Less than a week ago, I was performing at a private party for about 75 Arab-Americans in the suburbs of Detroit. The setting was a restaurant where one half was reserved for this private party while the other half still had regular customers. The side with regular customers was within earshot of my routine.
About 3-4 minutes into my act, I told the following joke, which I have told dozens of times before:
Sometimes I accidentally bring out the racist in people… I don’t mean to do it, it just happens. Once, I was sitting in an airport bar because my flight was delayed, not because of me this time. There was this white guy sitting next to me, and since were both lonely, we started chatting.
He eventually asked me, “What’s your name?”
I said, “Amer.”
He said, “That’s an interesting name… where are you from.”
I said, “Well, I grew up in Philly, but now I live in Michigan.”
He chuckled and said, “No, I mean, where are you from from.”
This is what white people say when they want to find out where you’re REALLY from.
So I said, “Oh, from from… Well, I’m from from Palestine, I’m Palestinian.”
And he said, “Really?!”
And I said, “Yeah.”
And he said, “REALLY?!?!”
And I said, “Yeah, I didn’t say I was a fuckin’ unicorn, I said I’m Palestinian… we exist.”
So he looked over both his shoulders, then turned back to me and said, “That’s cool… I don’t like Jewish people either…”
And so I got upset… I said, “Hey man, that’s racist! It’s racist of you to assume I’m racist just because of my race… that’s racist!”
And he said, “Fine, man, calm down… you mean you don’t hate all Jewish people?”
And I said, “Well, I’m just sayin…”
And that’s the joke.
A couple minutes after I told that, the manager of the restaurant (a complete idiot) came up to me, tugged on my sleeve, and told me, “Don’t tell any more jokes about Jewish people, you offended some of my customers.” Apparently, some Jewish customers who were not in the private party I was performing for heard the joke and got a little bent out of shape. In the interest of keeping the peace (and since I was performing for a group of people who were going to keep partying long after I left), I simply smiled, assured I would not offend any more customers, and kept performing. I continued and my crowd was having a good time. After about ten minutes, during which time I was squeaky clean and un-offensive, the manager reappeared and asked me to step down. “You’ve offended everyone,” he told me. In shock, I asked, “Who?” He said, “Too many people.” I looked at the organizer of the party who invited me, and she did not seem like she wanted to make too big of a deal out of this. So I stepped down. Many attendees of the private party approached me immediately, and expressed their outrage at my stepping down.
Apparently, the few Jewish customers who were offended by the above joke would not stop complaining until I was removed from the stage. Now let me tell you all a little something about that joke. It is not about Jews. It is about some of the incredible things that happen to me as a Palestinian in America. It is about how some white people try to associate with minorities in any way that they can. And finally, it is about how we, as Palestinians and Arab-Americans, sometimes cannot bring ourselves to say we are OK with Jews. At the worst, the joke is offensive to white people and Arabs, but not Jews.
But this is what it means to be Palestinian. You can live anywhere you want, except Palestine, and you can talk about anything you want, except Palestine. You see, the Jews I “offended” that night were not offended by my joke, they were offended by the fact that I am Palestinian. They didn’t even really hear the joke. They probably heard “Palestinian” and “Jews” and said, “Hey, now wait a minute!”
You see, supporters of Israel are offended by the mere presence of Palestinians, by the mere recital of some sort of Palestinian narrative. In some way, it makes them very uncomfortable. It’s kind of like that when you know you’re doing something wrong, but you do it anyway. Any Palestinian in the room makes them uneasy. Talking about Israel and its policies makes them edgy. I guess I understand. I mean, I’m sure the slaveholders didn’t like talking about slavery either.
As Palestinians, our legitimacy depends on whether or not we “recognize” Israel. But supporters of Israel are not required to even acknowledge that Palestinians exist. For an Arab to be taken seriously, he must be “tolerant” of Jews (whatever that means). When a Jew is tolerant of Arabs, he is “open-minded and forward-thinking.” At the essence of the Palestinian question lies this complete inequality, this absolute and utter disparity in status. It is almost surreal for the oppressors to be demanding “tolerance” from the oppressed. But it is not without precedent. In America, whites in power demanded that blacks “behave” before they considered “giving” them rights. In South Africa, black had to conduct themselves “civilly” before they were taken seriously.
This sort of calculated framing of the debate by Israel and it supporters serves to silence any Palestinian narrative. Well, guess what? I don’t need anyone’s permission to be Palestinian. I don’t need your go-ahead to tell my story. And you thinking I do kind of pisses me off.
I never wanted that joke to get stale. I was thinking of eventually retiring it. Not anymore.
* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."