Comedy as criticism: Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah and the issue of Israel

via youtube
via youtube

Who, in the media, will have the courage to call out Israel once Jon Stewart leaves the Daily Show? (On Monday, the date of Stewart’s final show – August 6 – was announced.)

As a secular Jewish woman who has been called self-loathing for both my comedy and writing, I’ve always had a particular appreciation for Jon Stewart’s brave critiques of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs. Considering his background as a bi-racial, South African comedian who came of age during apartheid, the incoming host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, could bring a refreshing perspective to many political issues, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I worry that the same kinds of people who try to stifle legitimate debate about Israel with unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism will silence Noah. (I fear the silencing campaign has already started.) The irony, though, is that silencing the discussion around Israel is bad for both Israel and Jews.

The discovery at the end of last month of a handful of problematic tweets Noah had written over the course of four years, prompted a major social media backlash, with everyday twitter users condemning Noah as an anti-Semite and Roseanne Barr urging him to “cease,” “anti-Semitic humor.” Individuals here and there tweeted that Noah needed to be fired, and, by April 7th, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), a Jewish advocacy group which defines itself as “an association of Jewish Americans organized to defend Jewish interests at home and abroad through public policy advocacy – using diplomacy, legislation, and the courts,” had released a petition calling on Stewart to rescind Noah’s contract, citing “a series of anti-Semitic and sexist jokes” that were found on Noah’s Twitter feed. “Soon,” the petition warned, and “one of the world’s most popular Jewish comedians will be replaced with an anti-Semite. Take a stand against sexism and anti-Semitism. We, the undersigned, call upon Jon Stewart to stop someone with a history of sexism and anti-Semitism from becoming the new host of the Daily Show.”

While the AJC representatives did not specify which Trevor jokes they found most objectionable, one of the tweets labeled “Jew hating,” AND “anti-Semitic” by people on twitter was the following:

South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.

— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) June 2, 2010

This tweet says nothing about Jews. It is not anti-Semitic. It’s critical of the hawkish policies of the state of Israel. Yet this response is typical of the way legitimate criticism of Israel is conflated with anti-Semitism.

Other tweets, while unfortunate, also fall short of ““hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group:”

Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) September 18, 2009
Perhaps this joke made light of the Holocaust. But if this is anti-Semitism, lots of other comedians are guilty of it. You don’t have to do be an expert in literary analysis to realize Noah is not actually encouraging genocide via vehicular manslaughter.
Here’s another one:
Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man. #BeatsByDreidel
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) May 12, 2014
The worst thing about this joke is how unoriginal it is. Still, it doesn’t sound off any major Jew-hating alarms for me. And, I must admit, I find Dr. Dreidel puns funny.

• • • • •

One of the most powerful censorship tactics comes from conflating Israel and Jewish identity. Though being anti-Israel or anti-Israel policy is not the same as being anti-Semitic, people like Alan Dershowitz and organizations like the “pro-Israel” lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the AJC would have you believe otherwise. In other contexts, this sloppy and crude manipulation of reality—that criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism—would be apparent. Most liberals understand that being critical of the United States’ policies is not the same thing as being anti-American. (Indeed, opposition to invading Iraq, it could be argued, was actually a more patriotic position to take – in addition to the horror, violence, destruction experience by the Iraqis, the war killed and maimed American soldiers, hurt our economy and made us less safe.) Similarly, not only is criticism of Israel not inherently anti-Semitic, but it’s not even inherently anti-Israel.

Perhaps nobody knows this better than Jon Stewart himself, who has seen first hand the way his criticisms of Israel have earned him a self-loathing Jew label. In March of this year, Islamophobe extraordinaire Pam Geller called Stewart “vile” and said he deserved the “Most Disgusting Jew on the Planet Award,” and described him as a “vicious traitor, smug and self-righteous, [who] has long been working for the other side under the guise of comedy.” Conservative radio host Mark Levin had this thoughtful critique to share in July 2014: “Have you f’ing seen Israel, you little twerp? Have you f’ing seen what surrounds Israel, you little twerp?” He even cast suspicion on the comedian’s decision to change his last name from Leibowitz to Stewart, saying, “I don’t trust Jews who change their names!”

Stewart has spoken out on the logical fallacy equating criticism of Israel with hating Israel, hating Jews, or, if you’re Jewish, hating yourself. In 2014 he told The Hollywood Reporter:

“Look, there’s a lot of reasons why I hate myself — being Jewish isn’t one of them…. So when someone starts throwing that around, or throwing around you’re pro-terrorist, it’s more just disappointing than anything else. I’ve made a living for 16 years criticizing certain policies that I think are not good for America. That doesn’t make me anti-American. And if I do the same with Israel, that doesn’t make me anti-Israel. “

He also took on this same problem during a show from July 2014 called, “We Need to Talk about Israel.” In the segment, Stewart attempts to talk to his audience about Israel but is rudely interrupted by correspondents who pop up from under his desk and shriek things like, “What — Israel isn’t supposed to defend itself?” and “self-hating Jew!”

Self-hating Jew or not, during the sixteen years he’s been at the helm of The Daily Show, Stewart has called bullshit where he sees it, whether it’s in Israel or the U.S, from Jews and non-Jews alike. In a segment titled “Oy Voted,” from March 18 of this year, Stewart responded to Benjamin Netanyahu’s racist, fear-mongering Get Out the Vote campaign before the Israeli election. “How dare you gin up racist fears of minority turnout for short-term political gain… That’s our thing,” he said. “You know what? Now you’ve got a copyright infringement suit on your hands, pal!”

Another example can be found in January 2014’s “Let’s Break a Deal,” in which Stewart mocks U.S. politicians for being beholden to the pro-Israel lobby. In the segment, Stewart wonders why Democrats would threaten to undermine a deal with Iran by pushing for more sanctions and mocks the way the U.S. Government treats Israel like an American state: “The senators from the Great State of Israel are against it and we don’t want to go against the senators from the Great Sta.. wait a minute that’s not in our country that’s a whole other country entirely,” he begins. “Why do we have to listen to them? I mean Israel is our ally and I guess Iran is pretty provocative….”

  • • • • •

Though Stewart has, perhaps, been able to stay so committed to his principles because his white, Ashkenazi, New York/New Jersey-accented shtick affords him a license only awarded to ethnic insiders, Trevor Noah does not enjoy such protections. (The 31-year-old comedian, the son of a Black South African woman and a white Swiss man is a quarter Jewish but does not identify as such.) But he has something else that makes his voice just as, if not more, important, than Stewart’s: First-hand experience of apartheid.

During a December 2014 appearance as a contributor on The Daily Show, for instance, Noah compared the institutionalized but unofficial racism of the United States with the codified apartheid system of South Africa: “I never thought I’d be more afraid of police in America than in South Africa,” he began. “The United States right now incarcerates more African-Americans as a percentage than Apartheid South Africa did. The race gap in wealth in the United States right now… [is] greater than the Black-white gap was in apartheid South Africa…. [And] Here’s the amazing part: For South Africa to achieve that kind of Black-white wealth gap, we had to construct an entire apartheid state, denying Blacks the right to vote or own property. But you did it without even trying.”

Noah’s experience of apartheid would, and could, make him a powerful voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Even people uncomfortable with using the term apartheid to describe Israel’s systemic oppression of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs have to admit the two countries share certain similarities.) If he does, Jews and non-Jews would be wise to stand back and recognize that there’s nothing anti-Semitic about calling out bigotry, hate, and aggression, whether we’re talking about apartheid-era South Africa or today’s State of Israel.

Originally posted on Fusion

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