Laughing Matters

Again it happened: My sense of humor was taken as proof of lack of seriousness or of failure to stick to a goal.

On International Woman's Day a year ago, I found myself giving a talk in Jerusalem to more than 100 female civil servants. I had been invited to speak about women in the media, and about the media and feminism. During the question-and-answer period, in which most of the questions were about the appearance and marital status of the women journalists, judges and female MKs whom I described as feminist models, one of the women in the audience got up to speak. She said she was the deputy director of a government department, and declared that she too would like to be a feminist like me, but that her husband won't let her.

Delighted to find a sense of humor in such an unexpected place, I broke into laughter. Very quickly, though, and to my embarrassment, I discovered that I was the only one laughing - and not for the first time in my life, either.

A few weeks later, I found myself having lunch at a long table in the company of a few of those feminist role models. Wonderful and enlightening remarks were made at this luncheon about gender, empowerment, discrimination against women, female leadership and other just causes. Eventually I reached the conclusion that it was time for me to contribute my share to the conversation, and because each and every one of the women present was smart, outstanding and possessed of a sense of humor, I decided to take the sure path and tell them what I thought was a dazzling anecdote.

I described the events of the talk in Jerusalem, and with perfect comic timing led up to and delivered the punch line. Maintaining a poker face, I waited for the gales of laughter, but somehow there were none. Instead, the mood of the diners turned sour.

"And what was your answer?" one of them asked me. I reported that I had laughed. "Because it was really funny, you know." I then tried to drive the point home: "How could they not see that to ask permission from one's husband to be a feminist is the exact opposite of feminism?"

"What a pity," one feminist role model said. "The last thing feminism needs is for yet another person to laugh at it. There's nothing easier than to laugh at feminism. You can be sure that the husbands of those women are already laughing enough. Maybe if instead of laughing you had talked to them seriously, they would have grasped your point."

Again it happened to me: My sense of humor was taken as proof of lack of seriousness or of a failure to cling tenaciously to a goal - whereas in my view the situation was exactly the opposite. I can laugh truly only at things that I believe in. As for all the rest, I only get irritated. That's because, as I see it, humor is a very serious matter, which should not be wasted on trivialities. But repeatedly I discover that there are organizations and concepts that do not tolerate humor. In fact, it's possible that the more just the cause, the less self-humor they have.

For example, I never joined any left-wing movement, because during my journalistic career I succeeded in irking all of them with my brand of humor. I quarreled with Peace Now because I laughed, in a newspaper column, at their most successful demonstration. It took place on a spring-like Shabbat, with whole families going for a picnic in the heart of the occupied territories, in protest against the army's policy there. Protection for the picnic-protest was provided by none other than large forces of the Israeli army. I found that funny. Peace Now responded with an irate letter to my editor.

A year before that my first name, which does not reveal my gender identity, earned me the title "male chauvinist" from the female MK whose principles I most admired. That happened after I wrote about the establishment of Women in Black, a protest movement with which I identify completely, that underlying its creation is also a brilliant fashion move: After all, every woman has something black in her closet, because black goes with everything and also makes you look slimmer.

"In his writing, Neri Livneh represents the epitome of male sexism and chauvinism," a letter to the editor stated. My editor, who is not without a sense of humor, published my photograph with the caption: "Male chauvinist."

It's regrettable, but there are still very smart feminists who think, mistakenly, that by laughing at ourselves we play into the hands of the men. I want to take this opportunity, after the annual International Woman's Day was commemorated this week, to say: We are equal to men because we are smart, we are complex, we are independent and we are strong, and we have the same right to happiness and self-fulfillment as men, and that right includes the right to laugh at ourselves.