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Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart and Jewish Anti-Defamation

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Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

In response to Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live monologue about who really runs things, Jon Stewart appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert suggesting he would make a better “spokesJew” than those who currently fulfil that role.

But would he? And what should we expect from Jewish anti-defamation groups, in the United States and around the world, in response to the comments and tweets by Dave Chappelle, Kyrie Irving and Kanye West?

To respond to these questions, we need to look back at the flow of Chappelle’s remarks and at Stewart’s response.

Chappelle’s Monologue

Did Dave Chappelle “normalize” antisemitism, as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and others have charged? In other words, did he render antisemitic tropes more winsome by encasing them in fun and humour? And even if he was mocking those tropes (along with responses to them), did he defend the perceptions that spawned them?

I would break down his monologue into the following points.

First, Chappelle started out by saying that he was going to read “a statement that I prepared.” The audience laughed before hearing the statement, knowing that it would be part of the gag. The personal denunciation of “antisemitism in all its forms” and pledge to “stand with my friends in the Jewish community” was a parody of forced apologies by ADL-like organizations. After all, right after mock-ceremoniously reading it, Chappelle said, “And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time.” Anyone ever put in the position of such apologies would laugh with some relief; and those who demanded them, nervously.

Second, Chappelle then observed that “there are two words in the English language that you never say together in sequence…. ‘the’ and ‘Jews.’” He added that he “never heard someone do good after they said that.” The suggestion was that Jews are protected either by their own power or by social consensus or both. He paused to joke about waiting to see the audience’s response so far before continuing his monologue, implying that there would be instant ramifications for saying, “the Jews.”

Third, Chappelle made fun of Kanye West’s tweet which was widely perceived as a threat against the Jews. He depicted it as groggy bed talk, imagining that West immediately rolled back to sleep. But Chappelle joked that he was too worried to go back to sleep, wondering what Ye was going to do to the Jews. The implication is that the tweet was no more threatening than talking in one’s sleep and that most people would sleep through it, anyway. But of course, threats of violence can and do trigger violence, and tweets, like this one, are re-tweeted to millions, including many who might act violently.

Fourth, Chappelle said that he grew up among Jews and that they do have customs and holidays that are hard to understand even by those who know them well. This gratuitous comment, perhaps meant as self-deprecating humour for failure to learn more about Jewish teachings and practices, does suggest that Jews have some strange ways that some might (reasonably?) consider nefarious.

Fifth, he then dealt with West’s declaration, “I can say antisemitic things and Adidas can’t drop me.”  Chappelle noted that Adidas had no qualms about dropping the black guy immediately (actually, it took days), even though the company was founded by Nazi collaborators. Chappelle emphasized the irony of a company with Nazi origins firing West (“the student surpassed the teacher?”).

Sixth, Chappelle attributed these ironic scenarios to Kanye’s having broken show business rules, you know, the rules of perception”: “If they’re black, then it’s a gang. If they’re Italian, it’s a mob. But if they’re Jewish, it’s a coincidence and you should not speak about it.” This is the crux of Chappelle’s monologue: Whatever Jews do to marshal their power for self-protection is analogous to crime-driven organizations of other minority groups.

Seventh, he added that Kanye’s running afoul of the Jewish community and its supporters got Kyrie Irving into trouble for simply providing a link, “with no captions,” to a movie that reportedly denies the Holocaust and teaches that Jews are historical frauds united only by greed and power lust. (Later, Chappelle suggested that a fair punishment for pushing this film would be to post a link to the Holocaust film, Schindler’s List with one’s own (forced apology?) caption. There has, by the way, been open season for jokes about Schindler’s List since a famous episode of Seinfeld featured an off-colour dating joke about the film.) Chappelle continued: The ADL told Irving that he should apologize and he was slow to apologize and then the list of demands to get back in their good graces got longer and longer and this is where, you know, I draw the line.

Here, the ADL is taken to task for demanding a certain course of action and even a tax. Regarding the latter, it was reported that Irving was to hand over to the ADL $500,000 in “apology” money, which was returned when he refused at a press conference to disavow anti-Semitic beliefs. Anti-Defamation League refuses Kyrie Irving’s $500,000 donation (nypost.com) To many Jews and non-Jews, the whole affair had the appearance of a media-frenzied shake down.

Eighth, he acknowledged that “the Jewish People have been through terrible things all over the world, but you can’t blame that on black Americans.” Irving’s “black ass was nowhere near the Holocaust. In fact, he’s not even certain it existed.” Do not blame African Americans for the European persecution of Jews or for ignorance about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Ninth, Chappelle further suggested that African Americans cannot be blamed for their perceptions regarding Jewish control of certain professions and industries, particularly show business. Such perceptions are understandable.

Chappelle observed that if there is a perception of inordinate Jewish power and influence in the Jewish community, then it is reasonable: “I’ve been to Hollywood and this is just what I saw: It’s a lot of Jews, like a lot. But that doesn’t mean a thing. There are a lot of black people in Ferguson, MO, but they don’t own the place… It’s not a crazy thing to think that Jews own show business if you visit Hollywood. But it’s a crazy thing to say out loud.”

Of course, the naming of Ferguson, a place associated with injustice to African Americans by the police, highlights a power gap between blacks and other Americans, including Jews. The clear implication here is that predominance of blacks in a place does not suggest controlling power, but the predominance of Jews does.

Tenth, after some observations on politics and the economy and growing distrust in government Chappelle, returned to the theme of antisemitism, or, rather, to efforts to squelch free speech: “It shouldn’t be scary to talk—about anything. It’s making my job incredibly difficult. To be honest with you, I’m getting sick of talking to a crowd like this. I love you to death and thank you for your support. But I hope they don’t take anything away from me—whoever they are.” Chappelle thus concluded that it was an onerous task to have to make a defence of the black men accused of antisemitism and that he does not want to be ganged up on by “whoever they are.”

Of course, Chappelle’s comments are (purposely?) open to much interpretation because due to a lack of structure. It’s hard to tell whether his zingers are the closing punch lines or for shock value.  During the political jokes, for example, he observed that President Donald Trump had a clever election strategy and that the Democrats were sore losers, accusing him of colluding with Russia though in hindsight “he probably was colluding with Russia.” Is the closing jab there simply for shock value or does Chappelle really believe in the collusion? If the latter is true, then the “whoever they are” at the end of his speech is really intended as a wink and nod to the old “Jews control everything” trope. It certainly appears that way.

Based on the points outlined above, I would summarize Chappelle’s comments as follows:

Kanye broke showbusiness rules of perception: If they’re black, then it’s a gang. If they’re Italian, it’s a mob. But if they’re Jewish, it’s a coincidence and you should not speak about it. Whatever he says or believes, Kyrie Irving was nowhere near the Holocaust. The Jewish People have been through terrible things all over the world, but you can’t blame that on black Americans, Do not blame African Americans for European persecution of Jews or for ignorance about antisemitism and the Holocaust. African Americans also cannot be blamed for their perceptions regarding Jewish control of certain professions and industries, particularly show business. Such perceptions are understandable, even though “they” can and will always punish those who express those perceptions.

Jon Stewart Responds

On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Stewart declared himself a “spokesJew,” and commentated accordingly. He made a point of saying that he counts Chappelle as a good friend.

Obviously, he thought that the best way to respond to Chappelle’s monologue was to start off with gentle jokes and then reinforce them with increasing doses of irony. He observed that, since Saturday Night Live, the phrase, “the Jews” had been trending on Twitter. While the number of tweets is impressive, he added, he knew that the comments on Jews were not going to be of the “they bought everyone ice cream” kind.

To those who regard Jews through conspiracy theories, he joked: “We hear you. We know the power and control that the Jews have collectively—cause that’s how we wield it. I’m not on all the committees. I don’t know who ended Kanye’s Adidas deal—that wasn’t my committee. I’m on oil prices and bagel flavours.” Irony is appropriate here, but Stewart was rather soft in his mockery of Jewish “collectivity” or “unity” (which, of course, are myths). Also rather insipid was his tongue-in-cheek “apology” for there never having been a Christian U.S. president.

As “spokesJew,” Stewart also saw it as his obligation to mock mainstream Jewish organizational spokespeople who charged that Chappelle “normalized” antisemitism, observing that “comments” sections on the internet have long been filled with anti-Jewish venom. Stewart’s argument was not very strong.

Stewart challenged longstanding anti-defamation policies, insisting that “censorship and penalties are not the way to end antisemitism.” He added that “penalizing somebody for having a thought” is not the “way to change their minds or to gain understanding.” It is demeaning, he said, to put a “grown ass man” like Kyrie Irving in a “time out”: “You’re going to sit in a corner and stare at the wall until you no longer believe that the Jews control the international banking system.” But, of course, tweeting comments and links to millions more than there are Jews is not just a “thought.”

Blaming a lot of the controversy on the “media model” of “arson in conflict,” Stewart cited a proverb mentioned by Kanye West: “Hurt people hurt people.”  Stewart said that Jews need to understand that blacks have felt that their culture (and wealth) have been “extracted” by different groups and that blacks need to understand that a large Jewish presence in an industry does not mean that Jews are nefariously pulling puppet strings.

For the most part, then, Stewart was a weak “spokesJew” who declared the obvious. Particularly jarring was his need to throw into the discussion that he has been called an antisemite because he’s “against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.” Why this gratuitous and irrelevant and nonconstructive verbal “arson,” to use his word, in dealing with the conflict over Chappelle’s comments—and, indeed, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Israelis are still being attacked with missiles and bombs?

Stewart does deserve credit, however, for brilliantly parodying Chappelle’s key phrase (point 6 above):“ A white person’s success is because of privilege. A minority’s success is because of empowerment. A Jew’s success—that’s a conspiracy.

This is the kind of humour and parody and irony that best counters Chappelle-type monologues about “perceptions” of Jews. Also, it will always be important to call out and point out what is anti-Semitic about all-too-common antisemitic tropes wherever they burst forth. And it should not be acceptable for anti-defamation organizations of any kind to be seen as photo-op public shaming (punishing) or as having even the appearance of shake-down methods.

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Elliot B. Gertel is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He has been film and television reviewer of the "National Jewish Post and Opinion" since 1979. His books include What Jews Know About Salvation and Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television.
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