“The ground is shifting”: An interview with comedian Ivor Dembina

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 support for Palestinian rights 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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