What Dave Chappelle got right

Dave Chappelle's SNL monologue was offensive. But, there are some things we can learn from it.

Dave Chappelle hosts

(RNS) — Oh, sh-t.

It was 11:30 on Saturday night, and I had only one question.

Did Lorne Michaels OK this?

I am referring, of course, to comedian Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live.”

It was all about “the Jews.”

  • He started with a parody version of the statement Kanye should have delivered: “I denounce antisemitism in all its forms … and that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time.” (Because you have to appease “the Jews.”)
  • He laughed at Kanye’s threat to go “def con 3” on the Jews, wondering what it meant. (I don’t know, Dave. You tell me what it means when someone wants to go def con 3 — on anyone.)
  • He referred to alleged Jewish control of the entertainment industry, wondering if the preponderance of Jewish names in Hollywood was merely a coincidence. (Conspiracy theories, anyone?)
  • He described the film Kyrie Irving had touted — a film that alleged a link between Jews and the slave trade — and then said that while Jews had gone through some terrible things, you cannot blame that on Black Americans. “Kyrie Irving’s black a– was nowhere near the Holocaust. In fact, he’s not even certain that it exists.”

What troubled me about Dave’s monologue?

First: His monologue minimized and trivialized antisemitism. To quote the old cautionary cliche about humor: “too soon.” Because we are in the midst of one of the greatest and most pernicious outbreaks of Jew hatred in recent American history, it is “too soon.” Frankly, at this point, I do not know when it will ever not be “too soon.”

Of course, Kyrie had nothing to do with the Holocaust. But, that is not the point. Kyrie touted a film that alleges Jews were intimately involved with the slave trade. That is an antisemitic canard.

To say someone who promotes Jew hatred had nothing to do with the Holocaust betrays an astounding lack of understanding of how hatred works. If a comedian ridiculed Black people, would it suffice to say that comedian’s “a– was nowhere near the plantations or the lynchings in the South?” Would that be acceptable?

Second: His monologue underscored a growing perception that if you are a cool celebrity, you can talk trash about the Jews.

Third: But, if you do talk trash about the Jews, you will pay a professional price for it. Because, well: the Jews and their economic, intellectual and cultural power. And not, for example, that society is pushing back against hatred.

But, fourth — and perhaps this should be No. 1: it was the howls of laughter that greeted Dave’s rant.

The audience thought the antisemitism was funny.

This, in a studio in the middle of Manhattan, in one of the most Jewish cities in the world.

One of my seventh grade religious school students asked me: “Why did no one in the audience stand up and yell, ‘This is not funny’!”

Why, indeed?

But, there is one thing Dave Chappelle got right.

“Early in my career, I learned that there are two words in the English language that you should never say together in sequence, and those words are ‘the,’ and ‘Jews.'”

Dave was right, but perhaps for reasons he had not considered. 

You cannot, and should not, talk about “the Jews” — unless you happen to be a scholar in Jewish history, theology or anthropology. Almost every book in my library contains the phrase “the Jews.” In a historical sense, there is this entity called “the Jews” about which we can speak.

Is it permissible to say “Jews were involved in the creation of the entertainment business”?

Yes, and it is also accurate. A convergence of factors made that possible — including ambitious Jewish immigrants, shut out of other trades, who migrated to Los Angeles when it was still a young city, plus a certain Jewish propensity for telling stories.

As well as a short list of modern Jewish creations: the garment business, psychotherapy and the comic book industry.

In each of those cases, it would be entirely permissible, and even interesting, to discern what it was about Judaism, the Jewish people and a Jewish world view that make those enterprises “Jewish.”

So, for example, the garment business — access to excess rags (i.e., the shmatte business — shmatte being the Yiddish word for “rag”) and the ability to export them and convert them into higher-quality cloth — as well as the availability of immigrant Jews to work in factories.

Or, psychotherapy — an interest in the inner life, as well as the Jewish tradition of analyzing ancient texts, and then applying that skill to people.

Or, comic books — immigrant Jews in wartime, who fantasized about superheroes who would save their people. Deeply Jewish. That whole thing about secret identities? Quintessentially Jewish.

So, yes, Jews invented those things.

But, no, “The Jews” did not invent those things.

As in, the Jews, as a collective body.

Dave was right. Putting “the” next to “Jews” is problematic. When you talk about “the Jews” in this way, you are suggesting that this entity called “the Jews” possesses particular traits (i.e. stereotyping) or certain proclivities or is in control of certain things. At that moment, you convert a people into a mythical entity.

Antisemitism is, at its heart, a bigotry unlike any other, because it is based on fantasies of Jewish conspiracies.

Back to Lorne Michaels, SNL’s producer.

Memo to Lorne: I’ve written your own opening monologue for next Saturday night.

Friends, I want to speak about what happened last Saturday night.

As many of you know, and as many of you witnessed, our guest host Dave Chappelle said some pretty rough things about Jews.

Dave is a funny guy. That is why we invited him to host the show. And Dave has made some pretty outrageous statements in the past that have gotten him into trouble. I get it.

Dave wants to make people laugh, and sometimes that means he wants to make people laugh. Think of the late George Carlin, and before him, Lenny Bruce, who unfortunately died twelve years before SNL even got started.

Those guys, and others, said some pretty edgy things as well. And perhaps times were different then. Maybe we didn’t have as much raw hate out there as we do now.

I know that many Jews, and others, were offended. Antisemitism in this country these days is pretty frightening. It is unacceptable, and I am troubled that Dave — who just wanted to be his usual outrageous — threw fuel on that fire.

SNL will continue to do what we can to make you laugh — and think. We know that we will not always succeed. At the very least, we hope not to add to the pain that is happening in our society right now.

And live from New York … it’s Saturday Night!

You’re welcome, Lorne.

Say it.

A lot of people need to hear it.

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