Comedian Ivor Dembina made headlines in the Jewish and comedy industry press last week. Dembina, who is Jewish, has barred several comedians from performing at his club to due their support for Jewish National Fund gigs – a racist organization with quasi-government status in Israeli law.
The JNF controls 93 percent of state land in Israel. This land is reserved for Jews only, excluding the indigenous Palestinian citizens of present-day Israel (to say nothing of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza or in the diaspora as refugees – all of whom have no rights under Israel's apartheid regime).
JNF bylaws forbid it from renting land to "non-Jews". But as campaign group Stop the JNF explains: "The JNF continues to serve as a global fundraiser for Israeli ethnic cleansing, occupation and apartheid. Despite its role in a State institution of Israel (the Israel Land Authority) and in institutionalized racism and apartheid, the JNF and its affiliate organizations enjoy charitable status in over 50 countries and many also enjoy consultative status with the United Nations."
While the JNF portrays itself as a charitable – even an environmental — organisation, the reality of its projects is very different. It is actively involved in Israeli campaigns to violently displace the native Palestinian Bedouins of the southern Naqab desert (Naqab in Hebrew) from their homes.
The JNF suffered several setbacks in the UK in recent years. In May 2011, David Cameron stepped down as honorary patron of the charity. Speaking to me back then, Cameron's spokesperson tried to downplay the significance of the move, as only one of a number of overseas charities that would no longer be a priority for Cameron. Regardless of the truth of that, some of the sheen did seem to come of the JNF. In October 2012 the news broke that the JNF had lost half of its charitable revenues – a situation that cannot have been helped by Cameron's move the year before.
An anti-Zionist who travelled to the West Bank as a guest of the ISM in 2004, Dembina's pro-Palestinian views are well-known. And his Hampstead Comedy Club has for 20 years held a "Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve" night, part of the Jewish cultural landscape in London.
In a statement, Dembina has described his decision to exclude any comedian who did gigs in support of the JNF as a natural outgrowth of his club's anti-racist bookings policy:
"At the Hampstead Comedy Club I have always had a policy of not booking acts who publicly endorse racist organisations. I regard the JNF as, at the very least discriminatory against Palestinians in its practice, and I believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest that, as an organisation, it is, consciously or otherwise, racist in its outlook."
He continued: "The JNF is not being singled out. I would not book anyone who publicly supported an organisation that I regarded as racist. That would include the EDL with its anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the BNP who express anti-Semitic views, or anybody else who advocates persecution or discriminatory treatment of another group of people."
The site states clearly that "acts who publicly endorse racist or homophobic organisations are not welcome at the Club".
Following several comedians' performances at fund-raising gigs for the JNF, Dembina informed them that, should they do so again, they would no longer be welcome at his seasonal event. The JNF went ahead with its "Kosher Komedy" night in November.
Three pro-Israel comedians who have done JNF gigs, earlier this month decided to hit out at Dembla's anti-racist policy by going to the Jewish Chronicle with the story. These were Mark Maier, Steve Jameson (stage name Sol Bernstein) and Bennett Arron. Keeping his loyalty to the JNF, Jameson told the paper Dembina could "stick it".
The immorality behind the well-financed JNF event in November stands in stark contrast to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign's "Stand Up For Palestine" comedy nights this year. Established comedians like Stewart Lee, Alexi Sayle and Ava Vidal performed to sold-out audiences.
These comedians did the benefit nights as a contribution to the PSC's cause. Meanwhile, the JNF is relegated to booking has-been acts (or more accurately never-where acts).
Comedy has long been on the cutting edge when it comes to debating topics in society that were once deemed taboo, especially racism. From comics like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin to more modern acts Chris Rock. In the recent past, stand-ups like Frankie Boyle, Shappi Khorsandi and Jeremy Hardy have all performed gigs in support for the Palestinian cause.
The cause of Palestine is becoming increasingly popular within the mainstream as the brutal facts about the reality of Israeli war crimes become clearer to more people.
An associate editor with The Electronic Intifada, Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London.