Satire has long held a valued place in Israel’s public discourse. With a political situation that veers between grimly serious, to hysterically daft and back to tragic, Israelis need a pressure valve. What better way to try and come to terms with the political reality than by having a good belly laugh it?
For Hebrew-speaking Israelis, there have long been comedians willing to send up the most send-uppable of public figures. The classic is the current President, Shimon Peres, who for comedians must surely be a gift that keeps on giving. Ariel Sharon’s rotund gruffness and Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s omnipresent smirk are also favorites. Indeed, Netanyahu implicitly acknowledged the strong following satirists have in Israel with his recent appearance alongside his "Eretz Nehederet" doppelganger.
For new immigrants or those in the diaspora, Israel’s robust political satire may come as a shock. For those abroad, Israeli politics (including "The Palestinian Issue") is hard, fast and regularly violent.
And, as one Australian-Israeli comedian has discovered, abundant with comedic potential.
Jeremie Bracka is bringing his English-language, one-man comedy show, Arafat in Therapy (retitled Peres in Therapy), to Israel this month, after shows in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland. In October it will feature as part of New York’s United Solo Festival.
Unlike most of Israel’s satirists, Bracka, 35, is not an outsider building off the public personas of his subjects. When he’s not "taking the piss" (to use the Aussie terminology) onstage, he’s a human rights lawyer who has under his belt stints in the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Peres Center for Peace.
While previous shows had an emphasis on Jewish humor in general, his experiences working in the dimension where Israel interacts with the world - including with their very close neighbors - have helped inform Peres in Therapy to be “much more intense, much more edgy”, he says over coffee in the middle of Melbourne’s Jewish precinct. “In this particular show the Holocaust got a good guernsey - lots of Holocaust references.”
For this goy writer, the raucous reception those Holocaust references got from an overwhelmingly Jewish audience was quite a surprise.
Bracka says if you can’t laugh at yourself or your country it’s probably because you’re insecure in your beliefs.
“Part of, in my mind, the genius of comedy is to not take yourself too seriously, to expose the vulnerability of all of us, to be able to be secure enough in yourself or in your country or in your belief or in your ideology to be able to make fun of your weaknesses and be honest about them. When people are defensive and inauthentic I think that’s the recipe for very dry, ill-humored experiences.”
Political conversations in Israel can be prickly business, particularly for visitors or newcomers who often feel they aren’t "qualified" enough to take part. Bracka believes comedy is a useful method to use unpacking some of the harsher and nuanced elements of such subjects.
“I think it’s probably the most effective tool to [portray complexity and nuance] because comedy is like an anesthetic. It allows audiences to absorb and engage with dark and very serious issues that are exceedingly controversial, that they would get very defensive about otherwise.”
“Comedy disarms. Comedy disarms completely. So it’s a strategy that as a comedian I’m very lucky to be able to use because I get audiences onside and I get to humanize a very strong and complex Palestinian character to a very largely Jewish audience in the diaspora which is no small feat.”
Heavily exposed to criticism of Israel at the UN headquarters in New York, Bracka also happened upon one of Israel’s hasbara spinners, whose job it is to gloss over the "dark and very serious issues" Bracka talks about. The woman formed the basis of one of the show’s more outlandish characters.
“I part enjoyed parodying the Israeli propaganda machine. Shuli, that character, I liked her, she was a real voice for me to voice my discontent with what I think Israel just misses.”
“Some of the messages that are included in her cameo appearance are typical. It’s sort of missing the point. It’s all about marketing and packaging Israel neglecting the fact that the product might be slightly defective.”
Bracka jabs at the hasbara machine excitedly pointing out the gays on Tel Aviv's beaches and the high-tech sector, all the while the occupation stumbles on.
A character transplanted from real life is Bracka’s old superior at the Peres Center for Peace, Oslo negotiator Uri Savir, who appears more exercised by dictating gushing emails to Sharon Stone than securing peace. Bracka discloses that his early imitations of the late Arafat where inspired by those of Savir.
While there is much mirth to be found in Israel’s policies and eccentric public figures, he also gets laughs out of the interjection of anti-Israel clauses into seemingly every UN document in existence.
“At the same time I am Israeli, and I am Jewish, and I feel that it’s really important for the show to have integrity, that it represents accurately what I think is a really nuanced and complex conflict.”
To that end he contrasts his satire of Bibi, platitude-gushing Peres and hasbara with also scorning the worldwide protests against those cartoons depicting Mohammed that appeared in a Danish newspaper.
There’s also a cleverly done (and deliberately un-funny) segment where the main two Israeli and Palestinian characters reflect on a terror attack in Israel.
Somewhere in the show, Bracka notes he has always been “afflicted” by Zionism.
“Continue living in Israel”.
Jeremie Bracka will be performing Peres in Therapy at the J-Town Playhouse in Jerusalem on Thursday July 25, Wednesday July 31 and Sunday August 1 at 20:00.
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