No Laughing Matter: How Israeli Jokes Dehumanize Arabs

Thursday 8 September 201610:38 am
The jokes told by Arabs and Israelis within the Green Line, the line demarcating the Palestinian territories occupied in 1948 and declared as the state of Israel that year, can be seen as a mirror reflecting many of the subtle realities in which they live, and the perceptions each side has of the other. Among Israelis, the predominant stereotype used in jokes about Arabs portrays them as opportunists and stupid. On the flip side, the Arab jokes about Israelis show them as racists. One joke goes: "An Arab family once went to a rabbi, asking about how to convert to Judaism. The rabbi says: 'If you want to convert, you must first swim across this river,' and points to a river nearby. The Arab dad jumps and swims to the other side. The mom does the same. When it's the turn of their young son, he jumps, starts to swim, but gets stuck in the middle. The mother starts to cry, but her husband says: 'Why are you crying? He's just an Arab.'" There is another version of this joke. Instead of a river, there is a minefield. When the child steps on a mine, the punchline has the father appallingly say: "Good, now we have one less Arab."

Propaganda and racism

Israel's wars with Arab countries inspired jokes too. "How did the Israelis defeat the Arabs in the 1967 Six Day War?" asks one. "They came up with a genius plan. Israeli soldiers would call out 'Ahmed! Ahmed!" (a very common Arab name), and all the Ahmeds would pop their heads out and the soldiers would kill them one by one!" The joke has a second part. "When the Arabs got wind of the scheme, they decided to turn it against the Israelis," picking a common Jewish name. "An Arab soldier proceeded to cry out 'Moshe! Moshe!' But Moshe asked, "Who is it?" Befuddled, the Arab soldier pops his head out and says 'Ahmed' at which point the Israeli soldier shoots him in the head." Israeli jokes hence stereotype Arabs as stupid people who fail in everything they set out to do, and who are inferior to Jews. A joke heard in Israel goes: "An Arab applies to work at a law firm. He tells the CEO he has a PhD from Harvard. The CEO says: 'You're hired. This office is yours. This attractive assistant is yours. And the Jaguar parked downstairs is yours.' The Arab replies: 'You're joking!' The CEO says: 'Yes but you started first'". Such racist undertones don't single out Arabs, says Amr Zakaria, a commentator on Israeli affairs, but also target non-European Jews, such as the Sephardim. One racist joke he shared with Raseef22 goes like this: "Why do the Sephardim win all garbage competitions? Because they have the home advantage." Another is about Ethiopian Jews in Israel, who are routinely discriminated against despite sharing the same faith as the majority of Israelis. "What do Ethiopian women give birth to? Chocolate." Even Eastern European Jews can be the butt of racist jokes in Israel, according to Zakaria. "Why are there no Georgian paratroopers in the army? Because the Geneva Conventions prohibit throwing garbage from a plane," goes one popular joke in Israel according to Zakaria.

'An extension of politics'

To Dr. Ahmed al-Rawi, chairman of Helwan University's Oriental Languages Department and professor of Hebrew Literature, the line of humor these jokes are taking is deliberate, and an extension of the Israeli occupation's narrative that dehumanizes the occupied native Arabs. Apart from that, the jokes can be considered a running commentary, reflecting how Israelis react to political developments in the context of the conflict with the Palestinians oppressed by their government. This is the opinion of Mohamed Shaheen, a Palestinian-Israeli affairs expert. "Jokes among Israelis reveal details about their thinking, including about the conflict with Palestinians ; they express how they see political and security events" such as the current wave of violence. One joke he cites asks: "What is the difference between running over a cat and running over an Arab? Running over a cat leaves skid marks". The joke references attacks using cars by Israeli settlers against Palestinians. "What is the difference between prison and the Arab brain?" another Israeli joke asks, on the back of the crackdown by Israeli occupation forces against Palestinians in the occupied territories. "A prison has more cells." Many of these politicized jokes are even posted on Facebook, such as this one: "An Israeli, a Frenchman and an American were taken prisoner by cannibals in darkest Africa. The cannibal chief offered each of them one wish before they would be killed. The American asked for the thickest, juiciest steak with a bottle of coca-cola. The Frenchman asked for a plate of frogs’ legs and a bottle of the best wine." "When the Israeli’s turn came, he said to the cannibal chief, ‘kick me’. The chief was amazed and asked ‘are you sure that is what you want?’. Yes, the Israeli replied ‘just kick me’. So the chief did so, the Israeli whipped out his machine gun, shot all the cannibals dead and released his fellow prisoners. The American asked him ‘why did you wait so long to kill them and release us”. Why didn’t you do that at the beginning?’ ‘What’, answered the Israeli. ‘And have them accuse me of acting with undue provocation?’"
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