SNL’s Michael Che is not an antisemite - opinion

How can we have failed to inform mainstream African-American personalities like Michael Che of these truths about Israel?

ANCHOR COLIN JOST (left) and anchor Michael Che during Weekend Update on ‘Saturday Night Live’ last year. (photo credit: WILL HEATH/NBC/TNS)
ANCHOR COLIN JOST (left) and anchor Michael Che during Weekend Update on ‘Saturday Night Live’ last year.
(photo credit: WILL HEATH/NBC/TNS)
 I love watching Saturday Night Live. It makes me laugh. It’s been a godsend during the coronavirus, and I’m amazed it has been able to do so many live shows. It’s actually near miraculous.
So there I was watching this past Saturday night when I saw Michael Che – the immensely talented comic who, along with Colin Jost, does the satirical news weekly “Weekend Update” – as he did a news bit about how Israel has vaccinated half its population. Che deadpanned: “I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half.”
I raised my eyebrows at the joke and pointed it out to my wife, Debbie. Hmm. That didn’t seem that funny. I love Che. I find him vastly entertaining. I also love that he uses humor to eviscerate racists. But that joke sounded to me like... well, like maybe he meant it. Che was saying that Israel is not vaccinating its Arab citizens and cares more about its Jews.
I thought to myself, Che often does humor about inequities and racism in American society. So he’s buying into a narrative that Israel looks after its “white” Jewish population but not its darker-skinned Arab citizens.
Wow, that’s a shame. How unfortunate that a good guy like him thinks that. We Jews have done a poor job educating the world about how Israel has three million Arab citizens who enjoy greater freedoms than in any country in the Middle East. As for the coronavirus, two-thirds of Israel’s Arab citizens have now been vaccinated against the coronavirus. As for Jews in Israel being white, Israel has an extremely large black Jewish population which it brought to freedom in daring military operations from Ethiopia. And there are Jews like my father who was born in Iran and who came to Israel as a teenager, and his skin was definitely not all that white.
So how can we have failed to inform mainstream African-American personalities like Michael Che of these truths?
We can, of course, accuse Che of antisemitism. Many, stupidly, already have. But is that fair? Does he have any history of antisemitism? To paraphrase Abraham, will a just community not itself practice justice?
What we in the Jewish community don’t want to accept is that our natural allies and friends in the African-American community are increasingly being told that Israel is a racist country that practices apartheid. And rather than respond intelligently and factually, we’re just assuming that we can’t win these arguments in the marketplace of ideas.
I saw it with our own gala this past Thursday. We were honored to hold an evening dedicated to African-American and Jewish friendship. And what a celebration it was, with world-renowned celebrities like Steve Harvey and Dionne Warwick joining the festivities.
Linda Sarsour tried to publicly discourage some from participating in the event. No doubt the friendship between the two communities is not something she would encourage. But for the most part, she failed.
Because the truth is we have phenomenal friends in the African-American community who love and support us, just as we love and support them.
SO WHY would we be silly enough to attack Michael Che as an antisemite when we can be far more effective respecting him and giving him the facts?
He told an unfortunate joke about Israel. It happens. So let’s engage him in a dialogue.
Fact: The Jewish people taught the world in our Bible that every human being is created equally in the image of God, regardless of race, color or creed.
Fact: The greatest American of the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr., used the Hebrew prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah and Amos – as the inspiration for countless speeches in the civil rights movement. He leveraged the Bible as a liberation manifesto to fight Jim Crow and segregation.
Fact: Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, with the sole exception of Tunisia.
Fact: Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy all rights that Jewish citizens enjoy, and in addition are not drafted into the military as Jews are. This is notable because during Vietnam many in the African-American community pointed out the inequity of black Americans being drafted at a proportionately much higher rate than white Americans. In Israel, it’s the Jews alone who are drafted and must fight.
Fact: 43% of Israel’s Arab citizens have already received the coronavirus vaccine.
Fact: It is true, and should be acknowledged, that some of Israel’s Arab citizens have questionable faith in the vaccine because they don’t trust the government. Israel must acknowledge this and do its utmost through education to impress upon them the efficacy of the vaccine.
Fact: The 1995 Oslo Accords stipulate that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Even so, Israel has already transferred to the PA several thousand doses for its health employees and has agreed to vaccinate about 100,000 Palestinians who are employed by Israel.
NONE OF this means that Michael Che has no right to criticize or question Israel. Of course he does. Israel is an open and free democracy. It does mean, however, that Israel can respectfully respond to Che with facts, opening a dialogue that will hopefully bring light to these critical issues.
King Solomon famously said there is a time for war and a time for peace. The Jewish community has some real enemies, like Hamas, which has a charter that seeks our people’s annihilation.
But why would we be silly enough to place all critics in the same boat and assume that they wish us ill?
I do not believe that is the case with Michael Che. He is not Louis Farrakhan who calls Jews termites. He is not the government of Iran which calls Israel a cancer and a tumor. He is a comic on one America’s most influential shows who probably honestly believes that Israel is biased in favor of its Jewish citizens.
The response is to tell him, we get the attempt at humor. Ha ha, Michael. Thanks for trying to make us laugh during the coronavirus. During this horrible plague, we need all the laughs we can get.
However, while this is not your intention, your joke unwittingly perpetuates the false notion that Israel doesn’t care about its Arab brothers and sisters. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Israel just signed a historic peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. Tens of thousands of Israelis are flocking to Dubai, where they are openly welcomed by their Arab hosts. Likewise, Israel withdrew from territory three times its size in Sinai to have peace with Egypt, and has a peace treaty with Jordan and the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority. It did all this because it wants peace and goodwill with its Arab neighbors in general and its Palestinian brothers and sisters in particular.
Unfortunately, the Palestinians live under the brutal dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas, who is in the 16th year of his four-year term. Arafat and Abbas plundered the wealth of their people. If the Palestinians, who live with regional autonomy, had leaders who cared about their welfare, they would have the vaccines, just as they would have greater economic opportunities. Instead, these leaders have, for decades, scapegoated the Jews as the source of all Palestinian woes, even as Arafat died a billionaire and Abbas’s family is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Likewise, Hamas has run Gaza since 2006 and has turned a place that could have been Singapore into a rocket-launching hellhole, this despite receiving more international assistance per capita than Europe did with the Marshall Plan.
So, yes, we want our Palestinian brothers to be healthy and live in peace. But for that to happen, we need the Palestinian leadership to step up.
Michael, I would say to him, you’re a good man. Every week on national TV, you fight racism, bigotry and racial prejudice. And you do so with humor and good cheer. I’m impressed. Look to the Jewish people as your natural ally in that struggle. We, too, know what it’s like to be maligned. We, too, know what it’s like to be misrepresented. And we, too, know what it’s like to have people make what would seem to be innocuous jokes but which often lead to situations that are anything but funny.
And if you’ve got time, Michael, for a coffee, well, two weeks ago I was given a shout-out on SNL when it mentioned “Rabbi Shmuley.” My kids loved it. So I assume you know where to find me.
God bless you, Michael.
The writer is founder of the World Values Network and the international best-selling author of 30 books, including Judaism for Everyone. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook @RabbiShmuley. The 2021 Champions of Jewish Values Gala can be watched at www.shmuley.com