When being Jewish is not a joke

By Bennett Arron, August 7, 2014
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I have been a stand-up comedian for more than 15 years and I have always mentioned at some point in my set that I am Jewish (the fact I am both Jewish and Welsh seems to be a point of amusement in itself and one which I am happy to exploit).

Apart from one awful incident in Scotland, I have never encountered antisemitism. Until now.

I have just returned from performing three nights at one of my favourite comedy clubs in the country. There is always pressure when you are the last act of the evening as the audience's expectations are high (it's one of the few professions when being last is the greatest accolade), so you have to be prepared to up your game.

However, something for which I wasn't prepared was the audience's reaction to my mentioning my religion.

It's been upsetting to see the opinions of people I’ve worked with

Until that point, the gig had been going really well. Then it suddenly stopped. At first I thought it was just paranoia until I looked off stage and saw the shocked reaction of the other comedians. This confirmed what I had thought. The audience hadn't heard "I'm Jewish", they'd heard "I am responsible for what is happening in Gaza."

For the remainder of the gig, I felt I was, ironically, fighting a losing battle. When I came off stage the other comedians expressed their shock at what had happened. Although they complimented me on eventually getting the audience back on my side, I didn't think I had.

I had another two performances to play at this club and I spent that first sleepless night wondering if I should not mention that I was Jewish in the next shows. Although I'm aware there are Jewish comedians who don't ever mention they are Jewish (unless they are performing at lucrative Jewish comedy nights) as they fear reprisals, I realised I couldn't do this myself.

So the next night I opened with the lines: "Good evening, my name is Bennett Arron and I am both Jewish and Welsh. Before I carry on, I'm fully aware of what's going on in the news and that some people's opinion might have changed about the Welsh." Admittedly not the greatest joke in the world, but at least I had addressed the issue to some extent. It did seem to help a little, but I still felt the tension whenever I mentioned anything about being Jewish.

Although the audience's reaction at the gigs was surprising, I've been more surprised and shocked by the reaction of "friends" and followers on Twitter and Facebook. To see the true opinions of people with whom I have worked for years has been very upsetting and I have lost many friendships, both cyber and real.

Of course it's not only non-Jewish friends. One pro-Palestinian/anti-Israeli Jewish comedian is currently performing a show at the Edinburgh Festival in which he re-tells old Jewish jokes – happily taking money from Jewish audiences who seem oblivious to his beliefs.

Speaking of Edinburgh, the fact that a show had to close because it was being performed by an Israeli company is awful. And there seems to be little support from the Fringe Society itself. I'm not sure if this decision in Edinburgh influenced the Tricycle Theatre to take its stand on the Jewish Film Festival, but that was also an upsetting decision. This was a Jewish film festival. What message is the Tricycle sending out? I performed at this event a couple of years ago and the atmosphere was wonderful, with a complete mix of Jewish and non-Jewish attendees. Will the Tricycle now look at all the funding it receives - including that from our own government - just to make sure it concurs with their views on everything?

So what about my future work as a Jewish comedian? Well, I am suddenly having many corporate gigs cancelled at the last minute. These include after-dinner speaking, awards-hosting and my show about Identity Theft. Initially, I didn't think anything of it but as the number of cancellations increased I suddenly wondered what was going on. When questioned on their reasons for cancelling, the companies involved have been very evasive. I have heard "We no longer have the budget" or "It was a decision made higher up." While this could all of course be true, it does seem coincidental and it's something which has not happened before.

My website states that I am "the only Jewish/Welsh comedian on the circuit". Although this unique selling point is one of the main reasons I have worked so much over the years, I wonder if it has now become detrimental? Well, either way, I am not going to change it. I have more gigs lined up for this weekend and, for the first time since I first started as a comedian, I am feeling nervous.

www.bennettarron.com / @bennettarron

    Last updated: 3:18pm, August 7 2014