Ivor Dembina, a veteran Jewish comic who runs the Hampstead Comedy Club, said anyone taking part in benefit gigs for JNF UK – which is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories – would be barred from performing at his venue.
This has led to a row with leading Jewish comedians including Mark Maier and Steve Jameson – both of whom have a history of performing at the North London club. They criticised Dembina’s handling of the situation – and accused him of “inconsistency” for accepting money from pro-Israeli audience members while banning pro-Israeli acts.
Dembina has staged the “Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show” for the past 20 years, but this is the first time such a row has broken out. News emerged about the dispute after the comedian Bennett Arron set up a rival Christmas night, saying it would welcome JNF supporters.
The JNF UK holds a Kosher Komedy and Kabaret benefit every November, with a string of Jewish comedians performing.
After the news broke, Dembina released a statement that said: “I have always had a policy of not booking acts who publicly endorse racist organisations”.
The JNF “is not being singled out” he continued, “I would not book anyone who publicly supported an organisation that I regarded as racist. That would include the EDL with its anti-Muslim rhetoric and the BNP who express anti-Semitic views.”
Maier has performed at Hampstead’s traditional Christmas Eve show for the past two years but is not appearing later this month.
The stand-up disputed the club owner’s depiction of the JNF as racist, adding: “We’re all entitled to our own beliefs and opinions but I was taken aback at how it was done. The way he told me was like The Sopranos, I came away a bit shell-shocked from someone I considered a friend.”
He continued: “There’s also an inconsistency there. The majority of his audience would be supportive of Israel.”
Jameson agreed, telling comedy website Chortle: “I know his politics and respect them, but he should respect mine. He should put a sign up at his club saying: ‘JNF members not welcome’; but he won’t because that would affect his bottom line.”
Dembina said he was not telling people “they couldn’t perform for the JNF, they just won’t perform at my club if they do”. His statement said: “My audience has always contained people of all religious persuasions and none, as well as those with a variety of political opinions.”
Samuel Hayek, chairman of the JNF Charitable Trust, said: “To put us in the same category as the BNP and EDL by calling us racist is extremely ill informed; we exist to enrich and transform the lives of people living in the Negev region of Israel, regardless of their ethnicity or faith.”