Satire is meant to be funny. Many popular, long-running comedy shows relentlessly caricature and mock almost every imaginable group. But there’s a difference between playing on a stereotype—as characters in “The Simpsons” do, for example—and accusing people of murder. Saturday Night Live (SNL) comedian Michael Che effectively did the latter, implying Israel has only vaccinated its “Jewish half.”
Unsurprisingly, many people were outraged by this, not only because it is outrightly false―Israel’s vaccines are available for all its citizens, Jewish and Arab alike―but because it evokes antisemitic blood libels and conspiracy theories about Jews purposely spreading illness or otherwise bringing death upon non-Jews. (See here and here.)
Nevertheless, Israel’s detractors tend to become very upset when Jewish organizations publicly object to the proliferation of lies about the country—particularly, lies that mirror age-old antisemitic tropes. To them, the truth is but an inconvenient distraction from the righteous quest to fulfill a higher calling—to redeem Israel from its allegedly evil ways and rescue the blameless Palestinians.
Professor Joshua Shanes’ recent op-ed in Haaretz is an example in point, as he expresses anger that the American Jewish Committee (AJC) dared to set the record straight following Che’s joke.
The tweet that prompted Shanes’ column:
Last night, SNL falsely accused Israel of vaccinating only its Jewish citizens. @NBCSNL‘s “joke” is a modern twist on a classic antisemitic trope that has inspired the mass murder of Jews. Sign AJC’s petition urging @NBC to retract and apologize.
This, Dr. Shanes implies, is an overreaction:
The premise [of SNL’s “Weekend Update” skit] is always the same. The beginning of the joke is a true story from the past week, typically something that the audience knows well, followed by a punchline that is either a ridiculous lie or a ridiculous exaggeration of the true story.
Last night, for example, viewers heard about NASA’s Mars rover tweeting, “Why isn’t there a white history month?” a joke about how toxically racist Twitter has become. They joked about Floridians all becoming grandparents at 35, and a woman who invented a life jacket for a goldfish on Valentine’s Day “when she had no other plans.”
And they joked about Israel discriminating against non-Jews. The true part was that Israel has announced half of its population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. The invented punchline was that it was probably “the Jewish half.”
The comparison above might have been more convincing had anyone actually believed, for example, that the Mars Rover was regularly churning out racist tweets. By contrast, the libel that the Israeli government is only vaccinating Jews has been promoted so often by anti-Israel activists that too many people have already been influenced by it and now consider it an accepted truth. For example, the “anti-occupation” organization IfNotNow tweeted a picture superimposed with text that wrongly called Che’s joke a “factual statement about something cruel Israel does to Palestinians.” Some reacted to the joke by asking, to the tune of more than 600 “likes,” “Where is the lie?” Another tweet that garnered more than 10,000 “likes” insisted that “there’s nothing antisemitic about acknowledging apartheid,” as if Israel practices apartheid by making vaccines accessible to only Jews.
The problem is obvious: Unlike quips about white supremacist space robots, people believe the vaccine libel that Israel is only vaccinating Jews, just as medieval blood libels and conspiracies were accepted as truth centuries ago. The AJC’s concern is therefore perfectly understandable.
Dr. Shanes’ article lays bare his central accusation: Israel’s behavior towards non-Jews in general is beyond the pale. To emphasize this, he pretends that his false accusation is undisputed:
The fact is, Israel discriminates against Arab citizens in countless ways. No one seriously disputes this, although many people justify it with comparisons to other more repressive regimes. Moreover, this discrimination has been accelerating, most notably with the passage of the famous Jewish Nation State law, which explicitly elevates Jews over others in the state, as its many Zionist and Israeli critics pointed out. Worse, Israel has been accelerating the oppression of millions of Palestinian Arabs who are not allowed to become citizens in the West Bank, let alone Gaza, which they blockade.
Considering Dr. Shanes’ allegations of “countless” discriminatory policies against Arab citizens, it’s curious that he only cited one example to back this up: the passage of the “Jewish Nation State law,” which, as international law expert Eugene Kontorovich argues, “does not infringe on the individual rights of any Israeli citizen, including Arabs; nor does it create individual privileges.” Nor does Dr. Shanes explain how the oppression he alleges is “accelerating.” He does not acknowledge that the blockade of Gaza was put in place, not to oppress Arabs, but to impede the flow of weapons to Hamas, the antisemitic terrorist organization that rules the territory. (For a comprehensive analysis of citizenship divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, see here.)
To Dr. Shanes, the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are divided based on citizenship―as the entire world is―is the ‘truth’ that underlies Che’s joke:
This [truth] is not only because of disparate rates of vaccination among citizens but because Israel explicitly and repeatedly stated it did not recognize a responsibility to vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank. Responding to this that all Israeli “citizens” are treated equally―besides being false―is a circular fallacy, because non-Jews in the West Bank cannot become citizens of the state that controls their lives so repressively. That is the major criticism of Israel today.
Why would Israel “recognize a responsibility to vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank”? That job is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Ministry of Health―as is explicitly put forth in the very document that established the PA’s internationally recognized political legitimacy. In fact, not a single word of Dr. Shanes’ article acknowledges that the vast majority of West Bank Palestinians and every Gazan Palestinian live under the control of the PA and Hamas, respectively. It is a glaring contextual omission, but the reasoning for it is obvious: Acknowledging the existence of independent Palestinian governance would expose the myth that West Bank Arabs are exclusively subjected to Israeli control, yet unjustly denied Israeli citizenship rights.
If Dr. Shanes suggests superseding the PA’s authority to grant Palestinians Israeli citizenship, is he also implying that Israel should apply its sovereignty to the West Bank? Would the Palestinians even support such a move? The PA itself certainly doesn’t: Just nine months ago, its officials were encouraging resistance to the prospect of Israeli sovereignty in parts of the territory.
The piece ends with yet more unquantifiable and unsubstantiated statements: Israel is becoming “a more repressive place, particularly for those languishing under military occupation,” its “actions [deepen] its occupation of the West Bank,” a shadowy cabal looking to silence criticism of Israel is “growing,” and Israel is on an “ever spiraling move towards Jewish supremacism and anti-Palestinian oppression” (emphasis added). These sorts of platitudes, are completely devoid of intellectual rigor, but are common tropes among activists who regard Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians not as a clash between two national movements, but between powerful Jews who mercilessly subjugate the “other” to maintain ethno-religious “supremacy.” Such narratives brush off as insignificant the long history of Palestinian anti-Jewish violence, total rejection of Jewish self-determination, and brutal terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians orchestrated by antisemitic organizations that necessitate a strong defense. In reality, what these activists are calling “supremacy” is simply the Israelis’ refusal to allow Jewish self-determination to be destroyed by endless violence.
Organizations that steadfastly defend the Jewish people, such as the AJC, are perceptive enough to recognize that this sort of banter, based entirely on a malicious and defamatory premise, is more likely to be interpreted by the audience as a manifestation of Israeli racism rather than as satirical silliness.
Given the reaction by many in the Twittersphere, this concern was not unwarranted. Dr. Shanes may insist that the joke targeted “a sovereign state openly [discriminating] against non-Jews” and not Jews as “a minority community blamed for deliberately spreading disease among non-Jews,” but antisemites hardly make such distinctions when it comes to the presumption of the evil nature of the Jewish people and their disease-spreading ways. Just ask David Duke, who has bizarrely speculated that “Jewish Zionists, radical Zionists, radical Jewish elites” purposely tried to kill former president Donald Trump with the coronavirus.
It is not a crime to ensure that the public understands the real story. The truth matters, because untruths provide fodder to those who defame Israel and its supporters and distort the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we can’t distinguish between facts and satire, and if attempts to correct widely-believed lies are painted as malicious, then our society is in need of serious soul-searching.