(JTA) — It’s almost Purim, which means I am busy writing jokes that poke fun at the stuff we do and obsess about as Jews without offending too many people. Not always easy, and that’s when I am writing for an audience that I know extremely well.
Now imagine writing Jewish jokes outside the bubble. “Saturday Night Live” found out the hard way after a joke about Israel went viral for the wrong reasons. Here’s the joke Michael Che told on the Feb. 20 show: “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half.”
David Harris of the American Jewish Committee said the joke “accuses Israel of vaccinating only Jews” and “spreading an antisemitic lie.” The Reform movement’s Rabbi Rick Jacobs said that the joke “was in poor taste” and that “Israel is a world leader in Covid vaccinations, protecting Jewish and Arab citizens alike.” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, demanded an apology, tweeting that “perpetuating antisemitism is just not funny.”
These critics don’t really explain what makes the joke anti-Semitic: It’s not anti-Semitic to be wrong about Israel, although the constant negative attention starts to feel suspicious. I heard the joke as a comic riff on the idea that any ethnic state would of course take care of its own before others. (I’m reminded of the old joke about the American Jew who goes to a brothel in Tel Aviv and asks for a family discount.) But clannishness can be seen as an anti-Semitic trope: When the Anti-Defamation League surveys anti-Semitic attitudes, it includes “Jews stick together more than other Americans” as an anti-Jewish stereotype. I don’t know if Che or whoever wrote the joke was aware of this trope, but that doesn’t absolve them.
The other possibility, seized upon by the critics, is that the joke is about an actual controversy: accusations that Israel hasn’t done enough to get vaccines to Palestinian non-citizens living in the West Bank or Gaza. In which case the joke may be harsh and inaccurate criticism of Israel, but is it anti-Semitic? A lot of Israelis and left-wing American Jewish groups have criticized Israel for not getting more vaccines to the Palestinian Authority.
(Israel says that it immunizes its own citizens, Jewish and Arab; that it is under no obligation to assist the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, and that the P.A. didn’t want the help anyway. Even if true, critics say, it still makes sense from a humanitarian and public relations perspective.)
Che’s defender’s say the joke is fair criticism of a country that recently passed a nation-state law that privileges its Jewish population over other groups; a Haaretz columnist writes the joke was “a humorous exaggeration of Israel’s open and systemic discrimination against non-Jews.” Ilana Glazer, the co-star and co-creator of “Broad City,” praised Che, retweeting activists who said the joke told the truth about the “separate and unequal treatment” of Palestinians under occupation.
My hunch is that “SNL” wasn’t aware of any of this discourse, and Jews are attaching their own agendas to a throwaway joke. To me it sounds like a one-liner written by a roomful of writers who live and work in a city with the world’s largest population of Jews outside Israel. It is a joke Jews and even Israelis might tell each other, but which becomes uncomfortable and even anti-Jewish when released into the wild.
But that is just me. For a gut check, I reached out to comedians and entertainers who specialize in Jewish material or often work Jewish events. I asked if the critics are overreacting, and whether these comedians tell jokes in front of Jewish audiences that they wouldn’t share with a wider public.
“I don’t think the writers were thinking about it nearly as much as we think they were,” said Benji Lovitt, a U.S.-born, Israel-based comedian. “The most obvious interpretation is by far the most likely to me and the only reasonable one: that [Che] thinks Israel oppresses Palestinians and that if you’re not Jewish, you’re ‘less than.’ Do I think this joke was a fair and logical expression of that? No, because the premise is flawed. There’s a lot to criticize with Israel but its distribution of vaccinations isn’t one of those things.
“And on top of that, even if the joke was a smart, biting critique on Israeli policy regarding settlement growth, let’s say… what’s it doing on ‘SNL’?”
Joel Chasnoff, a comedian, author and creator/host of the forthcoming podcast “Interesting Jews,” says the joke may or may not be anti-Semitic — but it’s certainly anti-comedic.
“Ultimately, I think it is anti-Semitic… but I’m on the fence,” said Chasnoff, who recently moved to Israel from New Rochelle. “What bugs me most about the joke is that it’s not creative. It’s just so freakin’ easy to put Israel down, make Israel seem like colonialist oppressors, and feed into that whole narrative. So not only is it not true, it’s not artistically inventive. ‘Israel isn’t nice to Palestinians’ — there’s absolutely nothing brave or exploratory in that.”
Talia Reese, a comedian from Great Neck once dubbed “the raunchiest Orthodox mom doing stand-up,” agrees with Chasnoff that the “SNL” joke felt lazy.
“Do I think Michael Che is anti-Semitic? No. I think what he did was irresponsible and to be honest, I didn’t even get the joke at first,” Reese said. “When I heard it, I scratched my head like, ‘The vaccine is available to every Israeli citizen, don’t they know that?’ Then on a second listen, I thought, ‘Ohh they’re trying to make it like the Jews in Israel are hoarding the vaccine for themselves.’ That’s crazy!”
As far as apologizing, “I’m against comedians apologizing for jokes. It’s awkward and absurd,” she said. “The backlash speaks for itself, and bravo to watchdog groups. That’s a job I wouldn’t want. That said, I don’t care if ‘SNL’ apologizes. I do think they should joke responsibly in the future.”
I also reached out to Rami Even-Esh, who leans hard into his Jewish identity as the rapper Kosha Dillz. He thought Che’s joke failed because it lacked context, leaving room for the audience to draw the worst conclusions about its target. “People can do anti-Semitic things and not inherently be anti-Semitic just as people can uphold white-supremacy/racism and not be white supremacists/racist. We need to educate people like Michael. That is our job. We should never cancel.”
Of the people I contacted, Dani Zoldan, who owns the Stand Up NY comedy club, was one of the few willing to defend the “SNL” joke.
“I believe that funny is funny no matter how uncomfortable or offensive. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves,” said Zoldan. “You can replace the players in a joke to address underserved communities anywhere. It’s not anti-Semitic because it uses Israelis and Palestinians for this version.”
But Chasnoff says the “SNL” joke failed, in part because it violated a cardinal rule of comedy: It wasn’t true.
“I can honestly say that when I perform, I don’t have any jokes in my act that I’d only tell in a safe space of Jews, but not in public. Because my attitude toward comedy is that if it’s true, you should say it. That’s the point of smart comedy — to challenge the common wisdom by presenting truth, even if it’s uncomfortable to hear. If it makes you squirm but it’s true, then good! But this ‘SNL’ joke isn’t opening our eyes to some unspoken truth we’re afraid to discuss. It’s just lazy — going to the ol’ reliable stereotype, and an untrue one, in an effort to get the laugh.”