"It's nice to see so many Jews in the audience," jokes Arab comedian Ray Hanania. "I view you all as potential hostages."
The Jerusalem audience claps, howling with laughter.
In another setting, that comment wouldn't be quite so funny. But plunked down in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian Comedy Tour, it's the perfect joke: It makes fun of the situation, which, says the Christian Hanania, is therapeutic.
After all, "using humor can diffuse tense situations," he says.
If that's the case, bring it on!
The four-man comedy troupe — three Jews and one Arab — just completed its first set of English-language performances, appearing before SRO audiences in four different venues in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. Because of the phenomenal response, a spring 2007 "return" tour is in preparation, and international tours are also under discussion.
When even Cairo's Middle East Times praises the show, saying it "took the city by bellyaching storm," you know something unusual's going on, something worth watching.
What's so unique about it?
"It's the first time Palestinians and Israelis have ever done a comedy tour together," explains participant Charley Warady. "Well, except for the peace negotiations."
Beyond that, however, the four-man team itself is unusual:
· There's the Chicago-born Hanania, a prolific columnist and author, and arguably the world's best-known "moderate" Arab, who just happens to be married to Alison, a Jewish woman.
· There's Yisrael Campbell, the Orthodox Jew in the crowd, a payos-wearing raconteur who's made a career out of the hilarity involved in converting to Judaism from his previous Roman Catholicism. Not that politics is untouched: "Polls show that 85 percent of the people in Israel believe that our political system is completely corrupt … which means that 15 percent of the population is totally out of it."
· There's Warady, another Chicago émigré well known to Americans and Israelis from collegiate comedy tours and from his "Off the Wall" comedy shows. Warady describes the comedy troupe as including "Chaim Ramon, Moshe Katzav, Ehud Olmert and other comedians."
· And then there's Aaron Freeman, familiar to audiences of NPR's "All Things Considered" as a black convert to Judaism. Freeman gets one of the biggest laughs when he describes his friends' reaction to his conversion: "You trying to give an extra merit badge for a KKK sniper?"
For two hours, the monologues fly hot and heavy, with something to delight everyone — and something to offend everyone, all in good fun, of course. Campbell, decked out in his long black coat, asks if anyone else came dressed for Poland in the 1700s. His description of his side curls as "not payos, just the beginning of a comb-over," gets everyone giggling.
Warady openly admits that he's trying to win a Nobel Peace Prize: "If Jimmy Carter can do it, it can't be that tough — except I'm not as funny as he is."
Aaron Freeman addresses the "Who's a Jew?" question.
"It's easy," he says. "Look into your heart, and ask the question: Do you love Jews? If the answer is yes, then you're not a Jew. If you're a Jew, there's gotta be at least one group of Jews you absolutely hate."
Hanania takes on George Bush with a joke about a man being welcomed into heaven, and given a clock on arrival. He looks around, and sees that everyone has one — Mother Teresa's clock is frozen at one second, George Washington's at two.
Then the angel Gabriel explains that every time you tell a lie, your clock advances one second.
"So where's President Bush's clock?" the man asks.
"Jesus is using it in his office as a ceiling fan."
In his trademark serious lecture on uses of humor, Hanania asks, "Is that a joke or a political statement?"
"It's a strategic communication," he replies, and as such, a powerful tool. "If we can laugh together, we can live together."
But if there is a problem with all this, it's that — predictably — the audience that most needs to mingle with this crowd doesn't show up. At most performances, Arab picketers greeted theater-goers, who are themselves overwhelmingly Jewish Israelis.
Which brings us to the story of Rabbi Akiva. When, as an elderly man, he witnessed a rock being steadily worn away by a slow, relentless dripping of water — a drop at a time — he knew that he, too, could in time wear away his ignorance and learn Torah.
A slew of Israeli Palestinian comedy shows — throughout Israel, throughout the world — might accomplish the very same thing, one drop at a time.