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"The ground is shifting": An interview with comedian Ivor Dembina

Sarah Irving, The Electronic Intifada, 26 February 2010


Ivor Dembina

Ivor Dembina's one-man show This is Not a Subject for Comedy has been running, growing and developing for more than five years. First performed in 2004, and reviewed by The Electronic Intifada in April 2005,
the show's subject matter includes Dembina's upbringing in a 1960s
"mainstream Jewish household" broadly supporting the Zionist cause.
Despite his discovery of socialism, Dembina avoided his comrades'
occasional criticisms of Israel.

By 2004, Dembina had traveled to the occupied West Bank with a group of
other non-Zionist Jews, visiting the Palestinian city of Jenin and
witnessing the bloody repression inflicted on the city first-hand. The
title of the show is taken from his comment to an Israeli soldier who
joked to Dembina that the house the Israeli military had just
demolished -- a collective punishment inflicted on the family of a
suicide bomber -- "wasn't their home anymore."

As the show describes, it took a slow build-up of incidents to
transform Dembina from an increasingly uneasy but silent leftist to an
outspoken anti-Zionist. This included comments by his hero Vanessa
Redgrave on behalf of the Palestinians, horror at the 1982 massacres in
the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon, and a
gift of Joe Sacco's 2001 graphic journalistic work Palestine.
Dembina describes his discovery that he wasn't the only person in the
Jewish community thinking this way as "such a relief ... like finding
out you're not the only gay in the village." A signatory to Jews for Justice for Palestinians' statement of supp...
and a just peace, his "main activism" is now carried out through the
Jewish Socialists, a group which explicitly harks back to the Bund, a
Jewish organization founded in the 19th century which rejected Zionism
as "escapist" and celebrated and defended Jewish life and culture in
the countries where it already existed.

After his experiences in Jenin, Dembina felt compelled to record this
journey. He does concede, however, that in its original form, the show
bowed to the pressure to "play for laughs," at the expense of a
coherent narrative.

"I've revisited the show," says Dembina, "made the story stronger, and
I think as a result I've made it more accessible to people who haven't
already got it. It tended to appeal in the early days to people who
already knew about the conflict anyway and were perhaps involved. So
now the story is clearer while keeping the comedy. I think it's a
better show now ... I can look people in the eye and say, this is worth
seeing."

And someone obviously agrees: Dembina has just become the first ever
comic to be asked to perform at the British House of Commons, in front
of an audience of Members of Parliament, peers and policy makers.

New additions to the show include excerpts from the "Zionist abuse"
Dembina has received. The monologue is now punctuated by "hate mails,
anonymous hate mails I'm receiving from other Jews, accusations of
treachery and so on, and how I've dealt with those things."

"That might not even have been hinted at when I first wrote it," he muses.

The new version of the show now has a regular run in central London, as
well as performances around the UK. Having taken an early version of
the performance to the occupied West Bank and to both Jewish and
Palestinian audiences in Israel, Dembina is again contemplating where
else This is Not a Subject for Comedy
could be applied. "Putting aside the issue of the boycott, and just
thinking in theory," he says, "If I ever performed it in Israel again,
I would want to do it to a mainstream audience, but one with a bit of
an open mind. There's no point in setting up a hostile situation, but
except to boost morale for the peace movement, which is a good thing as
far as it goes. There's not a lot of point in just preaching to the
converted, either. One thing I will say for Zionists here, they do
engage when they come to the show. They go away and think about it, and
then write to me about what they disagree with."

Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism

The hate letters and emails Dembina has incorporated into his act
aren't the only manifestations of the hostility some sections of the
Jewish community feel towards him. He has "had quite a few unpleasant
moments" over the years. He's been verbally attacked in public, and
"censored by Jewish organizations that won't put my show on -- I've
been told to my face 'We don't want you here.' And my name appears on
an Internet hate list."

His allegations of victimization by Zionists in the Jewish community
contrast with Dembina's assertion that "I personally, in 58 years in
[Britain], have never experienced a single incident of direct
anti-Semitism." He acknowledges that vicious anti-Semitism exists,
describing some of its adherents as "psychopathic." However, he rejects
accusations from Zionist commentators of rising anti-Semitism as a
result of Palestine solidarity campaigning, saying that "by and large
most of society's racism is channeled in the direction of Asians,
blacks and Muslims. Jews are very low down the list, and if it was bad,
the Jews here wouldn't make the mistake they made in Europe in the
1930s, they'd be off to America or Israel. I think the specter of
anti-Semitism is raised by Zionists to re-ignite understandable fears
of persecution based on what's happened to us in the past, and as a way
of promoting Israel as a safe haven should anti-Semitism break out
again. It's a manipulation of a tragedy to Zionism's own advantage, and
if you're going to ask me are there any anti-Semites in the
anti-Zionist movement, then, yes, quite possibly. I haven't come across
any, but the way to deal with them is the way you deal with any
fascist, and that is in a way that only fascists understand. You can't
hang about, you gotta sort them out."

But despite past clashes with supporters of Zionism, Dembina also feels
that, in Britain at least, the Zionist cause is showing unmistakable
signs of weakness. "I think that direct abuse and hatred is a tactic
that by and large the Zionists are starting to leave alone," he
observes. "I think they've learned to their cost that it just makes
people more determined to speak out publicly and that hate campaigns
can be counter-productive. I think they're starting to try and engage
in discussion and going for the whole positive PR angle, like this email campaign about sending medical aid to Haiti.
Or they're going to use Iran as an excuse. They keep coming up with
these reasons that the Jewish community has to support Israel and one
by one they get exposed as nonsense."

Dembina is also convinced that opinions really are shifting in the
British Jewish community, and that the combined force of protests,
cultural contributions and public debate are genuinely affecting public
feeling on Palestine. What he calls the "ruse" of accusing any critic
of the State of Israel of being anti-Semitic has been "burnt out."

"I don't know how much," he says, "but the ground is shifting. I
wouldn't say that the Zionists are on the back foot now, but they're
certainly not on the front foot. I don't want to exaggerate, but it
would have been unthinkable ten years ago for a Jewish comedian to put
this show on in central London. My sense is most Jewish people will
still not yet openly criticize the State of Israel, but their
willingness to nail their colors to the overtly Zionist mast seems to
be decreasing. The Zionists are having to try much, much harder to hang
on to the compliance of the Jewish community. I perform to large
numbers of Jewish people all the time, and they are becoming
increasingly embarrassed by the antics of the Zionist secret police who
claim to speak for them, and they are beginning to drift away."

But, Dembina warns, this can also make the Zionist lobby all the more
dangerous. "You're left with a rump of very angry people who are used
to getting their own way. Things have to be handled very carefully in
the months and years ahead," he says, noting the State of Israel's
skill at playing a "long game," thinking in cycles of "30, 50, 100
years," quietly carving out one piece of land after another.

Despite that potentially gloomy assessment, Dembina is optimistic,
citing the decades over which a global consensus developed that
"something was wrong and it had to change" in South Africa. "In the
anti-Zionist camp, we are winning," he insists, "Just slowly."

Sarah Irving (http://www.sarahirving.net)
is a freelance writer from Manchester, UK. She worked with the
International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02
and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and
solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of
issues, including Palestine. Here first book,
Gaza: Beneath the Bombs co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.

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