Joe Bor: '˜Anti-semitism and the power of comedy to combat it'

My name is Joe Bor '“ ten years ago I won Jewish Comedian of The Year '“ my mum was judging but then again, she always does.
Joe BorJoe Bor
Joe Bor

‘Jewishness’ hasn’t always had too much impact on my comedy. However, over the past few weeks that has changed, partly because I’ve chosen to call my current show A Room with a Jew and probably because anti-Semitism has been in the news an awful lot.

I was recently invited to be a guest on a TV show to talk about anti-Semitism, and more specifically the current debate regarding the Labour Party. I was also encouraged to promote my comedy show, but the problem is, anti-Semitism is not a naturally funny subject. Most of my contemporaries get invited on Mock The Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats and riff on the subject of humorous statistics. I get the subject of potential religious persecution within major political parties.

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I was asked if I thought Corbyn hated my people – and I felt as uncomfortable as, well, a Jew in the Labour Party. Personally, I do think there has been a rise in anti-Semitism, not just in the Labour Party, but in society as a whole. There are many reasons for this. Fascism has grown globally. Far-right political parties have used immigration as a scapegoat for a slump in the economy in a worryingly similar way to what we saw in Germany in the 1930s. The far right have even been elected in countries across in the world, including Austria and America, which have legitimised such extremism. Plus, the thorny subject of Israel doesn’t help. But none of this is very funny and the rise in anti-Semitism is obviously a very serious subject. How then to tackle it with humour?

When I first started stand-up, I found it hard talking about being Jewish on stage and some of my jokes fell flat. It’s not that audiences were anti-Semitic; I think they were more naive and confused. There is a rich history of Jewish comedians; Jerry Seinfeld, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce, Groucho Marx, there’s a lot of us. Jews have a strong tradition of comedy – I think often because it is a reaction to the tragedy they have experienced.

There are also a wealth of Jewish comedians on the comedy circuit that are not as represented on TV, especially in the UK. In fact, when I asked a TV producer why there aren’t more Jews on TV they replied that in the UK “Jewish just isn’t a ‘thing’.’Judaism can be a difficult subject to make jokes about but humour can also be the greatest weapon we have. I was asked to talk about Count Dankula (real name Mark Meechan) who was accused of being anti-Semitic because he trained his dog to do a Nazi salute when the dog heard the prompt “gas the Jews”. Meechan was subsequently taken to court for filming this and posting it online. I’ve seen a lot of debate about whether this act should or should not have been classed as a hate crime. Personally I’m not sure, but one of my favourite comments came from David Baddiel, who commented: “If there is a comedy genius in Meechan’s video, surely it is the pug – even though he was only obeying orders.”

Whether or not it should have been classed as a crime it was a nasty thing to do. The last thing the world needs right now is more nastiness, which is why it’s so important to be able to use humour to fight it. Jews have a rich tradition in comedy – instead of making them a people to ridicule, let’s make them a people to champion.

Joe Bor is performing his show A Room with a Jew at: The Stand, Edinburgh, on 13 May and The Stand, Glasgow, on 14 May