Jewish jokes are not anti-Semitic if told in good faith

As long as it’s another Jew making the jokes we're perfectly happy to laugh at ourselves, and we're not alone in this

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The Independent Online

So there we were in north London, in exactly the sort of venue you’d expect an illicit, or illegal, assembly to take place. It was a converted cellar beneath a pub: cold, dark and, above all, secret. By any standards, we were in a bunker.

The landlord, on checking our bona fides, had taken us to a door and directed us underground, where we found about two dozen like-minded souls. With no build-up or introduction, a man in a hat took the microphone and, for just over an hour, we listened to how Jews are obsessed with money, how they control the media, how they are sensitive, bordering on paranoid. There were jokes about Israel, even the Holocaust.

I know, shocking, particularly in the current climate of anti-Semitism spreading like a virus through parts of mainland Europe. But this was no neo-Nazi rally. The audience was largely made up of Jewish people (myself included), and the man with the mic was a veteran Jewish comedian called Ivor Dembina. He’s someone who flirts with saying the unsayable in the midst of a show called “Old Jewish Jokes”. One man’s anti-Semitic diatribe, it seems, is another man’s show.

We Jews are perfectly happy to laugh at ourselves, as long as it’s another Jew making the jokes. We are not alone in this: Chris Rock makes black people fall about at their own peccadilloes, likewise Dylan Moran with the Irish. But at a troubling time for Jews, Dembina deserves praise for eschewing the political, finding only humour in the culture, customs and conventions that set Jews apart.


He occasionally teeters on the edge of acceptability – one of his jokes is about a Rabbi who had booked him to do a benefit show, and implores him not to mention the Holocaust. “Don’t worry,” Dembina says to him, “I don’t do jokes about things that didn’t exist.”

“I like to challenge accepted boundaries,” he explained to me afterwards. “I was brought up in a fearful environment. I am 63 years old, and my parents told me that I couldn’t trust anyone who wasn’t Jewish. We were told not to stand out, not to draw attention.”

British Jews today, while aware of that cultural heritage, have no such disquiet. I have never encountered any prima facie anti-Semitism, but even I hear the news coming from Copenhagen and Paris, and feel a twinge of fearfulness. Humour may well be the best defence (and also one of the most powerful expressions of free speech), and Dembina is doing his bit. His test of a joke, he says, is simple: is the Rabbi laughing?

He was the first comedian to perform a one-man show of Jewish jokes at the Edinburgh Festival,  back in 1994 – “Jews are funny,” read the poster, “and Ivor Dembina proves it.”

“I’m a comedian, not a lawyer,” he protested – and now his act does what it promises: it’s full of old Jewish jokes. Condoms for Catholics come in packets of six – one for every day of the week except Friday. Church of England condoms are in packets of eight- – one for every day and twice on Saturday. Jewish condoms are in packs of 12 – January, February, March...