My hometown paper had a tribute to Mort Sahl last month. Sahl was a pioneer of the political satire practiced by Robin Williams, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.
Here he is in Atlantic City, on November 16, 1991. He has that same fundamental optimism about America displayed by Williams, Stewart and Colbert.
Was he optimistic about the Israel/Palestinian peace process?
“The great jokes in America,” says Sahl, “come from around the water cooler in the Executive office.” [Starting at 38:50 of the above video] “They’re observations of professional men with a sense of urban irony…..” To illustrate, he delivers a great joke about inefficiency and waiting lines in Russia.
Then he moves on to riff on the Israeli/Palestinian peace process, in a way that is as fresh today as it was 24 years ago. It’s a sad testament to just how little progress has been made.
You know, we’re gonna have peace talks in the Middle East, thanks to the good offices of George Bush. We had a hang up, you know, for a couple of days in which they couldn’t figure out who would represent the Palestinians ’til they settled on Secretary Baker.
…. just kidding…. just kidding…. don’t take me away!
This is an Israeli joke. Israeli folklore. And who knows the origins?
Baker keeps going back and forth in the shuttle diplomacy. And Yitzhak Shamir is trying to brainwash him to become an advocate of Israel. And so he takes him to the wailing wall. This local site. And these elder Hebrews are praying at the wall (he davens) and writing–the custom is to write the name of your deceased relatives and stick it in the crevice of the wall. And have good things for them.
So, Baker says “what are they doing?” Because he’s a Baptist. And Shamir says “Oh, they’re praying for their elders and everything.” And Baker says, “Well, that’s terrific! We don’t have anything like this in Texas. What a great wall.” You know. “And I wish I were Jewish sometimes.”
So Shamir says, “Well, you came 10,000 miles. We believe that when you’re standing in front of this wall you’re talking to God. So if you want to talk to God, why don’t you ask for something.” And Baker says, “Well, President Bush and I don’t want anything specific for ourselves; we just want world peace.”
Shamir says, “Well when you’re standing in front of this wall you’re talking to God. (Beckoning towards wall) Ask for it.” So Baker asks for world peace.
And Shamir says, “Before we go to lunch, do you want to ask for anything else? You’re here anyway, you know….you’re in front of this wall talking to God.” And Baker says “Yeah, I’d like to ask for friendship between all nations in the new world order.” And Shamir says, “You’re talking to God” (beckoning….) So he does.
And Shamir says “Are you ready for lunch?” And Baker says “Just a minute! I want to add a postscript to God…… It seems to me that in my eleven years of experience with Reagan and Bush at the White House, the actual roadblock to peace is the intransigence of the Israeli government, and I believe that peace would be aided and abetted if the Israelis would set a humanistic example by voluntarily giving back all the occupied lands to the Palestinians.”
And Shamir says, “Now you’re talking to the wall.”
And thus it ever was.
This appearance in Atlantic City was at the time of the Madrid Conference, two years before the Oslo agreements. The First Gulf War (August 2, 1990-February 28, 1991) had come and gone. It was the start of Kurdish independence in Northern Iraq, and Shiite uprisings in the South of Iraq.
Spain hosted a peace conference intended to revive the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Madrid on October 30-November 1, 1991. In addition to the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the United States, the conference was attended by Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, as well as the Soviet Union. I’m guessing this was the last international conference attended by the Soviet Union. Eleven Soviet republics (including Ukraine, the Russian Federation, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) met in Kazakh city and announced the dissolution of the empire, effective on Christmas Day 1991.
Bill Clinton succeeded George H.W. Bush in the White House on January 20, 1993, and eight months later, on September 13, 1993, Rabin and Arafat signed the Oslo Peace accord on the White House lawn. A short two years after that, on November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated in Tel Aviv. The second Intifada came and went; three Gaza wars have come and gone; there was another Israeli war in Lebanon (2006); the occupation has deepened and has become more entrenched.
And here we are, 24-year-old jokes sounding fresh as today’s smelly fish wrap. And that’s no joke.
This post first appeared on Roland Nikles’s blog, under the title, Mort Sahl on the Madrid Conference (1991).