Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s Week in Jews: Lorne Michaels is somebody you can blame for letting antisemitism fly further into prime time

Fear not, my fellow Canadian or Canada-residing Jews, even if all those YouTube links don’t work, it’s not that the poor man’s been cancelled.

We too can watch comedian Dave Chappelle’s recent Saturday Night Live appearance (either on the Global TV website or in segments on Twitter) including the now-notorious opening monologue, the stretch where he directs his problematicness shtick from gender to Jews.

It includes a disclaimer portion where Chappelle mock-reads a little note rejecting antisemitism, saying Kanye West should have done this. The gist is that the audience first thinks the stand-up comic is making fun of antisemites (Kyrie Irving also comes up), but as the monologue progresses, it’s clear his target is a society in which it’s forbidden to speak the truth about Jewish domination.

An antisemitic monologue, in other words. 

For context, Chappelle is a contrarian. An edgelord. More on why this matters in a moment. It is, in any case, a difficult watch:  

“Everyone knows Kanye is nuts. Chappelle posits himself as a teller of difficult truths. It’s worse.”

The point of Chappelle’s monologue isn’t that Jews control Hollywood, or not exactly. It’s that Jews control Hollywood and you’re not allowed to talk about it. That would seem to be the nature of this conspiracy theory. This idea that you’re allowed to be bigoted against other groups, but heaven forfend you say something about Jews. 

What you’ll find on YouTube are commenters—thousands of them—cheering on one line in particular: Chappelle says that Kanye had “broken the show business rules,” elaborating, “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 never speak about it.” 

In structure and delivery, it’s a masterful joke. Chappelle is a talented comedian! In content, it’s only clever if you believe that anti-Jewish views are never publicly aired. 

The entire phenomenon of “difficult truths” presupposes a society where things that are actually said all the time are in fact unspeakable things it takes courage to remark upon. It’s why you get men on the internet announcing that women are at their most attractive when 19 years old, claiming that no one will admit this, when there’s also the entire profession of fashion modeling, which women age out of in their mid-20s. 

Along the same lines, to mention in neutral terms that Jews have been and remain active in Hollywood is just historical fact, not a conspiracy theory, not a nefarious stereotype. Disproportionate representation, however, is different from control, which is where things tend to get dicey.

It would be one thing if a comedian did a bit about Jews as hypersensitive to perceived bigotry. Yes, it would come across as rude if from a non-Jewish comedian, but it’s the sort of thing Jewish comics have been known to riff on. 

Chappelle, though, is not lampooning the thin-skinned. Rather, he’s claiming that Jews (in entertainment, at least) are all-powerful, and are using that power to control speech. That he’s doing this on the television program supervised by Lorne Michaels would rather seem to diminish the claim itself. 

It’s not inherently complicated or interesting that some antisemites happen to be Black, any more than that some racists happen to be Jewish. In neither case does marginalization according to one identity trait mean that someone couldn’t possibly be a bigot. Even if you agree with the “racism is prejudice plus power” formulation, this is a case of hatred in different directions. 

It seems very of-the-moment, if a bit pointless, a bit unfair, to relegate this topic solely to Black Jews, who exist, yes, but who might want to spend their time doing literally anything else. When a white Jew says something anti-Black, presumably it’s the lane of everyone Black to take this on (with others ideally doing so as well, but as allies), not the specific responsibility of Black Jews. Same goes. 

(Oh and if you think antisemitism scandals only involve Black celebrities, might I suggest a listen to the latest Desert Island Discs, the one with Maxine Peake.)

More complicated is what exactly to do once someone—a mentally precarious celebrity, a misinformed athlete, or a provocative comedian—insults Jews. Must they donate to the Anti-Defamation League? Attend a sixth-grade Holocaust class? The paradox is that you kind of have to do something to demonstrate that these views are unacceptable, but whatever you go with, it will backfire. 

In Chappelle’s case specifically, the backfiring consists of affirming the edginess of a comic who’s made edginess his brand. The temptation is then to insist that one is not offended, which… can maybe be gotten around by not making this about the taking of offense. Maybe be angry, not offended.

And maybe, rather than asking for Chappelle to apologize, just lean into your own right to accurately describe what is right there in front of you. You know, to tell it like it is.

Now you can tell Phoebe what you think: pbovy[@]

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