Michael Che’s Israel Vaccinations ‘Joke’ Reflects NBCUniversal’s Real Coverage

Saturday Night Live’s “joke” that Israel is vaccinating Jews only sparked widespread public outrage against the exploitation of a gross falsehood that taps into an age-old antisemitic trope. But Michael Che’s bigoted slur, delivered in the comedy show’s satirical news segment, brings into focus a false smear repeatedly propagated in NBC’s real news coverage: Israel is allegedly guilty of a moral and legal crime by not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.

That’s a libelous narrative that NBCUniversal’s various broadcast and digital platforms have pushed for weeks by glossing over the Oslo Accords, mischaracterizing the Geneva Accords and Israel’s status in the Palestinian territories, and inserting gratuitous, context-less observations about low vaccine rates among Palestinians in completely unrelated coverage about the pandemic in Israel.

MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin (left) with Zogby

In December, MSNBC gave a platform for pollster James Zogby to rage, unchallenged, that Israel is “not doing what is their required obligation to do for them and so Palestinians are suffering,” dismissing the fact that the bilateral Oslo Accords designated health care, including vaccines, the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority.

A few days later, in an article about Israel’s unfolding vaccine campaign, NBC dissembled that Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank live under Israeli control, a falsehood cited to supposedly bolster the claims of critics that Israel is violating its legal obligation to vaccinate them:  “Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are not included in the vaccination drive, prompting criticism that Israel is not meeting its legal obligations” (“Paralyzed by covid-19, Israel bids to be first country to vaccinate its way to safety,” Jan. 3). 

Earlier this month, NBC mischaracterized the Geneva Accords, reporting, “many international legal scholars say the Geneva Conventions oblige Israel, as an occupying power, to provide for Palestinians — a responsibility that trumps the terms of the Oslo Accords, [Caitlin] Procter [of the Migration Policy Center] said” (“Israel shines as coronavirus success story, while neighbors in Gaza are left without vaccines,” Feb. 9). But Article 56 of the Geneva Accords do not require the occupying power to “provide” vaccines. Rather, it call for maintaining health “with the cooperation of national and local authorities.” According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, if the local and national authorities are capable of managing the population’s health needs, the occupying power is not obligated to take on responsibility for handling an epidemic, nor it is required to be at all involved. Rather, the occupying power must “avoid hampering the work of the organizations responsible for the task.”

Some more recent news items do not explicitly state that critics charge that Israel is obligated to supply Palestinians with the vaccine. By injecting the irrelevant information that Palestinians have been vaccinated in relatively low rates into coverage about Israel’s handling of the pandemic, these items takes a more subtle approach implicating Israel in allegedly withholding vaccines from Palestinians who are owed them.

In the Feb. 21 Nightly News segment about Israel’s “green pass” program enabling the reopening of the country’s economy, Sarah Harman inserts: “Critics point out that although nearly half of Israelis have received at least one dose, the country has supplied far fewer shots to Palestinians” (“Israel’s vaccine passports required to enter certain businesses“).

Even a story focused on the American coronavirus situation which includes the encouraging results from Israel’s vaccine campaign contains the gratuitous parenthetical statement: “(Israel’s vaccine strategy has come under fire for excluding Palestinians.” (“Is the U.S. turning a corner in the pandemic?” Feb. 10).

By noting that Israel is giving few doses to Palestinians, or that the Palestinians are receiving vaccines at a relatively low rate, without providing the context that under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority has responsibility for supplying the vaccines, news consumers’ natural (incorrect) assumption is that Israel is at fault for the Palestinian shortfall.

Saturday Night Live’s satirical news report about Israel withholding vaccines from non-Jews is only a slight departure from NBC’s repeated false but actual news items demonizing Israel as derelict in its supposed responsibility to vaccinate Palestinians.