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the pulpit

Dave Chappelle was more than just funny, he was right

Offering absolution in exchange for checks made out to organizations that “fight hate” is worth laughing at.

Comedian Dave Chappelle in the “The Closer,” 2021. Credit: Netflix.
Comedian Dave Chappelle in the “The Closer,” 2021. Credit: Netflix.
Rebecca Sugar
Rebecca Sugar

I missed comedian Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live” last weekend, but I knew I had to watch it when the wave of social media outrage reached me. When I finally saw it, what I heard shocked me. Chappelle’s jokes about the Kanye West and Kyrie Irving controversies were not only funny, they were insightful and true, which is why they were funny and why so many were angered by them.

The Anti-Defamation League’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, issued a statement suggesting that Chapelle’s jokes “normalize” antisemitism. But what Chappelle was really mocking wasn’t Jew-hatred. It was the way Greenblatt and Jewish celebrities on Twitter have “normalized” the maddeningly formulaic and unserious way we respond to it.

The practice of offering absolution to selectively-designated antisemitic offenders in exchange for large checks made out to organizations that “fight hate” is worth laughing at. The idea that Jewish actors and actresses who enthusiastically supported BLM are now touted as credible voices on the issue of antisemitism in the black community is something of a joke. The proud reposting of these people’s statements by Jews who can’t see that they are perpetuating our community’s failed emergency response system is funny only in the most tragic sense of the word.

Chappelle opened his set by reading a mock apology statement. I was mouthing the words along with him as he read it, precisely because I had heard them, in all their insincerity, dozens of times before. It is the template used by the accused when dragged in front of the cameras to beg for their livelihoods back.

Can someone whom we deemed Jew-hating enough to be worthy of total cancellation 24 hours earlier suddenly be taken seriously simply by robotically repeating, “I stand with my friends in the Jewish community”? We pitch an overnight, cue-card cure for antisemitism and we expect others not to chuckle and roll their eyes? Chappelle is exactly right to point out that all those statements do is buy time until the check clears or the media cycle moves on. These stunts breed cynicism and skepticism, not harmony, and everyone knows it.

Chappelle’s funniest joke came when he cautioned his listeners to never use two words in sequence: “The Jews.” He probably didn’t know how good that one was. Even as he was pointing out that Kanye and Kyrie were slammed for stereotyping “the Jews,” “the Jews” who self-appoint themselves the official spokespeople of American Jewry were meeting with corporations and the media to draw up their list of demands for acceptable public redemption.

That list might be the biggest joke of all. The fact that “sensitivity training” was on it tells us all we need to know about who the list was designed to serve. The requisite financial penalty was there as well. How exactly a $500,000 donation to “fight hate” might protect all the Brooklyn Jews (who Chappelle hilariously says dress like Run DMC) who have been getting sucker-punched on the streets (by people who ironically also look like Run DMC but without the black hats) is a question that remains unanswered. And what is “hate” exactly? And how did the list-makers calculate that $500,000 was needed to fight it?

What Kanye West said was antisemitic and so was the film Kyrie Irving linked to on social media. Saying so and taking action are important. But the “line” Dave Chappelle referenced in his monologue is also important. That line is about who is speaking and acting in our name, and how. It is about whether we are fighting antisemitism or leveraging it. The former helps the Jews, and the latter helps those who claim to be helping the Jews. If we don’t start paying closer attention to that line, the country will never take real antisemitism seriously; because, clearly, neither do “the Jews.” I am laughing along with Dave Chappelle at “the Jews” who still miss the joke.

Rebecca Sugar is a freelance writer and philanthropic consultant in New York.

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