Saturday Night Live tells the uncomfortable truth about Israel

Michael Che's joke about Israel's COVID-19 vaccination campaign pokes fun at a regime that does little to hide its supremacist policies.

Saturday Night Live's Michael Che, February 20, 2021. (YouTube Screenshot)
Saturday Night Live's Michael Che, February 20, 2021. (YouTube Screenshot)

Sometimes all it takes is a single joke to expose the things that are not supposed to be spoken about. During the famed Weekend Update segment on the latest episode of Saturday Night Live on February 20, Michael Che took a risk few comedians — or any public figures, for that matter — would dare to take: he made a joke about Israel. “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half,” Che quipped.

The eight-second joke, which insinuated that Israel is excluding Palestinians from its national COVID-19 vaccination campaign, was enough for some Israeli officials and leaders of the American Jewish establishment to accuse Che and SNL of distorting the truth at best, and committing a blood libel at worst.

The American Jewish Committee immediately circulated a petition calling Che’s joke a “modern twist on a classic anti-Semitic trope that has inspired the mass murder of Jews throughout the century;” AJC Global Communications Director Avi Mayer demanded the comedian apologize.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform movement in North America, said the joke “was in poor taste. In fact, Israel is a world leader in Covid vaccinations, protecting Jewish and Arab citizens alike.”

Israel Nitzan, Israel’s consul general in New York, also wrote, “Spreading antisemitic lies & misinformation is already a problem. Fanning the flames just to get a laugh is not only wrong, it’s irresponsible. Israel has made the vaccine available for its entire population equitably, regardless of gender, race or religion.” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, said that “perpetuating antisemitism is just not funny.”

On the one hand, Che arguably could have opted for some more precise language that still would have gotten his point across. But that’s not the problem with this comedy bit. Che’s joke — and the backlash against it — have shown the real reason the pro-Israel establishment is so afraid of such quips: they call out Israel’s policy of Jewish supremacy in front of American audiences.

Between citizens and subjects

Since rolling out its impressive vaccination campaign this year, Israel has come under much criticism for refusing to extend that campaign to millions of stateless Palestinians who live under its military rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For over half a century, Israel has lorded over Palestinian society, plundered their land, erased the border of “Israel Proper,” and settled hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in a territory slated for a Palestinian state. With this one-state reality firmly in place, Israel is now attempting to obfuscate who exactly counts as part of Israel’s “population” — and whether they are deserving of the country’s public health service.

For pro-Israel acolytes, the question of who has Israeli citizenship is the only thing that matters in this conversation. Palestinians in the occupied territories are not Israeli citizens, they say, and thus should look to the Palestinian Authority to provide for their needs. Even the Oslo Accords, which designate certain responsibilities between Israel and the PA, stipulate that the government in Ramallah is charged with ensuring the Palestinians’ public health.

Palestinian health workers receive the COVID-19 vaccination after a limited shipment of vaccines were transferred from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, Nablus, West Bank February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers receive the COVID-19 vaccination after a limited shipment of vaccines were transferred from Israel to the Palestinian Authority, Nablus, West Bank February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The proponents of this argument conveniently overlook the fact that, since its signing, Israel has aggressively undermined countless aspects of the accords — an interim agreement that never led to full Palestinian autonomy, let alone the freedom to build a functioning health system — while cherry-picking which provisions to follow based on its own interests.

The Oslo Accords instead became a way to obscure the fact that Palestinians in the occupied territories still live according to Israel’s colonial whims. Over five million people, the “non-Jewish half,” remain subject to Israel’s matrix of domination without receiving even the most basic civil rights. That includes the right to vote for the very government that dictates nearly every facet of their lives.

None of these realities concern pro-Israel propagandists; as long as Palestinians are not citizens, they are not part of the country’s “population.” They are either someone else’s problem, or a burden that should be made invisible. When you follow that logic long enough, it turns into annular limbo: Palestinians don’t have rights because they aren’t citizens, and they cannot be citizens because they are Palestinian.

It is precisely this kind of dual argument that has given Israel cover to maintain the structures of domination over Palestinians ad infinitum. This logic doesn’t exist in a vacuum: while Israel actively denies Palestinians their rights, it is simultaneously, and explicitly, enshrining Jewish supremacy in its law books. It is happening as Israeli courts approve the evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem while replacing them with Jewish settlers. And it is happening as institutions acting in the name of the Jewish people, like the Jewish National Fund, are further formalizing their role in the state’s apartheid policies.

Apartheid on national television

That is why Israel’s denial of vaccines to Palestinians is neither a technical quibble over Oslo nor a debate around citizenship: it is the direct and inevitable result of Jewish supremacy across Israel-Palestine.

Given this context, it should be obvious that Che’s joke was not aimed at Jewish people, as figures like Mayer, Erdan, and Nitzan — whose job it is to shield Israel from criticism — would have us believe. It was directed at a regime that does very little to hide the immense privileges it affords its Jewish citizens at the expense of the rest of the “population” under its control.

Israeli soldiers accompany a group of Jewish tourists in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 16, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers accompany a group of Jewish tourists in the West Bank city of Hebron, May 16, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that the blowback has little to do with Che’s choice of words, or that they somehow revive ancient antisemitic tropes. Rather, it is a hysterical response to a Black comedian, in a country that is still grappling with white supremacy, hinting that there may be something similarly supremacist at the heart of the Israeli project. And all of it on national television.

Those who are now demanding that SNL apologize aren’t used to operating in an environment in which such observations can be tolerated on television. The last four years under the Trump administration have been a godsend to the pro-Israel industry, which has actively encouraged a chilling effect on free speech and public criticism of Israel through the clampdown on Palestine activism and the widespread adoption of the IHRA definition.

But with the Trump era at its decrescendo, many of us can now breathe, albeit momentarily. Michael Che’s brisk joke on Saturday night was a collective sigh of relief — air rushing back into the lungs after years of being in a stranglehold.