestinians as well.
One of our most gratifying and memorable performances was in 2005 for an audience of Israelis and Palestinians in their 20's who had returned to the Seeds of Peace camp in Maine 10 years after their initial visit. The same material we perform for American audiences was equally well-received at the camp. And of course, as usual, we crafted routines specifically geared for the Israelis and Palestinians in attendance. We still fondly recall the positive comments we received after the show from Israelis and Palestinians alike, who were thankful for a chance to spend an evening together laughing, and to walk away from the show with renewed hope for a better future.
Hope is such a key word here, and one that leaders on all sides have been deficient in offering. Talk is the other vital word. We joke about those who say, "We tried talking and that didn't work". It's like saying, "I tried breathing—I didn't care for it". Engaging in a constructive dialogue about peace is the only way to bring it about. Another thing we encourage is a vigorous debate here in the US about our government's ineffective and disinterested Middle East policy. We urge students and adults alike to get involved, work for pro-peace organizations, and ask their elected officials to break from the status quo of accepting an unacceptable situation that has offered Palestinians and Israelis alike a bleak future.
Standup for Peace is first and foremost a comedy show, one that offers smart, thoughtful humour about our families, ethnic and religious backgrounds, as well as our progressive political humour. And most importantly, this kind of humour offers hope—because if you could hear peace, it would sound like laughter.
* Find out more about Scott Blakeman, Dean Obeidallah and their show "Standup for Peace: The Two Comedian Solution to Middle East Peace" at www.StandupforPeace.com. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.
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