This is not a subject for comedy
7 October, 2009
The following is a guest blog from Richard Millett. Richard has written a review of a play by Ivor Dembina, ‘This is not a subject for comedy.’ (Phoenix Artist Club, 1 Phoenix Street WC2H. Tottenham Court Road Tube).
Ivor Dembina implores you to pay at the end what you think his show is worth. It is free to get in, gentiles half price, but you have to pay to get out. Dembina is funny and comes out with Jewish jokes that his audience laps up. The centre of his Jewish world is Hendon having explained that his parents were refugees…from south London. His mother used to own a bakery. When a Sunday morning customer squeezes a loaf worrying out loud that it was baked yesterday she replied that being Jewish they don’t bake on Saturday. The customer paid for the bread, which had been baked instead on Friday.
Dembina describes the family experiences growing up in Hendon that infuse his political evolution from ardent Socialist Zionist to Socialist defender of Palestinian rights. His Zionism unravels as he notices growing racism within his family. This really hits home to him when Yasser Arafat appears on television and his family shout “Nazi” while one relative states all Arabs are Nazis. However, he did nothing about it for twenty years when finally he sees a documentary about the Sabra and Shatila massacres. The documentary is the real turning point in Dembina’s life. He explains that his original Zionist ardour was based on the belief that the world stood by as Jews were massacred and so the Jews must look out for only themselves. But with the knowledge now that two thousand Palestinian refugees were murdered while the Israeli army stood by he goes to Jenin and ends up defending a Palestinian house from demolition by the Israeli Army in retribution for a massive suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
For Dembina the creation of Israel was brought about purely as a result of the Holocaust. Although his proudest Zionist moment was the 1967 War his main realisation at the time was that the people Israel defeated were not those who pushed the Jews into the gas chambers. But, he explains, “a win is a win”. He argues with a relative living on the West Bank that the Bible meant for the Jews to settle in Hendon, not Hebron and that the West Bank is stolen land.
The sketch is interspersed with the hate mail received from someone calling himself Sword of Zion and who addresses each message “Dear Jewish Traitor”. The hate mail is more extreme after Dembina visits Auschwitz. Dembina tells of the sign there explaining what happened to the Jews but you have to read right to the bottom to realise that homosexuals, Communists and the disabled also perished at Auschwitz. Jews, apparently, aren’t comfortable with that fact as “this is Ourschwitz, not Yourschwitz”.
Dembina wants the Jews to give back the occupied territories but hold onto New York and harks back to the good old days of 1948 wishing he had a magic history wand. There would just one state called Israelstine and it would be the only country in the world named after his accountant. The audience packed into the small room liked Dembina and his comedy but no doubt went away as unenlightened as ever about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israelis and Palestinians are both fantastic people, he says, and their similarities are greater than their differences…neither group wanted to pay on the way out when he put this show on for them.