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Finding space for satire in the Israel-Hamas war

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What is the role of humor at a time of war? Well, that's a question Israeli and Arab comedians and writers are grappling with now during the Hamas-Israel war. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports on the ways they're embracing satire to express their grief and anger, often with language that makes audiences pay attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ERETZ NEHEDERET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Hebrew).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israel's version of "Saturday Night Live" is "Eretz Nehederet" - "A Wonderful Country." It was 2 1/2 weeks into the war before the show producers felt ready to go back on TV with humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ERETZ NEHEDERET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Hebrew)?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Hebrew)?

(CROSSTALK)

ESTRIN: The opening sketch is an officer calling up troops - "anarchists, Netanyahu supporters, traitors, racists?"

The joke's on themselves. It takes a war for Israelis to set aside their bitter rivalries. Executive producer Muli Segev convened his writers' room the day after Hamas attackers killed around 1,200 people. Some of his staff's relatives were killed.

MULI SEGEV: It was like a support group. We knew that if we will let ourselves, you know, sink into despair and be depressed, it would be very, very hard to - you know, to come out of.

ESTRIN: The Israeli satire show is usually known for its liberal politics and irreverent mocking of the government. For their first show during this war, they were cautious.

SEGEV: We limit ourselves to uplifting materials and maybe, you know, a little anger to the enemy and to the foreign press.

ESTRIN: The show had a sketch mocking a BBC broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ERETZ NEHEDERET")

LIAT HARLEV: (As Rachel) Good evening from London. Here are some news from the war in Gaza.

ESTRIN: Many Israelis think foreign media coverage of the war has been biased against them.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ERETZ NEHEDERET")

HARLEV: (As Rachel) With more details, our Middle East correspondent, Harry white. Guilt.

YUVAL SEMO: (As Harry Whiteguilt) Good evening, Rachel, from the illegal colony of Tel Aviv.

ESTRIN: Another sketch criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for not taking responsibility for failing to prevent the Hamas attack. But Segev says the show is not ready to push the envelope too much, with Israelis still traumatized and fighting.

SEGEV: There will be a time for the debate and for the agenda. But right now we just, like, first aid for our people.

ESTRIN: In Gaza, dark humor has always helped Palestinians survive between the wars, but now there is no comic relief, with more than 11,000 people killed in Israeli bombings and fresh horrors every day - food and water running out, people spending their days trying to survive. Outside Gaza, one Arabic website is employing satire.

ISAM URAIQAT: For the past month, we produced so many things, and I don't think any of it was funny.

ESTRIN: Palestinian Isam Uraiqat runs a popular site with other Arab writers around the region. It's called Alhudood, or The Limits. It's a spinoff of The Onion. He says their satire challenges narratives.

URAIQAT: I think it's been the most difficult month of my life, starting with the most shocking thing that still prevails today - like, the dehumanization of Palestinians to levels that I haven't seen before.

ESTRIN: The site has a picture of the German chancellor with the satirical headline, "We'll Deal With The Guilt After The Palestinian Genocide Is Over."

URAIQAT: I think one of the best things about satire is it encapsulates the issue at hand and shows what's the problem with it in one package. So it kind of - it simplifies quite complex issues.

ESTRIN: Another headline takes aim at the deeply unpopular Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. The U.S. wants his government to take control of Gaza after the war. The satirical headline reads, "Abbas Refuses To Return To Gaza On The Back Of An Israeli Tank Unless Israel Offers Him A Ride."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PIERS MORGAN UNCENSORED")

PIERS MORGAN: Well, joining me now to discuss the conflict in Israel and Gaza is a TV host and satirist, Bassem Youssef.

ESTRIN: The Egyptian comic was on Piers Morgan's show recently with sardonic humor about his wife, who has family in Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PIERS MORGAN UNCENSORED")

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Like, those Palestinians - they're very dramatic. Ah, Israel killing us. But they never die. I mean, they always come back. You know, they're very difficult to kill - very difficult people to kill. I know because I'm married to one. I tried many times - couldn't kill her.

MORGAN: I mean, there's a dark humor there, and I understand why because...

YOUSSEF: It's not dark humor. I really - I try to get to her every time, but she uses our kids as human shields. I can never take her out.

ESTRIN: You can hear how startled Piers Morgan is with Youssef's brand of humor laced with rage.

There's one Israeli writer with a different approach.

HEN AVIGDORI: My name is Hen Avigdori. My job is a screenwriter. I mostly do comedy, sitcoms, satire - things that make people laugh.

ESTRIN: His extended family came under attack October 7.

AVIGDORI: Eviatar and Lilach.

ESTRIN: Eviatar - what's his last name?

AVIGDORI: Kipnis.

ESTRIN: Hen, I'm - I think we were in their home.

AVIGDORI: Wow.

ESTRIN: We happened to walk through the Kipnis family home in Kibbutz Be'eri a few weeks ago.

This is the Kipnis family.

Hamas attackers had destroyed the house. The walls were charred. There was a smell of blood. Things were strewn everywhere.

Sixty-five-year-old Eviatar Kipnis. You can see the disability card here. And you can see in the bedroom here - there's his walker and a brace for his leg.

He was one of three of Avigdori's relatives who were killed. Seven relatives are now hostages in Gaza, including Avigdori's wife and 12-year-old daughter. And yet, recently, he was asked to help produce an emergency talk show for Israeli TV to help lift up spirits.

AVIGDORI: And I thought about it for, like, 10 minutes, and I said, yeah. I can do things in the show that are benefits to the main course of my life now, which is to bring back my girls. And there are also a therapeutic value to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STRONG TOGETHER")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: The show was called "Strong Together." It aired about a month into the war. He says there were laughs and tears. I asked him if it wasn't too soon for the laughs or too callous when Palestinians are still getting killed in Israeli bombings.

AVIGDORI: Nobody should ever joke about what happened - not to the Israeli and not to the Palestinians. But you have to see the little things that could make us laugh because, otherwise, there is only crying. There is only pain.

ESTRIN: Hen Avigdori says what's helping him cope these days are the sitcoms he and his son watch together. He says laughing makes his life more bearable.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.