One of the interesting elements of social media, especially sites like Facebook, as many of you know and have experienced, is that you are able to connect up with past friends and acquaintances that were a part of your life, but you haven’t kept in contact with. One of those acquaintances, for me, was someone who decided to take a stab at standup comedy. He recorded himself on stage, telling jokes and using his saxophone as an interlude in between. I believe it was an open mic night, which can be both the most terrifying and freeing of experiences. I give him all the credit in the world, as coming up with five minutes’ worth of original material to try to make people laugh, is really tough.
After seeing the video, I posted a comment of support. Somewhere along the way, I got into, big surprise on social media, an argument with one of his friends about the use of Jewish stereotypes in comedy. This friend, a self-professed Jew, stated that I know nothing about comedy, because using stereotypes about our people is comedic gold.
I argued, in return, that stereotypes are the most basic, least interesting, and truth be told, laziest way to try to make people laugh. I feel that using generalities about a people requires little intellectual thought, demeans a whole group of people, and that there are much better, more effective ways to elicit both insight and laughter.
This person, if memory serves, threw all sorts of insults my way, and I stopped engaging in the conversation. For the most part, I do not argue with people on social media, and haven’t for years because it is a poor way to communicate with our fellow human beings. That being said, the crux of this conversation has remained with me.
And I was thinking about it, when I heard about Dave Chappelle’s recent open of last week’s Saturday Night Live episode.1 Admittedly, I used to be a fan of Chappelle and I watched the Dave Chappelle Show, which ran on Comedy Central from 2003-2006. I loved the show and he added so much to the cultural conversation especially about but not exclusively to race and racism. I do enjoy comedians, especially those who can challenge me and my world views and help me to broaden my perspective about any number of issues. I for one am not easy to offend, and if I find that I am not enjoying something, I tend to move on. I say all of this as background because I think it is important, not to condemn, but to call out the problematic nature of what Chappelle did on Saturday Night Live and how it is hurtful to Jewish communities through his use of casual antisemitism.
As we have discussed other times, according to scholar and ambassador Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, antisemitism is the world’s oldest conspiracy theory. What this means is that it tends to fit into an antisemite’s world view regardless of any inherent internal contradictions often without historical understanding.
Much like when The Passion of The Christ came out, I decided, rather than read reviews, commentary and opinions, to witness it for myself to see if it really was as troubling as people said, especially knowing that folks can be offended especially when no offense was intended. However, this notion was quickly dispelled from the very beginning of Chappelle’s routine where he started by unrolling a piece of people, and read from it stating, “Before I begin, I would like to read a brief statement I have prepared, “I denounce antisemitism in all its forms, and I stand with my friends in the Jewish community. And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time.” What followed was heartbreaking, the response from the audience: laughter
Then Chappelle went on to make more statements, “There are two words in the English language you should never say in sequence and they are “the” and “Jews.” And then he a preface, which is never good, “I grew up around Jewish people and I had a lot of Jewish friends.” Once you start with, I have a lot of Black friends or Asian friends, or Indian friends, you know something wrong is going to come out. And it did. I won’t restate everything he said, but I’ll highlight a couple of points, “I know what the Jewish people have been through is terrible, but you can’t blame it on Black Americans.” No one is blaming them. We are unhappy with two men, Kanye or Ye and Kyrie. They have used their voices and their followings on social media to promulgate hate. And it is fair to hold them accountable. This is not about blaming an entire community or group of people for the actions of two individuals. And notice, in his whole routine, Chappelle never holds them into account, just how they should have done it better.
As an aside, part of what is so frustrating is that so many of us were partners in the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but as of late, all too often, the relationship has turned both competitive and adversarial.
And then he went on to say, “I’ve been to Hollywood and this is what I saw, it is a lot of Jews, like a lot, but that doesn’t mean anything. … (there is the) Delusion that the Jews run show business, it might not be a crazy thing to think, but it is a crazy thing to say out loud…”
Then Chappelle moved onto politics and the war in Ukraine and race. I was hopeful it was over, but then he came back to Kanye and noted how he lost a billion and half dollars in a day. “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything … I hope they don’t take anything away from me, whoever they are…” implying as if there is that Jewish cabal, whoever they are, who have the power to ruin lives simply for saying something that just might be true.
Again, I like Dave Chappelle and I think, at his best, he challenges us to think and to broaden our perspectives, but I cannot forgive nor discount the casual antisemitism of this standup routine. Just as, when he punches down and attacks those who are transgender. It is not funny. Instead it is both lazy and hurtful. Comedy at its best should be about punching up, not punching down and using lazy tropes to do so is just indefensible.
First off is the trope that Jews control Hollywood. This is like saying African Americans control R&B, there is a lot of truth to it on the surface, but historical context means everything. In the case of R&B, it was not only hard for African American artists during the early days of Rock and Roll to get their music played, but many of their songs were taken and played successfully by white artists like Elvis because they were more socially acceptable. In some ways, in order to break through and become successful, artists had to create their own musical genre.
In a similar vein, Jews essentially created, founded and ran Hollywood for years, but it was not because of some nefarious plot, but because that was one of the few industrial options open to them. At that time there were quotas on colleges, law firms, investment firms, medical schools and hospitals. Jews worked in the garment business because we were allowed to work in the garment business. Jews created comic books because no one was hiring Jewish writers and artists, so we had to create a medium of our own. We created Hollywood, selling movies to fellow immigrants because no one was preventing us from doing it, well except for the Edison Trust which made it very expensive and difficult so along with the eternal days of sunshine in California, was the other reason why these moguls moved West.
This is in part why it is so frustrating that schools are banning books like Maus or limiting lessons on the Holocaust. It is not just about the history of antisemitism that is so important, but also that it is so easy to breed hate out of ignorance.
And that is one of the fundamental problems of casual antisemitism. Casual antisemitism ignores the antisemitic underpinnings that both undermined and accidently led to Jewish success in certain businesses. There is a reason why there are so many Jewish Hospitals, because without them, there would not be Jewish doctors and Jewish patients had nowhere else to go. The history of Jewish Hollywood is not a global conspiracy, it was born out of economic necessity and oppression. But if you don’t know the history, it sure looks like a conspiracy.
And as we have noted, rates of attacks on Jews has gone up dramatically. It has once again become socially acceptable to attack Jews in language and in action. There is a reason why we are scared because we’ve seen how this has played out before. The Tree of Life shooting, the deadliest attack on a Jewish community here in the United States was only four years ago. And it was based on a wild antisemitic conspiracy theory. Kristallnacht, the beginning of the Shoah, was only 84 years ago. These are recent events, not ancient history. Both were founded and grounded in antisemitic tropes.
As Sharon Rosen Leib wrote for The Forward in her response to the SNL opener, 2“… I watched ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ documentary by filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein last month. The six-hour horror show depicts Nazis marching through Eastern European towns, and describes how they threw Jewish babies out of windows, incinerated Jewish villagers in their synagogues and gunned them down in forests along the way.
These Nazi death squads were fueled by crackpot conspiracy theories about greedy, parasitic Jews who controlled international banking, financed wars, and poisoned young minds with their nefarious movies…”
And this does not even scratch the surface of the recent threats like those in New Jersey or regarding the Jewish Day School in Philadelphia where Cantor Neff’s sister works. That one did not even make the news.
Words and even comedy routines have power and an impact. What is old is new again. Sadly, there is the consistent, persistent, unalterable view that Jews are some sort of nefarious all-powerful group. And because of this, it is somehow ok to attack them either physically or verbally. We have seen how this movie plays out time and again, it always ends in violence. Thus, you can’t blame us for standing up for ourselves and holding those who espouse hate accountable. I could care less about what Kanye or Kyrie have to say. But I do care that they have millions of followers. More people follow Kanye on Twitter than there are Jews in the world. That means he has a platform, and people listen and believe what he has to say. And that is scary.
That is what is so problematic about what Chappelle did. He excused hate and prejudice under the guise of enlightenment and the phrase “I have many Jewish friends.” All to the sounds of laughter.
Which is why it is all the more hurtful when Jon Stewart defended Chappelle in the manner that he did with his appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.3 ““Well, first of all, I think just reflexively naming things antisemitism is as reductive as some of the things they might be saying,” Stewart responded. “It immediately shuts down a conversation.”
Colbert pushed back, saying people perceived “a promulgation of antisemitic tropes. That doesn’t mean the person is an antisemite.”
“Comedy is reductive,” Stewart said. “We play with tropes. Everyone has prejudice in their lives and the way they view things. Comics rely on those prejudices as a shorthand for our material. Even the wokest of comics plays with tropes to a certain extent.” Which gets back to my earlier argument of using tropes or really stereotypes as the basis for comedy as the laziest form of comedy.
There are a lot of ways Chappelle could have tackled Kanye and Kyrie, but minimalizing and trivializing antisemitism should not have been one of them. Socially acceptable, casual antisemitism not only emboldens those who hate us, but it also undermines our relationships with allies. In any other context of hate, what Kanye and Kyrie did would have been condemned and they would have been called out without question. Yet here, because it involved Jews, it could become a standup routine filled with laughter.
Chappelle is right that we should not use the term “The” and “Jews” because there is no “The Jews.” For a small number of people who have had an outsized impact on the world, we are as diverse in thought and practice as any group on earth. There is absolutely comedy to be mined out of Jewish experiences and especially American Jewish experiences. Heck we could name a litany of Jewish comedians who have made their whole careers based on this premise, including Jon Stewart. Just don’t lump us all together as one nefarious body working to destroy the world for our benefit. It is lazy. It is reductive, and it is dangerous. And I say this without apology to Jon Stewart, it is also antisemitic and must be called out and condemned. Not excused. And we are not laughing.
I just hope someone points this out to Dave Chappelle. He has many insightful ideas and opinions to offer the world. Casual antisemitism should not be one them.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Saturday Night Live November 12, 2022
3 The Late Show with Stephen Colbert November 16, 2022