Hampstead Town Hall, London NW3
Hard-line socialists and radical chic Hampsteadites are not known for their sense of humour. The world is just too serious a place for mirth, and the situation in the Middle East in particular is no laughing matter.
Yet it has to be admitted that the Jewish Socialists’ Group’s What a State event, a backhanded compliment marking Israel’s 60th anniversary, was a comedy triumph. In fact the laughter was so raucous at the Hampstead Town Hall that one enthusiast reckoned it could be heard at Wembley Arena, where the Zionist Federation was at the same time holding its official mainstream celebration.
Strangely for a programme designed to let “alternative” comedians rant about the inequities of Israel, the country was rarely mentioned. Compere Ivor Dembina opened proceedings by telling the audience that in 1967 he had been elated at Israel’s Six-Day War victory and that the only Arab he knew then was Peter O’Toole. The Israelis, he went on, should give back the occupied territories, “but we should hang on to New York”.
There was a roar of approval when surveying the packed audience — some of whom were of a certain age and adorned in their ’60s bangles and kaftans — he said: “We have sold out tonight — but not politically.”
But from then on, the comedians focused on other targets. The pick of night was the irreverent Muslim comic Shazia Mirza. Suicide bombers, she quipped, believed that when they blew themselves up they would be rewarded with 72 virgins. “When I go to the next life I want to be rewarded with 72 Chippendales,” she said.
Satirist Mark Steel did rant, but mainly about the problems of travelling from his South London home to the North London venue. What London needed, he said, was a “two-state solution”.
It was alternative comic Jeremy Hardy who brought matters down to earth with a thud when he described Israel as a “tragedy for the Jewish people”.
But perhaps the most telling, if not funny, gag of the night came from Palestinian Bassam Aramin, of the Israeli-Palestinian Combatants for Peace movement. Called up to address the audience, he joked: “I’ve been asked to speak for five minutes, which for a Palestinian is a punishment. If I go on much longer and someone shouts death to the Arab I will understand.”
JSG leader David Rosenberg said the evening, the proceeds of which were to fund Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, had been designed as a challenge to the Wembley celebrations. “We wanted to show that the Jewish community has differing views on Israel.”