Palestinian-Israeli humorist found inspiration in Jewish comics, novelists

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Sayed Kashua truly occupies a unique place among humorists and novelists. Kashua, 40, is a Palestinian citizen of the State of Israel who publishes his novels and columns in Hebrew and who counts among his role models top Jewish comedians and fellow authors.

Kashua was the Deutsch Scholar-in-Residence at Congregation Shaare Emeth over the weekend, offering talks on “Cultural Criticism Through Humor”; “Arabs in Israel”; his film, “A Borrowed Identity”; and “Living With Multiple Identies: Muslim, Arab, Jew, American.”

A native of Tira, Israel, where he was the immensely popular screenwriter for the TV series “Arab Labor,” Kashua chose to leave Israel in 2014 when tensions between the Palestinian and Jewish communities had sharply escalated. He moved with his wife and children to Champaign-Urbana, Ill., where he is a clinical professor of Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Illinois-Champaign.

The Jewish Light caught up for an interview with Kashua during his busy weekend in St. Louis.


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What drew you, as an Israeli Palestinian, to use humor as a means of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma?

Yiddish humor. It is like an entrance ticket with humor. If you want to tell people the truth, you have to make them laugh first or they will kill you. Humor helps people follow the story in order to deliver the political message.


Are there any role models you have among U. S. comedians and columnists?

Louis C.K. I know all of his work by heart, every sentence. I am a huge fan of Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman and Patrice O’Neal. There are large parts of Chris Rock’s work and Dave Chappelle.



You have also published several very successful, semi-autobiographical novels, including “Dancing Arabs” and “Let It Be Morning.”  Are there any authors who have influenced or inspired you?

Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow influenced me in my writing. I saw them as mentors to me as I began writing.


You are described as using humor to depict disparities between the Palestinian-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian narratives. In view of the seemingly endless cycle of violence between the two communities, is it becoming more difficult to find truly humorous material?

There is an Arabic phrase: “The worst thing makes you laugh.”  Humor is something that makes things bearable. The question is how naïve you are to use humor. It is a tool to use. It is a way to address the Israelis and others.


Have you given up on the idea that a two-state solution can be found?

No, I haven’t given up. That solution is what the Palestinian officials want. I don’t care if it is one or two or 700 states [as long as] it will end occupation and discrimination. The problem is not the solution. The problem is that the [Israeli ] government is not willing to find a solution. You don’t always need a solution, you could declare a stop to building settlements as a first step.


How have Jewish and Arab audiences responded to your humor in your talks, your TV show “Arab Labor” and in your books?

Generally speaking, they loved it. The first episodes were hard for the Arab audiences to receive. I received comments that I was a traitor. I had a heavy-duty responsibility to represent the community [in the show].Toward the end of the first season, the show was very well accepted by the majority of Arabs.


I think it is easier to laugh at yourself when you are the majority. The Israeli extreme right wing group was against the show. Nationalists will always hate it.