The comedian Dave Chappelle was the guest host on Saturday Night Live last weekend. Chappelle has built a reputation for controversy for jokes about sexual assault and about trans people. In his monologue on Saturday night, he made similarly controversial jokes about the antisemitic social media posts by music performer and producer Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and by basketball player Kyrie Irving.
I won’t try to repeat Chappelle’s jokes. First of all, I could never duplicate his expert timing and delivery. Second, the content of the jokes is not really the point I want to make tonight. Let it suffice to say that Chappelle’s jokes about antisemitism were all based on the idea that while Jews may or may not control the media, it’s a bad idea to even talk about it because doing so will get you in trouble with … well, he wouldn’t say directly, but I think you get the point. It was hard to listen to Chappelle’s act and not get the idea that, rather than repudiating antisemitism, he was working to get laughs by repeating some of the most tired and destructive stereotypes about “The Jews,” as he referred to us repeatedly. What a shame.
Of course, complaining about a comedian’s jokes is a rather futile task. Comedy has its own language and style. Trying to criticize comedians as if they were college professors or politicians usually ends up sounding mean-spirited, culturally clueless, or just like you “don't know how to take a joke.” It’s not a game I want to play.
Maybe the best response to Chappelle came from a fellow comedian. Jon Stewart, who is Jewish, when he appeared on The Late Show. He made his own jokes about the idiocy of conspiracy theories that say that Jews secretly control everything from oil prices to bagel flavors. Sometimes the best way to counter a nasty joke is with a joke of your own.
Also, I will mention that a few of my Black Jewish friends have said they did not find Chappelle’s performance to be antisemitic. Dave Chappelle is Black and much of his humor is in the idioms and style of Black American culture. I may be deaf to the nuance of Chappelle’s jokes that were intended to make fun of antisemitism, not amplify it. I’m open to that.
Nonetheless, what I heard, and what some four million viewers on the show’s live broadcast heard, was a comedian who was willing to talk about antisemitism in a way that we don’t often hear in America. Chappelle himself stated in his monologue, “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything,” and, of course, he is right. Many Jews in America right now are feeling very scared by the way that antisemitism keeps popping up in the news and in popular culture, but with very little context to show how dangerous it can be. We know. We remember. But much of America seems to be scared to talk about the fact that this type of rhetoric, if left unchecked, will lead to hateful violence against Jews, just as it always has in the past.
Tonight, I want to talk about what we are seeing in America and the world right now and what we can do about it. It’s not any easy topic for me to talk about and, I believe, it’s not easy for most of you to hear it. But it has to be said.
Since Ye’s antisemitic tweets a few weeks ago, there has been a surge of hateful speech and threats against the Jewish community throughout the country. Here in Rhode Island, antisemitic flyers were thrown onto driveways and front yards in the Oakland Beach neighborhood of Warwick and in North Providence just this week. In Bethesda, Maryland, not far from the congregation served by Rabbi Eric Abbott, who grew up here at Temple Sinai, antisemitic messages were found spray painted on fences and brick walls. My social media page is filled with reports from rabbis across the country about antisemitic posters, threatening messages on Temple voicemail, and loud public opposition to even the most basic statements against antisemitism. It all feels surreal. We wonder how this could be happening in America.
Well, I know what’s not happening. We are not living in a world where antisemitism disappeared, once upon a time, and now has mysteriously come back. No. We know that antisemitism has always been here. It is the conspiracy theory that never seems to go away. From medieval times to today it has hardly changed at all. “The Jews are secretly spreading the Black Plague.” “The Jews are secretly kidnapping children for their blood.” “The Jews are secretly manipulating the world economy.” “The Jews are conspiring to take your job and give it to a Mexican.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The difference now is that antisemitism has come out from the shadows and into the mainstream. It may have started with an American President who openly courted and gave legitimacy to far-right white supremacist groups that are openly antisemitic. It has now spread to other cultural groups who see Jews as a convenient scapegoat for their own oppression. There is something about hating Jews that has always seemed more acceptable in American society than hating any other ethnic or cultural group, and it sometimes seems like we are the only people who notice.
So, what do we do? I like Jon Stewart's approach of fighting humor with humor. It’s smart and culturally savvy, but it is not nearly enough. We also need to start doing a better job of calling out antisemitism when it appears and we need to do a better job of “calling in” people who are blind to antisemitism (sometimes even their own hidden antisemitism) and inviting them into conversation and partnership. That is the approach that the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island is taking this week.
They have prepared social media messages calling on our allies to support and show up for the Jewish community. They are contacting non-Jewish leaders asking them to speak out against antisemitism. They are also reaching out to local news programs, meeting with business, civic and elected officials, consulting with law enforcement, and generally issuing a wake-up call to begin the scary conversation that nobody seems to want to engaged in – a conversation about the rise of antisemitism and what real and tangible support for the Jewish community would look like.
I’ve been doing this, too. Yesterday I had a meeting with a group of Episcopal priests with whom I have partnered in the past and directly asked them to talk about antisemitism from their pulpits. They have agreed to do that. I had a separate meeting yesterday with a diverse group of Christian clergy members in East Greenwich, and they have agreed to issue a joint public statement about antisemitism. Slowly, we are getting the word out that the normalization of antisemitic rhetoric is going to be countered by the normalization of calling out antisemites and the message that antisemitism is not compatible with our society’s civic, religious and moral values. It won’t happen overnight and there is a need to stay vigilant against hatred, but we can do it.
And the task of opposing antisemitism is not just a job for Jewish leaders and rabbis. I want to ask you to participate in this task, too. I recently completed an adult education class on antisemitism on Zoom and the videos and class materials from that class are available on the Temple’s website. Take a look and consider the advice I gave on how to identify and counter antisemitism in your own personal interactions.
When you hear or see language and behavior that amplifies negative stereotypes about Jews, don’t be silent. The simplest response can be the kind that Jon Stewart gave on The Late Show. Point it out. Don’t let it go by without comment. Even make a joke about it. It’s a better response than nothing. But you can do more.
Ask people who make such comments how they imagine their words affect Jews and other people who face ridicule and oppression. Invite them to share their own stories about how they learned to think and talk about Jews and tell them your own stories.
And we can do more than that, too. Enlist the aid and support of non-Jewish allies. Do you think it was easy for me to say to a group of my non-Jewish friends that they need to speak out about antisemitism? I assure you it was not, but it is necessary. Antisemitism is not a problem that was created by Jews and it cannot be solved by Jews alone. We need to know who are friends are and ask them to stand with us.
Finally, here’s another thing you can do – educate yourself. Learn about the history and tropes of antisemitism so you will notice it when it arises and so you can help others identify it, too. While you’re at it, also learn about the history of other forms of racial and ethnic hatreds and get more comfortable talking about all forms of racism and bigotry. When our friends in the Black community, the Muslim community, and the LGBTQIA community see that we care about the hatred directed against them, they will feel more willing to care about and to act against the hatred directed against us. That’s how you build a movement.
And that’s what we need. Antisemites have been building a movement for decades and even centuries. Not every person who holds antisemitic views is part of an organized antisemitic movement, but the few who are work hard to get as many people as possible to hear their message. We have to build a movement that will get people to hear our message – the true message of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Rather than being a people who conspire in the shadows with nefarious plans to overthrow civilization – as antisemites imagine – we are a people who have stood up for moral values. Where they see Jews overrepresented in the media, in the world of finance, and in government, we point out that Jews are actually overrepresented in the work of fighting poverty, addressing racial injustice, supporting democracy, advancing the arts, and building inclusion, equality and justice for all. If Dave Chappelle wants to talk about “The Jews,” he needs to include that crucial part of the total picture.
The times are frightening and we have every reason to feel troubled, but we are not without the ability to do something about it. Be a part of the movement.