Why Michael Che's 'SNL' joke about Israeli vaccinations sparked a debate about anti-Semitism

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Rachel E. Greenspan
·6 min read
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michael che backlash controversy jewish israel joke snl
Anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che during 'Weekend Update' on Saturday, February 20, 2021. Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
  • Michael Che's 'Weekend Update' joke about Israel's vaccination rollout caused an uproar online.

  • Several Jewish advocacy groups called on Che and 'Saturday Night Live' to apologize for the joke.

  • But others said that criticizing Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Michael Che's joke about Israel's vaccination rollout on "Saturday Night Live" this weekend sparked tense backlash online as several Jewish organizations called on the NBC show to apologize.

"Israel is reporting that they've vaccinated half of their population, and I'm gonna guess it's the Jewish half," Che said late Saturday night during "Weekend Update," the satirical broadcast news segment on "SNL" he hosts alongside Colin Jost.

On "Weekend Update," Che and Jost share real news headlines with comedic punchlines. Because it is satire, these lines are frequently factually inaccurate and offensive to some. But the joke from Che - no stranger to cracking controversial jokes during his "SNL" segment - inspired swift backlash.

Critics said Che's joke promoted dangerous stereotypes about Israel and that the joke was anti-Semitic, while others celebrated the joke for calling out the Israeli government, as millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza await vaccination.

Insider previously reported on tensions in the American Jewish community, where many are divided politically, particularly concerning Israel.

A spokesperson for "Saturday Night Live" did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The joke criticized the Israeli government over its treatment of non-Jews

Religion is not a factor in Israel's vaccine eligibility plan; Che's joke criticized the Israeli government's treatment of non-Jewish people living in Palestinian territories.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government has said it is not the country's responsibility to vaccinate people living in the Palestinian territories. The "disparity" between Israeli vaccinations and Palestinian vaccinations has already "set off a roiling debate," The New York Times reported.

The Palestinian Authority, which is responsible for Palestinians in the territories, has accused the Israeli government of blocking vaccine shipments to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Reuters reported.

The World Bank said in a report on Monday that the Palestinian vaccine plan was short on funds and urged Israel to donate excess vaccine doses to the Palestinian territories.

Many have criticized the joke and called it 'anti-Semitic'

The controversy comes as anti-Semitic incidents increased in the last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the United Nations. Many critics of Che's joke invoked the history of Jewish people being blamed for mass deaths and the spread of disease.

Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the ADL, told Insider in a statement, "Saturday's deeply offensive joke about Israel's COVID-19 vaccination process not only missed the mark, but crossed the line -- basing the premise of the joke on factual inaccuracies and playing into an antisemitic trope in the process."

Greenblatt said the ADL has found other "Weekend Update" jokes this season that "inappropriately use Jews as the punchline," and that he reached out to Lorne Michaels, the creator and producer of "SNL," to discuss the jokes.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a nonprofit that consists of dozens of Jewish organizations, condemned the joke in a statement Sunday.

"We find the use of age-old antisemitic tropes on last night's episode of Saturday Night Live to be deeply troubling. It is particularly painful for this to occur at a time when antisemitic incidents, some resulting in death and injury, are at record highs," the statement said. The organization referenced the way Jewish communities have been blamed for some COVID-19 outbreaks.

The statement continued, "Saturday Night Live's ill conceived 'joke' adds to the heap of lies and conspiratorial allegations surrounding the Jewish people and COVID-19 that recalls medieval accusations of Jews being responsible for disease and plagues."

Gilad Erdan, Israel's ambassador to the US and the UN, said in a tweet that the segment was "ignorant" and called on "SNL" to apologize. "I'm a big fan of humor but, perpetuating antisemitism is just not funny," Erdan said.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), a Jewish advocacy group, started a petition "calling on NBC to retract its outrageous claim and apologize immediately."

Anti-Semitic tropes about Jews circulated throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, with some still existing in different forms today. The blood-libel conspiracy theory, which alleged that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children, provides the loose basis for the far-right QAnon conspiracy-theory movement. Jews were also blamed for the spread of the Bubonic Plague, also called the "Black Death," leading to mass killings of Jews.

Avi Mayer, the managing director of global communications for AJC, said in a tweet that given this history, Che's joke wasn't "funny at all; it's dangerous."

Marianne Williamson, the former Democratic presidential candidate, said in a tweet that she "cringed" during the segment. "Enough that the Israeli govt does is worthy of legitimate criticism; lying about what they do is just as bad," she said.

Some celebrated the joke for calling out the Israeli government

Following the controversial joke (and intense reaction), many activists and advocacy groups celebrated Che for the joke and criticized the criticism itself.

Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish advocacy group seeking an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, said in a tweet, "They say there's a grain of truth to every joke, but this SNL one has 5 million - the 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have yet to receive vaccines."

Rohan Talbot, an advocacy manager for Medical Aid for Palestinians, said that Israel has "singly ruled" over Israel and the Palestinian territories, but "has guaranteed vaccine access to only one half of this combined population."

In an essay for Haaretz, Joshua Shanes, an associate professor of Jewish Studies and the director of the Arnold Center for Israel at the College of Charleston, said that Che's joke "wasn't antisemitic at all."

The charge of anti-Semitism is "commonly tossed at critics of Israeli behavior," Shanes writes. "Pointing out Israeli systemic discrimination against non-Jews is not antisemitic."

This article has been updated to include a statement from Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.

Read the original article on Insider