OPINION| Examining bias in censorship on Israel/Palestine

Ori Tsameret, Intersections Editor

courtesy of SNL

On Saturday, Feb. 20th, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” premiered as usual, featuring, as always, a litany of sketches performed by the ensemble cast and celebrity guest host. As part of their usual show, “SNL” presented the “Weekend Update” sketch, hosted by comedians Michael Che and Colin Jost. 

This particular rendition, however, featured a jab at Israel. Che, over the span of 10 seconds, joked, “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population. And I’m gonna guess it’s the Jewish half.”

Although the cleverly subversive punchline — which referenced Palestinian residents of Israel/Palestine’s inability to access COVID-19 vaccinations — was well received amongst the audience, with cheers and claps, it didn’t take long for the comment to garner some controversy. Albeit this is a hot topic in political discourse, there was an unusually swift, arguably harsh reaction by many viewers decrying the alleged anti-Semitism laced into the joke. 

The controversy embroiling “SNL” and Che specifically reached a peak with the involvement of influential Israel-advocating political and media organizations such as StandWithUs, informally known as the “Israel Lobby.” These organizations utilized their platforms to demand an apology from NBC and accused “SNL” and Che of promoting “blood libel,” a deeply-rooted anti-Semitic canard that accuses a population’s Jewish people of murdering non-Jewish people for the purpose of furthering their own interests. These accusations have historically been used to justify persecution and violence against Jewish populations worldwide, particularly in Europe.

However, in considering the situation and the claims leveraged against Che, the show, and the network at large, viewers must contemplate if the “Weekend Update” reference was actually an insensitive joke. Behind every stinging joke, there is a kernel of truth: Israel’s governmental policies the past year or so have been unkind to Palestinians and often reactionary.

In response to the alarming lack of vaccinations that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have received, many pro-Israel supporters pointed out that the Oslo Accords require the Palestinian Authority to handle health issues in the occupied territories. This, however, ignores the lack of authority of the PA and the superseding Geneva Convention, which defines humanitarian treatment for international law and requires that Israel vaccinate its Palestinian population. 

On top of this argument, Israel’s advocates make the claim that Israel vaccinates all of its citizens, including its Palestinian constituents, commonly referred to as Arab-Israelis. However, not only does this disregard the fact that Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are dependent on Israel for vaccination, it is also not entirely true. Palestinians with Israeli citizenship receive vaccines at disproportionately lower rates than their Jewish Israeli counterparts, showing a lack of regard even among the more assimilated portions of the Palestinian population. 

Regardless of the truthfulness of Che’s statement or its merit as a plausible exhibition of anti-Semitic tendencies, the hasty online mob that descended on “SNL” reflects a tendency to fixate on anti-Semitism by people of color. This rings particularly true in the case of Black individuals and is part of a larger historical issue, as both Jews’ participation in Civil Rights movements and tension between Black and Jewish folks is often strongly emphasized

The essentialization between the two demographics consequently leads to a faux antagonism that can, in turn, lead to assumptions of inherent anti-Semitism amongst Black communities, hurting Black Jews the most. This bias is evident in the case of “SNL”: Jost, Che’s partner as head writer for “Weekend Update” was hardly mentioned, if at all, during the media backlash Che received. Jost is white and Catholic, a demographic that has historically hurt Jewish populations far more, yet no mention of his potential culpability arose.

Backlash to the joke also shows the stark difference in censorship experiences that Zionist and pro-Palestine commentators receive. Many liberal Zionists — not to mention those to their political right — bemoan the censorship they receive, particularly as American Jews continue to grow disenchanted with Israel. 

This is especially apparent on college campuses, where new groups like Jewish on Campus highlight experiences of discomfort for students. Although Jewish students should never have to answer for Israel and several of these experiences warrant concern, others cannot be compared to the censorship Palestinians and their allies are subjected to. Just last week, a four-year legal battle between Palestine advocates and Fordham University culminated in the state ruling in favor of the university and allowing it to refuse to recognize Students for Justice in Palestine, a widespread political club advocating for Palestinian rights.

Perpetuating anti-Semitic tropes is worthy of attention to an extent but should not replace much more alarming evidence of material anti-Semitism. Often, fixation on stereotypes being allegedly peddled in this case — that Jews spread disease — is far greater than the focus on alarming displays of white nationalism and Nazism or hate crimes. If critics of Michael Che, who mentioned only Israel and made no reference of the global Jewish population, believe that his joke truly could lead to danger for Jews, it’s worth questioning why they didn’t demand any material consequences or restoration of safety; demanding an apology from a media corporation will certainly not create safety for Jews in the diaspora. 

On a broader note, sites like Canary Mission, which doxx, or expose personal information online of pro-Palestine activists do not do anything to protect Jews. They simply erode Jews’ coalitions with other oppressed groups instead of pushing for solidarity. Not only that, but they even list several Jewish activists on their site, putting them in active danger.

The last problematic strand surrounding the discourse on Israel/Palestine censorship is simply that this debate as a whole is a distraction from ensuring justice for both Jewish and Palestinian communities. As critics discussed the politics of Che’s joke, water justice efforts in Palestine continued, having preceded the debate on vaccinations without creating nearly the same wave of outrage. Advocates working towards the end of anti-Semitism, the institution of Palestinian self-determination over their land and safety for both Jewish and Palestinian diasporas should get involved beyond superficial media nitpicking.

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