(March 7, 2021 / JNS) By now, most people have heard that Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” news anchor/comedian Michael Che told a “joke” that “Israel is now reporting that they have vaccinated half of their population. And I’m going to guess that it’s the Jewish half.” It was a not-so-subtle implication that Israel only cares about saving Jewish lives while neglecting the Arab-Israeli population.
Immediately, Jewish groups came out swinging, such as the American Jewish Committee’s Tweet: “Last night, SNL falsely accused Israel of vaccinating only its Jewish citizens. @NBCSNL’s ‘joke’ is a modern twist on a classic anti-Semitic trope that has inspired the mass murder of Jews.”
Responding to AJC’s Tweet, Haaretz published an op-ed under the headline: “No, ‘Saturday Night Live’ Isn’t Inciting the Mass Murder of Jews.” The op-ed, written by Joshua Shanes, an associate professor of Jewish and Israel studies, argued that it is OK to single out Israel because, as he believes, it is a racist and repressive country. However, for context, consider that this is the same person who referred to Candice Owens as a fascist; agreed with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s equating U.S. immigration detention facilities (under then-President Donald Trump) as “concentration camps”; and defended Minnesota Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s Tweet, “[Jews] forgot what country they represent,” playing on the centuries-old anti-Semitic troupe that Jews can’t be trusted in the country they reside.
But I’d like to take this in a different direction.
As a Jewish white male—yes, privileged times three—if I were to criticize, let’s say, African-Americans, Muslims or LGBT people, what would I be considered? It’s simple: a racist, Islamophobe or homophobe. So, the question that needs to be answered is: Are Michael Che, “Saturday Night Live” and NBC guilty of Zionophobia?
Judea Pearl, a world-renowned computer scientist and pro-Israel activist, defines Zionophobia as the “irrational denial (and fear) of a homeland [Israel] for the Jewish people.” Judea argues, and I agree, that Zionism deserves the same “protection status as any religion, nationality or identity-distinct collective,” and that “anti-Zionism” should be condemned as equally as white supremacy, Islamophobia or homophobia.
So, the question becomes, does Che pass the Zionophobia litmus test?
The most common justification for Zionophobia is that a person should be able to criticize (joke about) the government of Israel and not be labeled a Zionophobe. I agree 100 percent! But where is the line beyond which criticism of Israel becomes Zionophobia? It is when Israel becomes the only focus and target of human-rights criticism while excluding any comparable condemnation of Palestinians or Muslim-majority countries.
This wasn’t Che’s first “SNL” attack on Israel. While referring to the neo-Nazi “Miss Hitler” competition, he said the winner of the pageant was “Miss Israel.” As repugnant as his attacks on Israel are, however, I would not consider him Zionophobic if he were an equal opportunity offender. So I researched how many jokes he’s made (that “SNL”/NBC aired) about Palestinian human-rights violations, such as Hamas terrorists tunneling underground to murder Jews or Palestinian men honor-killing women or Palestinians seeking political asylum in Israel for fear of torture and death because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. I also wondered how many jokes he had made about the 18 million slaves in India or 3 million slaves in China or 2 million in Pakistan. I couldn’t find any, but maybe I just missed those episodes.
Even more egregious is that NBC allowed a slanderous “joke” about such a sensitive subject as COVID-19 deaths while peddling incorrect facts, misinformation and Zionophobic tropes that Jews are abusing Palestinians and the Arab Israeli population. Israel is on pace to becoming the first country to reach community-wide immunity, which includes all Arab Israelis. Furthermore, it is the Palestinian Authority, not Israel, that is solely responsible for the health care and vaccinations of the Palestinian population. And it certainly has the funds, considering that in 2020 it paid Palestinian terrorists $150 million. Fewer Arab Israelis have been vaccinated than Jewish Israelis only because of their mistrust in the vaccine itself, not because of a concerted effort to not vaccinate that part of the Israeli population. An Arab Israeli, Yoseph Haddad, even Tweeted a video of himself where he shows the Israeli Ministry of Health encouraging Arab Israelis (in Arabic) to get vaccinated. In fact, Arab Israelis are the most generally vaccinated group in Israel. But why let facts stop another Zionophobic joke?
In today’s environment—helped greatly by the #MeToo and BLM movements—marginalized groups are now given not only a voice but also protection. Big business has been quick to respond to anything that has a trace of racism, xenophobia, homophobia or any other prejudice. NBC is the same network that pulled Megyn Kelly from The Today Show after she made a comment defending black face on white people, yet it tolerates Zionophobic jokes. I can only imagine what would happen to a white NBC employee who joked about blacks and slavery, but Jews and Hitler are fair game.
Racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and all other phobias can lead to violence against minority groups. This is even more true when society tolerates such phobias. When Che, “SNL” and NBC peddle falsities against Jews and Israel, they are substantiating that Zionophobia is tolerated, which incites more violence against Jews.
While the safety of most marginalized groups is a given, Jews and their allies have not been given the same protection. For example, it’s tolerated for university students to yell “Allahu Akbar” at Zionist students with impunity. What would happen today if students began chanting “Allahu Akbar” at another marginalized group—something that has long been chanted right before thousands of lethal attacks, including suicide bombings, mass murders, stabbings, and not to mention, in the airplanes during the 9/11 terrorist attack?
Zionophobia has long been tolerated; it just wasn’t given a name. Jewish students continue to be harassed and forced out of student governments because of their Zionist beliefs. Tens of thousands of students continue to focus their university divestment resolutions only on Israel, ignoring virtually all extreme human-rights violations in other countries.
I don’t want Che fired. I would just ask that he learn the facts before he promulgates stereotypes and that he becomes as enlightened about Zionophobia as he thinks he is about all other marginalized groups, including his own.
Jack Saltzberg is the founder and president of The Israel Group. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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