On a recent Wednesday, Noam Shuster-Eliassi strolled around the tiny village in Israel where she grew up, Neve Shalom or "Oasis of Peace," wishing goodbye to her neighbors. The Israeli comedian was heading to Harvard University in just a few days for a fellowship at the Divinity School. There, she will be writing an hourlong comedy show in Hebrew, English and Arabic. She is calling it, “Coexistence My Ass.”
The name pokes fun at Shuster-Eliassi’s upbringing in the village, the only place in Israel designed for Israelis and Palestinians to intentionally live together. It also makes light of her career as a professional peace activist. After graduating from Brandeis University outside of Boston, Massachusetts, Shuster-Eliassi returned to Israel to work for the peacebuilding group, Interpeace.
“You know, I care about the political causes, but I’m 31 and single, so, I go to the demonstrations mainly to look for a date. And when I go to the demonstrations, the problem is that the only people who actually look like they have taken a shower is the police officers.”
But with the political situation between Israelis and Palestinians at an impasse, Shuster-Eliassi felt she wasn’t reaching people. So, she began telling jokes — about the unusual village where she grew up, her identity as the daughter of an Iranian-born Jew and her dating life as a leftist in Israel. Like this one she told an audience in London last year: “You know, I care about the political causes, but I’m 31 and single, so, I go to the demonstrations mainly to look for a date,” she said, to raucous laughter. “And when I go to the demonstrations, the problem is that the only people who actually look like they have taken a shower is the police officers.”
Shuster-Eliassi, now 32, says she doesn’t just want to make people laugh — she wants to make them think. She also wants to challenge the power dynamics in the region. She recently appeared on an Arabic-language TV show on Israel’s i24NEWS network. She joked that she was looking for a husband, and she's aiming high: the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — MBS. There was a political subtext to the joke: The governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia are drawing closer, and Shuster-Eliassi says it’s happening at the expense of Palestinians.
“There is no way in the world that we can solve the religious and political conflict that we have here, and the issues that we have here with Palestinians through going around over their heads and closing narrow deals with Saudi leaders.”
“There is no way in the world that we can solve the religious and political conflict that we have here, and the issues that we have here with Palestinians through going around, over their heads, and closing narrow deals with Saudi leaders,” she said.
The next day, the video was all over Arabic media, with spots on Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic. Some news anchors took her seriously.
“It was like I went to sleep a very anonymous woman,” Shuster-Eliassi said. When she woke up, she was known across the Middle East as the Israeli Jewish woman who proposed to MBS.
Shuster-Eliassi’s political humor is popular with left-leaning Israelis. And it’s also won her some Palestinian fans. Walking around Oasis of Peace, Shuster-Eliassi ran into one. Ahmad Muna was visiting the village from Jerusalem for the afternoon. He recognized Shuster-Eliassi from her videos and asked for a selfie with her. He says as a Palestinian, he appreciates her take.
Shuster-Eliassi captures “what Israel is about and what it is really doing in the region and doing to Palestinians.”
Shuster-Eliassi captures “what Israel is about and what it is really doing in the region and doing to Palestinians.” What makes her unique, he added, is that she’s doing it from a point of view from inside Israeli society.
Yet, sometimes there’s a limit to Shuster-Eliassi’s reach with Palestinians. Last year, she was the first Jewish comedian to perform at a Palestinian comedy show in East Jerusalem called the 1001 Laughs Palestine Comedy Festival. She was invited back this year. But at the last minute, her appearance was canceled. The organizer, Amer Zaher, told her that the politics got in the way.
In an interview, Zaher named several reasons that the political environment is just too sensitive to bring an Israeli Jew onstage this year. Among them is the fact that Israel just banned two US congresswomen from entering the country on an official trip, citing their support for the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. One of them was Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American. Zaher says comedy is about pushing boundaries, but there are limits.
“We do want to push people to think and push people to expand their horizons a little bit, but that doesn’t mean you want to offend the sensibilities of the whole society. So, we have to be careful.”
“We do want to push people to think and push people to expand their horizons a little bit, but that doesn’t mean you want to offend the sensibilities of the whole society,” Zaher said, by way of explanation. “So, we have to be careful.”
Shuster-Eliassi decided to go to the show anyway, as an audience member. In the East Jerusalem venue, music played as the host introduced Zaher. The audience cheered. Sitting on the sidelines, Shuster-Eliassi looked crestfallen. But she says she understands the sensitivities.
“I don’t want to avoid the reality,” she said. “The reality sucks. You know, the Palestinians are living under occupation. We are not equals. But the Palestinian comedians invited me because they believe there is something to be done, and they believe the Palestinian audiences are intelligent enough to listen to me.”
She says that the timing isn’t right. But maybe someday it will be. “It’s a beginning of something,” she said of her connection to Palestinian audiences.
A few days later, Shuster-Eliassi left for the US to develop her trilingual show. But even though she might find a more receptive crowd there for her sharply political humor, she’s not planning to stay. She wants to bring her comedy back home.
From PRI's The World ©2019 PRI