“Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m gonna guess it’s the Jewish half,” Michael Che recently joked on Saturday Night Live. Che’s 18 words triggered thousands more, most expressing outrage, demanding apologies for his anti-Semitism. As someone with zero-tolerance for Jew-hatred, who in these pages refuted the modern blood libel that Israel’s impressive vaccination campaign neglects Palestinians, I have a confession. Che shouldn’t apologize for doing his job: he is a comedian and he made me laugh.
Sigmund Freud taught that while some comedy is innocent – think the wordplay of Dad jokes – most comedy is edgy. “Humor is not resigned, it is rebellious,” Freud quipped. Good jokes are guided missiles demolishing expectations, threatening sensibilities, bypassing our defenses. The best jokes punch quickly, speaking shorthand, deploying stereotypes.
People watch SNL to be surprised, even shocked. The fact that many once-respectable newspapers endlessly quote SNL skits in their headlines reflects American political culture’s dumbing down. Reporters confuse the opening shticks of comedians seeking to entertain with insightful social commentary supposed to enlighten. Lazy journalists’ over-investment in these routines shouldn’t make comedians overly skittish in delivering them.
SNL has weaponized news for entertainment since it began in 1975. Chevy Chase’s caricature of Gerald Ford made America’s president look like a klutz.
Given its New York location, and the astonishing number of American comedians who are Jewish, SNL has an equally long history of joking about Jews. In November, 1975, after the UN called Zionism “racism,” Chase intoned: “The black entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., who recently converted to Judaism, said: ‘What a breakthrough, I can finally hate myself.’”
Since then, many Jews laughed with Gilda Ratner when she wondered who needed a movement to free Soviet “Jewelry” – and many winced when Tom Hanks played a pushy Israeli salesman “Uri,” with mounds of chest hair, selling customers overpriced electronics they didn’t need on “the Sabra Price is Right.”
Both bits, like Che’s one-liner, didn’t deal with Judaism as much as the Jewish people. Che’s words didn’t sound anti-Semitic because he mocked Jews’ national-religious anomaly – the same reason why Israel’s state courts can recognize Reform and Conservative religious conversions for citizenship reasons. Moreover, it’s ridiculous to claim that only Jews received the vaccine; two-thirds of Israeli-Arabs over 60 have been vaccinated, while Israel transferred vaccines to Palestinian health workers, despite the Oslo Accords explicitly making health Palestinians’ responsibility.
The charge says more about the accusers who always find Israel guilty, than the accused. Still, the comedic play was there. Che started with half the state being vaccinated – and exploited Americans’ confusion over how a “Jewish state” would also protect Arabs.
Tragically, there’s an ugly history to accusations of Jews hoarding supplies, profiting from plagues and spreading disease. Israel, however, is strong enough to endure the barbs of a 37-year-old “standupist.”
When European Jews stopped moaning enough to joke, their comedy of exile disarmed through self-deprecation. Mel Brooks explained: “If they’re laughing, they can’t bludgeon you to death.” The comedy of redemption was more confident. Part of the Zionist revolution entailed not only laughing at ourselves, but laughing when others laughed at us too.
Amid many Zionist sourpusses, Golda Meir was the rare Zionist famous for being funny. Israel’s first woman prime minister combined the Jewish mother’s world-weary sighs with the Borscht Belt entertainer’s comebacks and the Pioneer’s bluntness. Meir gibed: “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.” She liked telling colleagues: “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.” And when a minister suggested keeping women home nightly to discourage sexual assaults, she snapped: “The men are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay home, not the women.”
Sadly, such no holds barred wit is politically incorrect today. Humor reflects a humility that keeps us human; humorlessness reflects the zealousness feeding today’s soul sickness. True, Meir spoke of “the Arabs” and “the men” – although generous listeners knew she didn’t mean all Arabs – or all men. But her quips worked because they were snappy, disruptive and wise.
Israel, Zionists, Jews, are usually on the losing side of Blue America’s Woke wars. Echoing the insanity with a hyper-sensitive blue-and-white cancel culture sacrifices free speech and the fun of laughing at ourselves, for cheap political gain. As a Zionist, I am comfortable enough with the truth to laugh off Che’s quip. I don’t need to join the III – Israel Indignation Industry. And as a humanist, I’d rather laugh frequently and wince occasionally than whine constantly.
Two years ago, I discussed the 2015 controversies regarding Halloween costumes at Yale and serving Sushi at Oberlin Dining Hall with Israeli and American 18-year-olds. When one American explained why “cultural appropriation” is problematic, an Israeli erupted: “What’s wrong with you? Have you no love-of-life?”
Cancel cultures, bullying cultures, are flat, oppressive gray. They impose doublethink as you squelch your deviant thoughts – and edgy jokes – to echo the Party Line. We just finished Purim, the most politically incorrect of holidays. That this year’s celebrations began by demanding an apology for a harmless joke, is like marking Christmas with a gift ban.
Let’s keep laughing at our foibles, real and imagined. It helps maintain sanity in our crazy world. Golda Meir wanted to live long enough to see “that my people should not need expressions of sympathy anymore.” Such healing, refusing to be the world’s punching bag or charity case, entails laughing at ourselves – and dismissing minor criticisms rather than escalating them into major crises.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.