Jews Must Engage Michael Che, Not Attack Him
I love watching Saturday Night Live. It makes me laugh. It’s been a godsend during the Coronavirus and I’m amazed they’ve been able to do so many live shows.
So there I was watching this past Saturday night when I saw Michael Che – the 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 it looks like he’s buying into a narrative that Israel looks after its “white” Jewish population but not its darker-skinned Arab and Palestinian citizens.
What a shame. How unfortunate that a good guy like him thinks that. Apparently, we Jews have done a poor job educating the world about how Israel has 3 million Arab citizens who enjoy greater freedoms than in any country in the Middle East. As for the coronavirus, about 70 percent of Israeli Arabs over 60 have now been vaccinated. As for Jews in Israel being white, Israel has a large Black Jewish population which it brought to freedom in daring military operations from Ethiopia. And there are millions of Israeli Jews who hail from Arab and Muslim countries, like my father who was born in Iran and who came to Israel as a teenager, who enrich Israel’s multicultural society.
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 anti-Semitism. Many, stupidly, already have and even called for the firing of whoever wrote the joke. But is that fair? Does Che have any history of anti-Semitism? 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, with celebrities like Steve Harvey and Dionne Warwick joining the festivities.
Linda Sarsour tried to publicly discourage some from participating in the event. Evidently, the friendship between the Jewish and Black communities is not something she would encourage. But for the most part, she failed.
Because, the truth is, we have great 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 anti-Semite when we can be far more effective respecting him and giving him the facts?
He told an unfortunate and offensive “joke” about Israel. It was a blunder. Instead of attacking, let’s turn it into a teachable moment and engage him in a dialogue.
HE TOLD AN UNFORTUNATE AND OFFENSIVE “JOKE” ABOUT ISRAEL. IT WAS A BLUNDER. INSTEAD OF ATTACKING, LET’S TURN IT INTO A TEACHABLE MOMENT AND 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 who are drafted and must fight.
Fact: 70% of Israeli Arabs over 60 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 Palestinian Authority 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 society where public criticism is the national pastime. 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, who have 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 of America’s most influential shows who probably is simply misguided about Israeli society.
The response is to tell him, we get the attempt at humor. 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 historic agreements with the UAE, 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 peace treaties 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.
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 allies 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 they mentioned “Rabbi Shmuley.” My kids loved it. So I assume you know where to find me.
One way or another, let’s talk.