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  • Writer's picturePerspectives: The Yale Journal on Israel and Palestine

Mining History for Humor: Holocaust Humor in the Israeli Sketch Show "The Jews are Coming"

Jocelyn Wexler

Truly funny Holocaust humor is extremely difficult to accomplish because of the abject horror of the event, fears of delegitimizing it, and concerns about the feelings of survivors. Though World War II and its prominent actors have been ridiculed in popular culture since the 1940s, it is only since the 1990s that Holocaust humor has been acceptable in Israeli and American popular culture. In Israel, the Holocaust is slowly becoming an acceptable ‘muse’ for comedians, but in the United States, it is still too taboo for comedians to draw upon the actual events of the Holocaust, not just its memory, for jokes. The Jews are Coming provides a good example of how far Israeli humor can go.

The Jews are Coming is an Israeli satire sketch show targeting Jewish and Israeli history. It is broadcasted on the public television station, Kan 11. It premiered in 2014 and is currently in its third season. The show has achieved critical acclaim, winning the 2014 Israeli Academy Award for Best Variety Show. The Jews are Coming deals with many controversial subjects, which caused its premiere to be delayed a year following outrage sparked by a video spoofing right-wing murderers. Despite, or perhaps because of, the boundaries it pushes, it garners an impressive number of YouTube views, exceeding 1.25 million after its first season.

The Jews are Coming uses the Holocaust as a springboard for many different types of humor, using it to lampoon the Nazis, to poke fun at the idealization of certain actors, to examine the hegemonic Holocaust narrative, and as a critical frame to examine modern society. By engaging with the Holocaust in a humorous way, The Jews are Coming reclaims the narrative as belonging to Jews and places it within the context of Israeli/Jewish history as a whole. Though it may push boundaries, The Jews are Coming can still remain funny and escape the criticisms similar US humor receives because of the nature of Israeli Holocaust memory—it is able to position its sketches as a re-telling of Jewish history, by Jews and for Jews.

Holocaust Memory in Israel and the US

Israeli Holocaust collective memory has evolved over the years but is a central part of the national identity. The prevailing narrative in the early Zionist state was that the Holocaust was the opposite of Zionism—the Holocaust represented passive Jews while the Zionists represented strong, powerful ones. Thus, until the Eichmann trial in 1961 when the stories of the typical Jewish victim were broadcasted, the Zionist Holocaust memory focused on the heroes, like those who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

After the Eichmann trial and the Yom Kippur War, when Israelis first personally felt threats of annihilation, Holocaust survivors were viewed empathetically. The fate of European Jewry was equated with the fate of Israel, epitomized by the idea of “never again”. The memory of the Holocaust was used as justification for why the State of Israel should and needs to exist, and thus employed for nationalistic causes.

Starting in the 1980s, there was a shift to privatizing the memory of the Holocaust. Israelis began viewing themselves as personally being victims and applying the victim narrative to other, contemporary issues. Discourse surrounding the Holocaust was focused on how it was memorialized, not the actual events themselves. Though privatized, the memory of the Holocaust is still central to the Israeli-Jewish identity, even if this memory is not in line with the nationalist one.

The memory of the Holocaust is very different in the US and in Israel. In Israel, Jewish students without biological ties to survivors know as much about the Holocaust as those that have them. The Holocaust is a central part of Israeli culture; its memory shapes Israeli politics and shows up in everyday life—Haaretz publishes an article on it on a near-daily basis. However, in the United States, Holocaust memory serves as a boundary marker for Jews, and cements them as a vulnerable minority—remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish for 73% of American Jews.

Though Holocaust memory was universalized in the United States through the creation of the Holocaust Museum and emphasis on comparing the Jewish experience to current genocides, the memory is used by Americans to assert their Jewishness in a Christian state. In Israel, where Jewishness need not be asserted and one of the states’ objectives is to protect its citizens from anti-Semitism, the memory of the Holocaust is kept by the individual, but the individual protection of this memory is not imperative for the safety and identity of the Israeli Jew like it is for the American one.

In the United States, especially because of the rise in anti-Semitic acts and neo-Nazism, the fear and anxiety American Jews have at the prospect of another Holocaust has more direct parallels than in Israel. Because Jews are a small minority of the American population, around 2%, the fear of genocide is not a shared American fear, like it is an Israeli one. Therefore, the fear is not a shared memory among all Americans and directed outward, but instead directed towards fellow Americans by Jews.

The memory of the Holocaust is protected by American Jews, and central to the American Jewish identity of standing up for minorities, by imprinting their own persecution (or imagined persecution) onto others. Thus, in the American perception, the memory of the Holocaust is a protection against racism, genocide, and intolerance in the United States. The American memory of the Holocaust represents minority interests, not majority identity.

Comedian Larry David delivering his monologue on Saturday Night Live in November 2017.

Holocaust Humor Literature

Much of the Holocaust humor literature is based upon how comedians navigate, use, and undermine the collective memory. Holocaust humor research began in the 1990s after the publishing of the graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and the controversial Holocaust “comedy” Life is Beautiful. The literature (available in English) on Israeli Holocaust humor primarily deals with The Chamber Quintet, a sketch show from the 1990s; Eretz Nehederet, a current sketch show; and sitcoms that invoke Holocaust references for humorous effect. Humor is used in Israel to work through trauma in a way that is subversive to the dominant political narrative, to find new means of remembering, or lashing out in response to the weight of anxiety-inducing memory.

Because the state of Holocaust memory in the United States is distinctly different, in that it is protected by a minority, so too is the Holocaust humor. The research on American Holocaust humor focuses on how popular representations of the Holocaust actually create and shape the memory for some of the American population as the memory is not universal, sometimes spreading misinformation or engendering prejudice.

The farthest flung Holocaust humor on mainstream American TV has come from the animated programs Family Guy and South Park, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “Survivor” episode, and Seinfeld’s famous Schindler’s List episode. In Family Guy and South Park, as in many of the more fringe American Holocaust humor pieces, the Holocaust is invoked as a form of black humor. It is funny solely because of its taboo. Because the shows are advertised as offensive, they can use the incongruence of horror and ridiculousness for a humorous effect.

Research on these two shows demonstrates that humor serves the function of sharing the Holocaust story/memory with segments of the non-Jewish population. This means the use of Holocaust humor in the United States, making fun of the actual atrocities, not the memory of it, needs to be under the umbrella of purposely offensive humor to keep it from becoming ‘acceptable’ for non-Jews to joke about.

In Curb and Seinfeld, two distinctly Jewish shows, the humor comes from the incongruence between the horror and the Jewish protagonists’ ignorance or insensitivity to the memory. Moreover, when the intent of the show is not just to offend, there is a limit to the depth of description the humor can use. Take Larry David, the creator of both Curb and Seinfeld, who was widely condemned after doing an extended rant about concentration camps on Saturday Night Live. The premise, that he is so sleazy he would still be picking up women in a concentration camp, is very similar to the Seinfeld Schindler’s List episode, where Jerry is so horny that he makes out with his girlfriend while watching Schindler’s List.

The memory can be mocked so long as the content of the memory is not discussed, because when the show is not labeled as purposely offensive, where invoking the Holocaust is the joke, it may be seen as denigrating the Holocaust. Most criticisms of David’s Saturday Night Live monologue did not focus on his use of the Holocaust—many said they found the “Survivor” episode funny—what bothered them was the graphic detail of the horror used as background information for a joke. When the humor comes from simply the invocation of a taboo subject, the sacredness of that subject is still upheld; when elements of the taboo subject itself are used as a vehicle for humor, the sacredness is gone.

Because protecting the sacredness of the Holocaust in the United States is viewed as a minority rights issue, approaching it with humor is dangerous. In any joke-telling situation, there are two players, the audience and the comedian. Identifying the intent of both of these actors is integral to determining the offensiveness of the joke. The intent is ambiguous when a non-Jewish comedian makes a Holocaust joke. It is generally okay if the comedian tells an offensive joke about a minority group if she belongs to it, but there is a fear of de-legitimizing the Holocaust and saying it is okay for non-Jews to do it too.

The reason the American audience is laughing is unclear; they could be interpreting the joke or sketch as saying it is okay to make fun of Jews or the events from a non-Jewish perspective. In the United States, the only appropriate combination is a Jewish comedian telling a Holocaust joke to a Jewish audience, which means not putting the humor on a national platform.

In Israel, because the humor is in Hebrew, the jokes are exclusive to the Israeli and Jewish community and so the comedian and the audience are both part of the in-group. The concern is about offending the survivors and making light of horror, not promoting anti-Semitism. Because most Israelis have this memory embedded deep within them, and many feel it personally, the memory can be utilized.

The Jews Are Coming and Holocaust Humor

The Jews are Coming takes advantage of this collective memory for humorous effect. The show deals with the Holocaust in several sketches that punch in different directions. The sketches tend to have four different targets: the sketches make fun of the perpetrators; they make fun of the Holocaust icons or heroes, deflating the myth that surrounds them; they make fun of how the Holocaust is remembered, or they use the Holocaust and its memory as a lens for modern social criticism. Though many sketches punch in multiple different directions, falling into more than one category, I use five sketches as case studies and comment on how each exemplifies one of these groups.

Laughing at the Perpetrators

The sketch “Marcel Marceau Runs Away from the Nazis” is an extreme juxtaposition of horror and absurdity. In this sketch, Marceau, the famous mime and French-Jewish resistance fighter is caught by the Nazis. When the Nazis ask Marceau where the Jews went, he responds with a drawn-out charade, bringing the Nazis into the game, until eventually the mime “locks” the Nazis in an imaginary cell and they lament their capture. The fact that the Nazis fall for the charade and are suckered into the game mocks their intelligence and elevates Marceau’s talent.

The sketch re-imagines a scene from the Holocaust but plays with the seriousness of it. Though the video colors are dark, the sketch ends with Marceau jogging in place, “running” away from the “trapped” Nazis, as comical music plays and a cartoonish iris out effect centers on Marceau’s face. The sketch directly lightens the event, instead of trying to relieve the burden of memory. However, it does this not by focusing on the Jewish response, but by mocking the Nazis.

“Marcel Marceau Runs from the Nazis.” The Jews are Coming 4 Jan. 2018: Season 3. Episode 12.

Skewering the “Heroes”

The show makes fun of two of the most well-known “heroes” of the Holocaust: Anne Frank and Hannah Szenes. One sketch that does this is “Anne Frank’s Neighbor.” The sketch opens with actual Nazi footage and then goes to Anne Frank’s neighbor, who looks almost exactly like Anne Frank, writing in her diary and complaining that she cannot sleep. She then goes on to write that she will have the Gestapo investigate the sounds coming from upstairs so that she can get some rest, and the sketch ends with her resting her head on her hand, idealistic that “maybe tomorrow” she will get some sleep.

Portrait of German Jewish diarist Anne Frank (1929 - 1945) at the Jewish Lyceum Anne Frank Fonds

By focusing on Anne Frank’s neighbor, the sketch plays with the narrative of Anne Frank as the inspiring and hopeful victim in Amsterdam and transfers the hopefulness onto her neighbor. The very title of the sketch that appears on screen, translated literally, “The Diary of the Neighbor of Anne Frank,” is funny because it takes a new look at Anne Frank’s life that is not typically seen, and places an anti-Semite in the idealistic child role.

“Anne Frank’s Neighbor.” The Jews are Coming 27 Dec. 2014: Season 1. Episode 8.

While the Anne Frank sketch deals with the victimization narrative, the sketch about Hannah Szenes skewers the mythic heroism of the Zionist icon. The Hannah Szenes sketch re-imagines the conversation between Szenes and her commander to show the ridiculousness of the mission. The commander explains that she will fly to Hungary, parachute in, and fight the Nazi army, but gives no further elaboration. The sketch directly hits at the quixotic nature of the actual plan, and to a lesser extent, Szenes, even though it shows her as being incredulous about its feasibility.

The sketch gives viewers an alternative reading of history from the Zionist one that proclaims Szenes a hero who sacrificed herself for a noble mission. In this depiction, she did not want to sacrifice herself, but the commanders came up with such a terrible plan that she got captured. Instead of just mocking how people view Hannah Szenes, the sketch re-enacts the event. It mocks the futility of the plan as a vehicle to criticize how people idolize Hannah Szenes today (Baumel-Schwartz 2010, 182–215). The sketch challenges the hegemonic narrative of Holocaust heroism, but it does so by directly mocking the history, not just the imagined narrative.

“Hannah Szenes at the Last Briefing Before Jumping.” The Jews are Coming 23 Jan. 2015: Season 1. Episode 12. The subtitle says “Good Luck”.

Making Fun of the Memory

The “Meeting with African States” sketch plays with the memory of “Never Again.” Though “Never Again” could have a universalist message of never allowing another genocide, the sketch mocks the interpretation that “Never Again” means never again just for the Jews. Two Israelis guide an African diplomat through Yad Vashem. They stop at every picture, detailing how the Jews were killed with impressive speed and emphasizing that no one said anything. The sketch ends with the audience discovering that this is actually a sales pitch; the Israelis are selling arms to Rwanda so the government can enact its own genocide.

This sketch shows that some Israelis, particularly the right-wing, have learned the wrong message from the Holocaust. They have not learned that everyone should speak up for the persecuted, especially Jews who faced their own Holocaust, but rather, because no one said a word, they can profit off of another Holocaust, just one that does not target Jews. The sketch particularly lampoons the fact that Israel sold arms to Rwanda. It does not create a new memory of the Holocaust, but encourages its audience to take to heart the already established message and points out the hypocrisy of people who promote the “Never Again” message while enabling other genocides.

“Meeting with African States.” The Jews are Coming 18 Oct. 2017: Season 3. Episode 2.

The Holocaust as a Lens for Contemporary Criticism

In the sketch, “Do not say Nazi,” The Jews are Coming places the contemporary debate of whether it is okay to use the word Nazi to describe a political opponent or enemy in 1940’s Berlin. Two men are in a cafe, when one, Hans, correctly identifies the man behind them as Adolf Hitler, a Nazi. His companion quickly rebukes him, saying “You can’t just call someone who is against your political view a Nazi.” A waitress then intervenes, saying that you cannot say Nazi because “My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor...for now.”

Even after Hitler murders someone right behind them, the waitress and companion continue to attack Hans, calling him a Nazi for unfairly labeling people. The absurdity that arises from two people calling someone a Nazi for calling someone else a Nazi has been transferred from a contemporary setting, but this absurdity and the resulting humor is elevated when we understand that Hitler really is a Nazi. The sketch reveals the ridiculousness of the false moral posturing both political sides in Israel use, claiming to protect Holocaust memory by calling people who label other people as Nazis, Nazis, through hyperbole.

The addendum to the waitress’s line “for now,” is particularly striking as it grounds the sketch in Jewish history more than the presence of Hitler does. The sketch explicitly mentions the extermination of the Jews is occurring as the conversation is happening, which adds a morbid tone to the contemporary debate. The use of 'Nazi' as a political weapon undermines its power when it is needed as an appropriate descriptor.

“Do Not Say Nazi.” The Jews are Coming 1 Nov. 2017: Season 3. Episode 4.

Holocaust Memory and The Jews are Coming

The Jews are Coming, by positioning itself as an Israeli show focusing on Jewish history, is able to use the Holocaust for humor by making fun of the perpetrators, lampooning the Jewish heroes, mocking how the Holocaust is remembered, and re-enacting the history as a background to critique contemporary culture. American humorists are unable to do this because they cannot create a bubble for consumers of Jewish history like The Jews are Coming can through the use of the Hebrew language. The Jews are Coming directly satirizes the Holocaust events and actors, not just their memory, by owning and claiming the story as part of a larger timeline of Jewish history.

These sketches place the humor within the context of history. The Holocaust is given the same weight as the founding of the state, the Jews crossing the Red Sea or the Hasmonean period. The Holocaust is not the defining experience in Jewish history, but rather part of the whole. Because both the Holocaust and the making of its memory are important parts of Israeli Jewish history and the audience identifies with it personally, the writers of The Jews are Coming can delve into this history for material. In this way, The Jews are Coming does not just target the hegemonic, collective memory in Israel, but also profits from it in a way Holocaust humor cannot in the United States.

The Jews are Coming uses the memory of its audience, a memory the majority of the American audience does not have, to make jokes. While it does make fun of how the Holocaust is remembered, it also makes fun of the events themselves. This is only possible because of the strong narrative surrounding the Holocaust that all Israelis are taught. While other comedies in Israel create humor by invoking the Holocaust in contemporary scenes, The Jews are Coming creates humor by invoking contemporary issues in Holocaust scenes.

The Jews are Coming uses the Holocaust as a backdrop for humor, instead of elevating it as a sacred event. Unlike American humor and even some Israeli humor, the joke does not come from breaking the taboo, the taboo subject is just used as material. In the United States, where protecting the Holocaust memory is important to prevent anti-Semitism because not everyone shares it, these types of sketches are more offensive and perhaps viewed as dangerous.

In the United States, the graphic depictions of the Holocaust put into a humorous context would be seen by many Jews as denigrating the memory of the Holocaust for non-Jews. The juxtaposition of graphic horror and lighthearted humor would seem to give permission to non-Jews to use it as material for humor. Instead, in Israel, the history is used as material for comedy because it is their history, and they claim it as their own through the Hebrew language and thus have the right to make fun of it. The act of having Hitler and the Nazis speak Hebrew is itself a subversive act that turns the story into a Jewish one.

Using the historical material for humor is a way of dealing with the Holocaust and declaring ownership of it. To not re-imagine the Holocaust through sketches would be removing it from the timeline of Jewish history that is presented in The Jews are Coming. Comedy is found in the graphic descriptions and re-enacting of the events, just as it would be for any other historical event. In the United States, where a Jewish bubble is not possible, these depictions would be a way of de-legitimizing the history, instead of owning it.

Jocelyn Wexler is a junior in Silliman College majoring in political science with a focus on Jewish politics.

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