No holds barred: Trevor Noah and ‘The Daily Show’ scandal

When Trevor Noah was named as Jon Stewart’s replacement as host of The Daily Show, my first reaction was, who?

Jon Stewart (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jon Stewart
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Trevor Noah was named as Jon Stewart’s replacement as host of The Daily Show, my first reaction was, who? I watch the Daily Show almost every day. Stewart is a rare and incomparable talent. He’s gifted in so many areas. He’d be a hard act to follow for anyone, so the choice of a relatively unknown South African comedian to take his place was a shock, but one I could easily live with based on the little I initially read about him. As is often the case in today’s social media world, however, where comments and tweets are immortal, researchers began to find a rash of remarks and jokes that were unfunny and offensive. Some of the most troubling related to Jews.
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Consider the following tweets, reported by a variety of sources (typos in the originals): • “Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man.”
• “Messi [the Argentine soccer superstar] gets the ball and the real players try to foul him, but Messi doesn’t go down easy, just like Jewish chicks.”
• “South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.”
• “Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt bad in my German car!” • “Note to self - Langostines are not Jewish prawns.”
• “Xbox and Playstation players are like Jews and Muslims. They are so similar but they hate each other so much!” I’ve heard worse – and also a lot funnier.
Jews are among the greatest comedians – Noah himself says his black mother is half-Jewish – and we are the subject of thousands of jokes so I’m not particularly bothered by the jokes themselves.
And Lord knows, as an avid Twitterer I can forgive mistakes made in the constant stream of keeping everything updated. What does concern me is their sophomoric nature, which may belie a not-that-well-informed man tasked with informing the public, albeit with fake news. The joke about a Jewish kid being hit by a German car was particularly unfunny. The tweets about money and Jewish women are tired stereotypes that one would not expect from a cutting-edge comedian.
The comment that bothered me most was the one that was most applicable to current affairs, and his new position, suggesting that Israel is not interested in peace. It was disappointing to see him repeat this canard.
The truth is no one wants peace more than Israelis. They live in the only country that has been threatened with genocide for its entire history, and had to fight multiple wars to stave off possible annihilation. And then there’s the death and mayhem caused by hundreds of terrorist attacks and rockets aimed at innocent men, women and children. Imagine the anxiety of living in a place where a seemingly harmless parcel on the street could blow up, or a discotheque could turn into a slaughterhouse. This week Jews around the world will be celebrating Passover and will reflect on a Seder held at a hotel in the coastal city of Netanya 13 years ago in which a Hamas suicide bomber killed 28 people and wounded another 140.
Because of the omnipresent danger, men and women graduating from high school, who should be heading to college, instead enter the Israel Defense Forces for three and two years, respectively.
And the men who do not stay in the army will serve in the reserves for most of their professional lives. These Israelis – Jews and many non-Jews, sacrifice part of their youth to protect their country.
While they are doing so, their parents are in a near constant state of fear for their safety.
Israelis desperately want the danger that surrounds them to disappear, but they cannot wish it away. Starting in 1947, Jews were prepared to share the land then called Palestine, but the Arabs rejected the offer of a state of their own beside a Jewish state. After the Six Day War, Israel was prepared to evacuate almost the entire West Bank it conquered in the course of defending itself, but the Arabs said no. When at last Egypt agreed to a peace treaty with Israel, the Palestinians were also offered greater freedom, but they said no. In 1993, Israel offered the Palestinians a path toward statehood in the Oslo Accords, but they squandered the opportunity with an orgy of violence.
In 2000, president Bill Clinton and prime minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat everything they thought he wanted, but he, again, said no to peace.
Most recently, President Barack Obama has spent most of his time in office trying to achieve peace, but the Palestinian president has refused to sit down and negotiate with the Israeli prime minister for the past seven years. These are facts that should be part of your education, Mr. Noah, as you embark upon commentating on Middle East affairs.
For better or worse, many young people get their “news” from the Daily Show. What made John Stewart such a master of his craft was his quick wit and intelligence. The man knows his stuff, as he demonstrated whenever he was a guest on “serious” news programs. The fact that he is Jewish never caused him to pull any punches when he spoke about Israel. Plenty of his detractors will not miss him because they believe he is very unfair to Israel.
I don’t see him that way. Stewart appears to be a proud Jewish liberal whose views differ from mine. I didn’t appreciate every parody he did of Israel, but they were always within the bounds of legitimate criticism and never crossed the line to Israel delegitimization. I don’t think that this was just because he is Jewish. He is also sensitive to boundaries and smart enough to understand the Middle East issues and leaders he was skewering.
It may be unfair to judge Noah on the basis of a handful of tweets, but they do not reflect a man in the same class of knowledge as Stewart. Will he have funny, intelligent conversations with guests discussing current events or throw off one-liners based on over-roasted stereotypes? From his biography, Noah appears to have suffered under the racist regime there, but for him to compare South Africa in any way to Israel is ignorant. His comment also raises the question of whether he will suffer from “underdogma” and intuitively gravitate to the pain of the underdog, however immoral, and have that reflected in his humor.
The Daily Show sets the standard for Comedy Channel, and Stewart set that bar high. I wish Trevor well, but I wish even more that he do a crash course in Middle East facts and get up to speed so that he treats this most volatile of subjects with the erudition it deserves.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.
Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.