Jew jokes: What's funny and what's antisemitic? - explainer

Jokes about Jews have been found throughout history, many made by Jews themselves, who are no strangers to self-deprecating humor. However, antisemitism in comedy is alive and well.

A FLOAT with an effigy of a Jew is seen during the carnival at Aalst, Belgium, on February 23. (photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
A FLOAT with an effigy of a Jew is seen during the carnival at Aalst, Belgium, on February 23.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)

Jew jokes: Sometimes they're funny, and very often they're offensive.

While many of the People of the Book can take jokes about themselves in good humor, and Jews are of course no strangers to self-deprecating humor, there is definitely a redline, and many jokes about the Jewish people can be downright offensive and harmful.

Indeed, despite some beloved comedians being Jewish themselves, antisemitism in comedy is still very much alive.

So what constitutes Jewish jokes? Which are acceptable? Which are harmful? Here's everything you need to know.

Why are there so many Jew jokes?

Jokes about the Jews have been part of comedy for as long as anyone can remember, for good or bad. Jews, of course, are responsible for making many of them. 

As antisemitism spends months in the pop culture spotlight, Jewish comedians tackle the hate onstage and on social media. (credit: VARIOUS SCREENSHOTS VIA YOUTUBE/PHOTOS COURTESY/DESIGN BY JACKIE HAJDENBERG)As antisemitism spends months in the pop culture spotlight, Jewish comedians tackle the hate onstage and on social media. (credit: VARIOUS SCREENSHOTS VIA YOUTUBE/PHOTOS COURTESY/DESIGN BY JACKIE HAJDENBERG)

After all, it is seen as a classic part of Jewish culture to be self-deprecating and recognize some of the ridiculousness that colors our many traditions.

Unfortunately, many jokes made by non-Jews also veer more toward antisemitism. Rather than being jokes about aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture, these are jokes about Jews, and the joke is very much on them rather than with them.

What are some good Jew jokes?

Considering Jews are very familiar with making jokes about themselves, there is no shortage of "good" Jew jokes. Some jokes relate to classic aspects of Judaism and Jewish culture, such as perceived community pettiness. An example of the latter would be the classic joke about the Jew stranded on a deserted island.

A Jewish man gets stranded on a deserted island. While there, he builds a house, synagogue and eventually an entire town. Years later, he gets rescued, but he shows his rescuers around the town he's built. The rescuers, however, noticed that he for some reason built two synagogues.

"Ah," the Jewish man explains. "One of them is the shul I go to, the other one is the shul I'd never even step foot in!"

Then there are jokes about Judaism and the relationship between the Jews and God, especially over God's supposed refusal to answer prayers.

For example:

A Jewish man is in his car, trying to find a parking space. He calls out to God to help him find one. Eventually, he promises God that if a parking space is provided, he'll go to synagogue every day. This promise then progresses to keeping kosher, as well.

Eventually, right in front of him, a car pulls out of its parking spot. The Jewish man then quickly parks and says "Never mind, God, I found a parking space."

Other jokes point fun at the diverse and widespread Diaspora, each developing distinct and unique traditions.

Here's one example.

A journalist approaches a group of three Jews, one from the US, one from Russia and one from Israel.

"Excuse me," the journalist asks. "What do you think about the current shortage of meat?"

The American asks: "A shortage? What's that?"

The Russian asks: "Meat? What's that?"

The Israeli asks: "Excuse me? What's that?"

Other jokes poke fun at unique Jewish religious practices, like circumcision and kashrut. 

A great hassidic rabbi dies and goes to heaven, greeted by a huge throng of angels all celebrating the arrival of such a righteous Jew. They eagerly pull up a table to a lavish banquet at a massive table, with delicious meat and treats as far as the eye can see.

"Who gave the hechsher?" the rabbi asked, referring to which organization certified the food as kosher.

"God Himself!" the angels respond.

The rabbi pauses for a moment before sitting down and modestly saying "I'll have a salad."

But Jewish jokes have also gone into far darker territory. However, there is a good reason for these dark Jew jokes.

As detailed by the Aish Hatorah outreach organization, Jews have developed humor as a coping mechanism, poking fun at absurdly dark situations with a sort of macabre humor. There is even a phrase for this in Yiddish: "bitterer gelekhter," or "laughing through the tears." 

These are important parts of Jewish culture, despite now seeming either out of place or cruel. One example that comes to mind, albeit one less dark than others, is actually from Fiddler on the Roof, and is about the pogroms amid which it took place.

"Rabbi," one resident of Anatevka asks. "May I ask you a question? Is there a proper blessing for the tsar?"

"A blessing for the tsar? Of course!" the rabbi responds. "May God bless and keep the tsar... far away from us!"

What are bad Jew jokes?

Bad Jew jokes, on the other hand, often focus on a few key points, which are usually antisemitic tropes.

This includes jokes about Jews being stingy and obsessed with money; their sinful and "un-Christian" ways; their being bad at sports or unattractive; and their perceived influence and power.

A good example of this is some of the jokes made by popular comedian Dave Chappelle. 

For instance, back in 2021 in his special The Closer, the comedian made jokes about "Space Jews," which were slammed as antisemitic at the time.

Last month, Chappelle again sparked controversy for antisemitic jokes, specifically during a monologue while hosting Saturday Night Live.

For context, this was in the wake of antisemitic controversies surrounding other US celebrities Kyrie Irving and Kanye West.

“Before I start tonight, I just wanted to read a brief statement that I 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,” said Chappelle at the outset of his monologue.

“It’s a big deal. [Kanye West] had broken show business rules,” added Chappelle referring to West’s recent tirades against Jews in Hollywood. 

“This is a rule. You know the rules of perception: if they’re Black then it’s a gang, if they’re Italian it’s a mob, but if they’re Jewish it’s a coincidence and you should never speak about it.”

“This is a rule. You know the rules of perception: if they’re Black then it’s a gang, if they’re Italian it’s a mob, but if they’re Jewish it’s a coincidence and you should never speak about it.”

Dave Chappelle

Comedians and activists alike condemned Chappelle's jokes at the time, but plenty of other people rushed to his defense. 

Ultimately, with antisemitism rising and people like Chappelle and Kanye making remarks about Jews, it shows how this type of humor can still lead to antisemitism and incitement, even if only by normalizing it.

That is exactly what Anti-Defamation League (ADL) head Jonathan Greenblatt said at the time.

"We shouldn't expect [Dave Chappelle] to serve as society's moral compass, but disturbing to see [SNL] not just normalize but popularize antisemitism," Greenblatt tweeted at the time. "Why are Jewish sensitivities denied or diminished at almost every turn? Why does our trauma trigger applause?"

There is also the ever-controversial carnival parade in Aalst, Belgium, which routinely features racist and antisemitic caricatures on floats, including “rabbis” with humongous fake noses, some standing next to fake bars of gold.

Another example of inappropriate Jew jokes was made by another comedian, Jimmy Carr.

Since at least 2008, the British-Irish comedian has used a joke that he has referred to as the most offensive joke in the world. 

The joke in question is as follows.

"They say there is safety in numbers. Tell that to six million Jews."

Here, the joke is clearly meant to be offensive, and the offense is part of the humor, which is the reason why some laughed at it while others found it too offensive. 

But Carr made another Holocaust joke years later, in 2021, which sparked backlash.

"When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the tragedy and horror of six million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of G*psies that were killed by the Nazis," Carr said in his Netflix show His Dark Material, using an archaic term referring to Roma people.

"No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives."

Although Holocaust memorials and museums, as well as British politicians, were outraged at the joke and called it abhorrent, Carr has stood by it.

It's important to note that context is key, and personal tastes can nevertheless not be ruled out. One Jewish person may be far less offended by what another one finds to be deeply damaging and disturbing. But the fact that this latter joke wasn't about Jews, per se, just goes to show that offensive humor is not a problem exclusive to the Jews. And they can continue to normalize negative stereotypes, which in turn can lead to further racism.

Sam Halpern contributed to this report.