Australia/Israel Review


The Last Word: No cause for laughter

Nov 28, 2022 | Jeremy Jones

Dave Chapelle: Riffing on recent antisemitism controversies drew a mixed reaction (Image: Twitter)
Dave Chapelle: Riffing on recent antisemitism controversies drew a mixed reaction (Image: Twitter)

Some years ago, the US television program “Saturday Night Live” ran a sketch “And So This Is Chanukah”, in which comedians played the parts of famous celebrities performing real and invented Chanukah songs and making other contributions, parodying the ubiquitous TV Christmas Specials. 

The performer playing “Britney Spears” said “Chanukah is a special holiday, where we, as Christians, take time out to think about forgiving our Jewish friends for killing our Lord.” The “Celine Dion” character said her mother had taught her that Chanukah is a holiday celebrated by the people who own all the movie studios.

The passions the skit invoked were intense. Some US and international leaders in combating anti-Jewish manifestations said it was appalling antisemitism. Others said it was poor taste but nothing to be bothered by. A more nuanced response was that it was funny as a parody of antisemitism, but many Americans would not understand it was a joke, which was problematic.

A similar debate has been provoked by the recent appearance of controversial comedian and influential cultural figure Dave Chappelle on the same program.

Chappelle delivered a monologue riffing on the recent forays into antisemitic territory by both Ye (formerly Kanye West) – singer, fashion designer and Time Magazine’s “Most Influential” person of 2015 – and basketball star Kyrie Irving.

Ye had made a series of antisemitic comments alleging Jewish control of media and finance, as well as individual Jewish greed.

Irving was suspended by his team “for refusing to apologize for peddling a film full of dangerous antisemitic tropes to his 4.6 million Twitter followers,” as the American Jewish Committee put it. 

In his monologue, Chappelle played on stereotypes of Jewish control of Hollywood, Jewish power to censor views we do not like and the alleged attribution of blame to “Black Americans” for the “terrible things” which Jews have “been through”.

Reaction to the monologue was, to say the least, mixed, although there was broad consensus that the reaction of the audience to some of the comments was disconcerting, if not alarming.

Yet critics and supporters of Chappelle’s performance should agree that the subject matter itself, the increasing normalising and mainstreaming of antisemitism in a number of sectors of the American community, is no laughing matter.

Ye’s threats to Jews and distortions of history and genealogy were expressed in his uniquely bizarre manner, but were still very recognisable as part of contemporary anti-Jewish discourse.

His apparent failure to understand what he had objectively done wrong, and how empowering racism is hardly in his own interest, was echoed in Kyrie Irving’s non-apology for promoting hateful anti-Jewish propaganda to countless impressionable followers.

A social media monologue by veteran hatemonger Louis Farrakhan in support of both the two celebrities and their anti-Jewish propaganda was a chilling reminder that organised antisemitism has many sources and promoters.

Farrakhan said threateningly, “We know the Talmud. We know you and your history. Leave our people alone.” He incited the “Black people of America” to despise, hate and continue to attack Jews for “killing us, raping us, castrating us, enslaving us and making us chattel [sic].”

Irving and Ye both promoted Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam’s Black supremacist, antisemitic conspiracy theory which says that people claiming to be Jews are liars who have stolen the birthright of Black people, the “authentic Jews”. Bizarrely, this exactly mirrors a strand of belief by White Supremacist Identitarians.

Indeed, the context for the behaviour of Ye, Irving and Farrakhan is a virtual tidal wave of antisemitic activity in the USA from a variety of sources, which need to all be fought simultaneously.

The field is not uncontested – singer John Mellencamp called for people of all backgrounds to have zero tolerance for antisemitism, while basketball legends Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley slammed the antisemitism of “idiot” Irving to their huge social media followings.

Sadly, with each day comes more evidence of the challenge of defending not just the truth concerning Jews, but Jewish people’s physical safety.

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