Comedians, Political Satirists Debate Using Humour to Challenge Stereotypes, Improve Israeli-Palestinian Relations as Media Seminar Continues

PAL/2203-PI/2181
1 September 2016
International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East, AM & PM Meetings

Comedians, Political Satirists Debate Using Humour to Challenge Stereotypes, Improve Israeli-Palestinian Relations as Media Seminar Continues

PRETORIA, 1 September — Amid news in the mainstream media of suicide attacks, continued violence, hate speech and besieged areas, political satire could be used to challenge commonly held beliefs about conflict, speakers at the International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East said today, stressing its inherent value in promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

On the seminar’s second day, attendees took part in a panel discussion on “TV shows and mashup videos:  when political satire becomes a peacemaker”, during which two comedians, a comedy writer and a journalist engaged them in spirited debate on how to use humour to challenge stereotypes — and ideally — change behaviour for the better.  Political satire could help deliver an idea in a different way, they said, and in the service of social justice, persuade people to view what was happening around them through the eyes of someone else. 

Panellist Negin Farsad, a comedian who had helped organize the The Muslims Are Coming! stand-up comedy tours, said she had created a two-person musical called The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:  A Romantic Comedy depicting the conflict as two lovers who had met at the 1948 Geneva Convention and left broken-hearted.  While popular in London and Edinburgh, it was met with less enthusiasm in New York City.  Perceptions about the conflict had to be taken to their logical extreme in order to change them.  “Otherwise, we’re gridlocked in overly sensitive and overly diplomatic language,” she said.

On that point, panellist Ilan Shefler, co-writer at Eretz Nehederet, a weekly satirical programme on Israeli television, said:  “We are living in the golden age of political satire.”  But, it had an inner conflict.  The goal was to create laughter.  Laughing about the occupation, however, could be dangerous in that “you feel like everything is okay”.  Satire could lose its effectiveness if it replaced more effective political acts, such as peaceful protests or voting.  Eretz Nehederet differed from other programmes in that “we are not preaching to the converted”.  Viewers were average Israelis with both liberal and conservative views.

Joey Rasdien, a comedian from South Africa, said comedians in his country had the ability to do social commentary and change perceptions.  Each person had a unique point of reference.  Respecting that difference of perspective created empathy and could lead to breakthroughs in understanding.  Often, “we are so self-righteous, we think our own point of reference is better than that of another person,” he said.  It was empathy that had allowed the former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in prison, to create social change.

Ahmed Shihab Eldin, senior correspondent at AJ+, described how the media landscape had changed in the last decade in terms of what made a story or reporter credible.  In covering the 2014 war in Gaza for The Huffington Post, for example, he had interviewed journalists there to bring an on-the-ground, authentic experience to his stories.  He was criticized heavily on the web for being a “Palestinian propagandist” and “humanizing Palestinians”.  In the United States, “if you cover the Israeli Government in a critical way, you’re immediately deemed anti-Semitic”, he said.

During the dialogue, participants described a “clash of definitions”, which led people to discuss different narratives in the same space, with one speaker challenging the importance of understanding the views of others.  It was equally important, he said, to remind people of their inhumanity.

In the afternoon, participants attended a screening of the animated documentary, The Wanted 18, by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan, about the residents of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem that peacefully boycotted Israeli taxation and commodities during the first intifada in 1987.  Rather than buy milk from Israeli companies, the residents of Beit Sahour bought 18 cows from an Israeli farmer and learned to make their own milk.  The film featured participant Majd Nassar, who had helped to write the script.`

The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, 2 September.

Panel I

The seminar began the day with a panel discussion on “TV shows and mashup videos:  When political satire becomes a peacemaker”.  Moderated by Margaret Novicki, Acting Director of the Strategic Communications Division of the United Nations Department of Public Information, it featured presentations by comedians Negin Farsad and Joey Rasdien; Ilan Shefler, co-writer at Eretz Nehederet; and Ahmed Shihab Eldin, senior correspondent at AJ+.

Ms. NOVICKI said political satire could be traced through history.  “Satire is traditionally a weapon of the powerless against the powerful,” she said, citing United States newspaper columnist Molly Ivins as an example.  Panellists would explore the nature and purpose of satire and whether it could be put in service of peace and challenge taboos.

Ms. FARSAD said she was an Iranian-American Muslim woman, who had brought other non-violent Muslim Americans to Alabama, Tennessee and other states in the United States for a comedy tour called The Muslims Are Coming!  She said some people had thought it was a warning about a Muslim “apocalypse”.  During the tour, the comedians did stand-up shows and set up an “Ask a Muslim” booth, where visitors asked questions, such as:  “If you are a Muslim, why are you dressed like that?”, and “Why don’t Muslims in the United States denounce terrorism?”  She said in response, she had told them:  “We do denounce terrorism.  The media just doesn’t cover it because it is a boring story about the actions of reasonable people.”

Providing a snapshot of other activities, she said she had launched a website, The Daily Denouncer, joking that it “denounced every day, but took weekends off”.  She and others had created a “Fighting Bigotry with Delightful Posters” campaign, which featured posters on New York City subways to counter the ideas of a hate group.  Just before it was to launch, the transit authority banned the posters, citing political content reasons.  Her group sued the subway system and won the suit.  Eventually, the posters were displayed — and nothing happened.  She tested the policy ideas of United States presidential candidate Donald Trump, who had advocated banning Muslims, and placing those living in the United States into a registry, by taking the ideas to their logical extreme, which in turn, had shown them to be “ridiculous”, unconstitutional and difficult to enforce.

In addition, she discussed a two-person musical called The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:  A Romantic Comedy, which depicted the conflict as two lovers who had met at the 1948 Geneva Convention and left broken-hearted.  While popular in London and Edinburgh, it had been met with less enthusiasm in New York City.  “This is the kind of issue where you just have to go there,” she said.  “Otherwise, we’re gridlocked in overly sensitive and overly diplomatic language.”

Mr. RASDIEN said South African comedians had the ability to do social commentary, and therefore, to change people’s perceptions.  Each person had a unique point of reference.  If there was a snake in the room, for example, a person’s point of reference would determine how they reacted to it.  It was determined by everything from education to what the person had eaten for breakfast.  Some would run away from the snake while others might not see it, just the people who were running away, and do the same.  Still, others might want to catch the snake and make it a pet, eat it or make it dance.

Often, he said, “we are so self-righteous, we think our own point of reference is better than another person’s point of view”.  The former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who had spent 27 years in prison, had understood the point of reference of those who had imprisoned him.  He said Mr. Mandela’s empathy had made it possible for him to stand before the seminar today.

Mr. SHEFLER said Eretz Nehederet was a popular weekly television show in Israel, with 1 million viewers each week.  One episode had portrayed characters from the Angry Birds mobile game as negotiators in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.  Once the mediator had started playing music, tensions had eased.  The parties had relaxed and danced.  Tensions had emerged again when one bird had brought up the issue of history.  “We are living in the golden age of political satire,” he said.  “There is political satire everywhere.  If you don’t feel the effect of this amount of political satire, I think it is because there is too much of it.”

Continuing, he said political satire could be a dangerous if it replaced more effective political acts, such as protests or voting, and that it had an inherent inner conflict.  The goal was to create laughter, but laughing about the occupation could be dangerous, as it was a relief.  “You feel like everything is okay,” he said.  “Now, someone else can do the job.”  Satire was less effective because of that fact.  His show often pointed out ways “the right wing is wrong”, and yet, today, there was one of the most right-wing Governments in Israel.  His show differed from others in that “we are not preaching to the converted”.  The audience was split between right and left wingers.  Right wingers did not attend shows on the occupation.  Because the show was on a main television channel, average Israelis watched it.  Overall, he said in closing, foreign media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict was unbalanced.

Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN described how the media landscape had changed in the decade he had been a journalist in terms of what made a story or reporter credible.  When he began working at The New York Times, he had been met with suspicion because of his Palestinian origin, an experience that had been his introduction to mainstream journalism.  It was what had formed his career path.  He had spent six months covering international news for the Times’ website, which he said he had found difficult, due to the editorial policy.  On the question of Palestine, the word “occupied” was seldom used, which was a problem for him.  He eventually went to work for Al Jazeera, launching a show called The Stream that tackled issues not covered by mainstream media.  Later, at The Huffington Post, he launched a 24-hour live show on the Internet, which had given him an opportunity to tell stories to an audience that did not watch Al Jazeera.

When it came to covering Palestine, Israel and the war in Gaza, he said, there was reluctance to criticizing Israel and covering stories that humanized Palestinians.  In the United States, “if you cover the Israeli Government in a critical way, you’re immediately deemed anti-Semitic”, he said.  As the fighting had unfolded in Gaza, he interviewed journalists there to bring an on-the-ground and authentic experience to his stories.  His reporting generated heightened criticism on the web for being a “Palestinian propagandist” and “humanizing Palestinians”, he said.

When the floor was opened for questions, participants asked a range of questions.  Some described a “clash of definitions”, which had led people to discuss different narratives in the same space, with one speaker stressing that he did not need to understand the views of the opponents in order to engage with them.  It was important to remind people of their inhumanity, another participant said.

Ms. FARSAD recalled that Comedy Central host John Stewart had said that, after 15 years of hosting the comedy series that he could not say anything had appreciably changed because of it.  Yet, one study had shown that people who watched 30 minutes of The Daily Show, another comedy series, had learned more about the world than those who tuned into the 24-hour mainstream news cycle.

Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said AJ+ recently had launched a news-comedy show.  “You retain information when you’re entertained,” he said.

Mr. RASDIEN agreed that satire was about laughter.  “But, we haven’t heard Israel’s point of reference or what the settlers think,” he said.  “We only hear the one side:  ‘Israel is bad and Palestinians are suffering’.  We don’t know why.”  Apartheid had started because white South Africans believed they were better than black people, pointing to Bible verses that they had said supported that idea.  To a question about how comedians handled situations when their message was not received in the manner in which it was intended, and even caused offense, he responded that “we see things as we are”.

Mr. SHEFLER said satire required interpretation.  It was not a direct medium, like writing an article.  It needed a stereotype.

Ms. FARSAD said she did not believe that satire worked on an international level.  It should be targeted for a specific audience.  She recalled being often criticized by other Muslims, who had called her shameful.  But, some of her material was not for them.  It was for white Americans.  She said she had dealt with death threats and cultural hostility by forging ahead and remembering that she was targeting an audience that was intransigent on the issue of bigotry.

One participant from South Sudan explained he had been in the “liberation army” and was criticized as being against Islam.  He often struggled to explain that that was not his story.  He blamed the media.  There were many in South Sudan who did not understand that Israelis were not Christians, which informed their views.  “If you see someone being killed, no matter what colour, why do we tolerate it?”, he asked.  He believed the cause was ignorance.  Satire was supposed to educate and he believed there was too much emphasis on making people laugh.  The fear was that problems would not be solved.  He asked the panel how to translate comedy into something that people could share with one another.

Mr. RASDIEN said “we do better when we know better”.  Information was important.  If comedians did not read every day and search for that information, they would not create material that resonated with others.

Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said there was a limit to what could be accomplished through any one medium.  Comedians offered an entry point for people to seek out more information.

Ms. FARSAD said it was too easy to say all comedy was reductionist.  Comedians had to do a better job understanding that the average person could handle the material.

Interactive Dialogue

In the afternoon, seminar participants attended a screening of the animated documentary, The Wanted 18, by Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan.  The film was about the residents of Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town near Bethlehem, who had peacefully boycotted Israeli taxation and commodities during the first intifada in 1987.  Rather than buy milk from Israeli companies, the residents had bought 18 cows from an Israeli farmer and learned to make their own milk.  When Israel declared the herd a threat to its national security, the residents hid the cows.  The film featured one of the participants, Dr. Majd Nassar, who had helped to write the script.

In an interactive dialogue after the film, participants asked a range of questions, from the experience of telling the story of the cows through film to why the experience of Beit Sahour had not spread to other Palestinian towns.  One participant suggested that another film be made to answer that question.

Mr. NASSAR said that young people’s knowledge of the 1987 intifada was not strong.  Thirty per cent of Beit Sahour’s population viewed it as history.  It had taken him several years to learn how to write a script for the animated cows featured in the film.  The crew he had worked with then broadened the story and through their filming, gave it a more advanced context than he had done in his writing.

“I wanted to document an important period in the life of the Palestinians, and a certain period in my own life,” he said.  At the time, there had been a debate about whether to spread the experience.  People knew of another town in the north undergoing similar events, whose residents also had been punished by Israeli authorities.  Some had thought it was important for the people of Beit Sahour to demonstrate in Bethlehem because of its historic significance.  But, the Palestinian Authority had made a political decision not to do that, which was why Beit Sahourians could not push for it.

“When you go for civil action, it’s not something that goes on auto‑control,” he said.  “People have to be prepared to go to jail, to die.”  It was a process and at the time, people had suggested that Bethlehem start engaging in it.  He had boycotted Israeli goods since January 1988.  In 1987, Palestinians were a captive market and had nothing other than Israeli products to buy.  Today, there were Pakistani, Indian, Chinese and other products available, making it easier to boycott Israeli goods.

He went on to say that Beit Sahour had come to international attention because people had connections to the media and the outer world.  While they had no mobile phones or computers, “we were the directors, the producers, the script-writers and the media came to us,” he said.   Journalists covering the story were courageous to defy the Israeli military order to stay out of the area.  They would have been deported, he said.

EMMA ALPERT, Public Engagement Manager of Just Vision, which was promoting the film, said the activities of the first intifada — the use of boycott, civil disobedience and outdoor areas to teach children when schools were forced to close — had been happening throughout the West Bank.

Mr. NASSAR responded to a question about whether he identified more with Palestinians who had supported Oslo Accords or those who had felt it had been imposed from the outside and scuttled efforts for independence.  He said the Oslo Accords had been signed after long negotiations.  As part of a negotiating committee that had travelled to Washington, D.C., he had faced counterparts from Israel, United States and Palestine.  He had been surprised by the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements and the handshake at the White House.  Almost every country had celebrated the Declaration’s signature — officials and publics alike.  Very few people inside or outside Palestine were critical of it.

He said he belonged to the few people inside Palestine who had given lectures in Europe against the Oslo Accords, convinced Israel would never implement it.  “No one believed me,” he said.  “I was talking to walls.”  The only questions he had fielded from people were about whether he was part of Hamas.  “No one wanted to debate the details of the Accords,” he added, and in Gaza, the vast majority of people were happy about the Declaration.

Responding to another query, he said the film was first screened in Ramallah, with 200 people from Beit Sahour bussed in to attend.  It later had been screened in Beit Sahour and there had been no negative reactions.  Some of the young people who had seen the film had been surprised at the events that had taken place.

Ms. ALPERT, when asked about other films that had mixed documentary and animation, said the film was unique in its format.

For information media. Not an official record.