CAMBRIDGE – Comedy is perhaps one of the unlikeliest lenses through which to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But last November, as Israelis and Palestinians traded rocket fire along the Israel-Gaza border thousands of miles away, a young Jewish Israeli comedienne named Noam Shuster-Eliassi stepped up to the microphone at Harvard University to give a routine entitled “A Palestinian, a Persian and an Israeli Walk into a Bar.”
Appearing before an audience that included Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, Shuster-Eliassi addressed complex issues of identity, including her Ashkenazi and Mizrahi background as the daughter of a Romanian Jewish father and an Iranian Jewish mother. A visiting fellow in Harvard’s Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative for the academic year, she’s working on a one-woman show that she plans to premiere this year.
“I call the show ‘Coexistence My Ass,’” Shuster-Eliassi said. “It’s half joking, and also not joking.”
The provocative title reflects the headlines Shuster-Eliassi has been making in the Middle East – including last February, when she caused a sensation by jokingly proposing to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Arabic on TV, which was taken seriously by some in the Arab media.
“I did not expect it to explode in such a way,” Shuster-Eliassi said. “It was nice to get acknowledgement and attention.” But, she added, she does not want this to be what she will ultimately be remembered for, that “I was the comedian who proposed to MBS.”
She speaks more warmly about becoming the first Jew to perform at a Palestinian comedy festival in East Jerusalem. “I received more love and more laughter and more understanding, also, of my jokes than I had ever received before,” she said. “The Palestinian audience is probably the most intelligent audience I ever performed in front of. I feel like I know how unique it is.”
The dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have caused some challenges. In her comedy act at Harvard last November, Shuster-Eliassi noted that she was disinvited to perform again at the Palestinian comedy festival. This was in the wake of tensions that included a revocation of permission for U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to visit Israel.
Shuster-Eliassi voiced frustration with the peace plan released by the Trump Administration in January. Calling the plan “a Band-Aid,” she said, “There are no shortcuts to a long-term, very deep, profound process for two peoples. They need to get together in order to have a sustained solution.”
Shuster-Eliassi grew up in a mixed village of Israeli Jews and Arabs, called Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. “It’s the only community in Israel where Jews and Palestinians lived together by choice,” she said. Her family moved there in 1994, when she was seven. “It was the peak of the Oslo agreements, right before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated,” she said. In this environment, she said, “I was exposed to the other side. It made me the woman I am today.”
Shuster-Eliassi learned Arabic and sat next to Palestinians in the classroom, realizing that the Israeli Independence Day might represent something else to classmates whose families had become refugees.
Later, Shuster-Eliassi won a scholarship to Brandeis University, her first experience in the U.S. “Brandeis is a wonderful community,” she said. “It was tough at the time, challenging, a liberal arts college in the U.S. … It was very hard to criticize Israel on this campus. I was involved in educating people about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This included helping to create the university’s first Palestinian student club.
After graduating from Brandeis in 2011 with specializations in international relations, global relations and African-American and African studies, Shuster-Eliassi worked for the UN in war-torn Rwanda. “I was amazed by the progress that Rwanda was able to make a few years after the genocide,” reflecting on her year in the region. She worked with both female survivors and with widows of some of the perpetrators. “It was a completely different take on what a post-conflict genocide looks like,” she said, adding that she saw parallels between her Rwandan experience and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Collective trauma has many layers to it.”
While Shuster-Eliassi said she “learned a lot,” she was also growing frustrated in her position at the UN, from which she said she was eventually fired. She began to experiment with a new way of activism at a conference.
“It was the first time I stood onstage to tell jokes instead of a serious speech,” said Shuster-Eliassi. “Previously, people were not listening,” but with her impromptu comedy act, “not only were they listening, they were laughing. It was a big moment.”
And it connected with her background. “I always loved the stage,” Shuster-Eliassi said. “I loved acting. In high school and after, I was a very theatrical person. I never had stage fright. I like making people laugh. I was always the funny person.” But, she said, “I had never grabbed a mic and did what I did. I think I was a little bit in survival mode.”
Her new profession has both rewards and challenges.
“Comedy is a hard thing,” Shuster-Eliassi said. “It’s full of fears. When you succeed, when you hear strangers laughing from the weird stuff you say onstage, it’s a lot of fun.” However, “sometimes onstage there’s silence. No one’s laughing. You want to disappear. You want the earth to take you.”
Overall, she describes herself as “extremely lucky. People have been extremely, extremely supportive and curious about the things I’m sharing.”
In January, she opened for Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani at the Kennedy Center before 3,000 people, her biggest crowd thus far. And last December, she got to meet the Dalai Lama, an experience she described as “a big privilege.” She was part of an international delegation of activists and artists visiting Dharamsala, India, the capital of the Tibetan community in exile. The delegation included a man from Gaza, and Shuster-Eliassi said that the Dalai Lama “talked about Jewish narratives, Palestinian narratives,” as well as “the struggle he has been leading with his own people. It sounds like he cares about Israelis and Palestinians.”
Back in Cambridge, Shuster-Eliassi will keep working on her one-woman show.
“People listen much more when laughing,” Shuster-Eliassi said. “Through humor, I’m able to do much more things than beforehand … The difference is beforehand, I tried to make sense of things by being analytical. With comedy, I’m not. I’m using the messiness to confuse people. There’s a lot of contradicting, you know.”