Trevor Noah – a little too soon to panic

While fighting anti-Semitism is an important issue, getting the reaction right is always hard.

April 1, 2015 16:45
3 minute read.
Trevor Noah‏

Trevor Noah‏. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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South Africa is once again part of an anti-Israel fracas. This time it is a number of derogatory tweets made about Israel, Jews, women and fat people by Trevor Noah, the newly appointed anchor of The Daily Show. A soon as his name was announced a number of Internet warriors reacted immediately, calling out Noah on the tweets and expressing their concerns.

Given the use of social media to spread anti-Semitism in the past few years this reaction is understandable. The question however is exactly how worried should the Jewish world really be about the new Daily Show host? The answer, I would argue, is that we can probably relax a bit and enjoy the program.

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It seems to me that Noah is partly a victim of being a comic in the 21st century.

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Although well loved in South Africa and other parts of the world, not many people know him in the United States. The first place Daily Show fans went after his surprise announcement was to his twitter page, immediately exposing his offensive tweets.

It also didn’t help that Noah is replacing Jon Stewart who is well known for searing anti-Israel critiques or that South African celebrities have a bad habit of occasionally using their fame to try and link Israel with the former apartheid regime. The combination of all of this certainly didn’t make a great first impression on those unacquainted with his work.

Unfortunately twitter doesn’t do a great service to Noah’s brand of stand-up comedy.

Being a mixed-race South African, indeed he does focus quite a bit on racial topics. He is in fact highly skilled at taking the racial angst that still drives much South African discourse and engaging with it in clever, nuanced and humorous ways. The 140 characters of the twitter format simply don’t allow for any of complexity and he comes across as blunt and caustic.

All this certainly doesn’t excuse the tweets, which use some classic anti-Semitic tropes and garden variety anti-Israel sentiment that we have all heard before. Those that want to criticize the tweets are well within their rights, but as Joel Pollack at has argued, they also hardly show evidence of entrenched anti-Semitism in the man or his work.

The debate about where comics are allowed to cross the line is fraught with conflicting ideas and I don’t intend to get into it. What I can say however is that the South African Jewish community is more attuned than most to what constitutes anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric on the artistic scene. The country even boasts its own small but obnoxious group called “Artists against Apartheid,” who are full backers of the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions campaign. The group includes a number of comedians, but Trevor Noah is not among them. In fact in all the years Noah has been playing to full houses across the country the issue of Jews and Israel has never been a problem.

While fighting anti-Semitism is an important issue, getting the reaction right is always hard. In this case the massive level of outrage accompanying the tweets has worked against the local community.

Noah’s appointment to the comic big leagues has been greeted with widespread delight in the country, including among his former Jewish classmates from high school. To also have a flood of criticism dampen this excitement creates the opportunity for real anti-Semites to play the dual loyalty card and finger the Jews as spoilers of South African talent doing well overseas.

I suspect that Noah is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea on the Daily Show, but before you make up your mind based on a few tweets I would suggest that they at least check out his live performances first. While we are waiting to see how well he does in his new position, from a Jewish perspective it is probably to soon to panic.

The author is the deputy director of community relations at the South African Zionist Federation. He writes in his personal capacity.

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