Nearly as soon as comedian Dave Chappelle ended his Saturday Night Live monologue on Nov. 12, the backlash was swift. Accusations that Chappelle’s monologue contained anti-Semitic remarks flooded the media, with people like Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, asserting that Chappelle’s opening set was helping to “not just normalize but popularize antisemitism.” Fueled by the more recent news and criticism of both Kanye West and Kyrie Irving for their apparent antisemitism, Chappelle’s monologue did not go over well, and he was criticized for sustaining long-held antisemitic tropes that Jewish people have excessive control over elite aspects of society — specifically, Hollywood and the media industry.
So what exactly did Chappelle joke about that was perpetuating these stereotypes? “I’ve been to Hollywood. I don’t want you to get mad at me, I’m just telling you I’ve been to Hollywood, this is just what I saw. It’s a lot of Jews,” Chappelle quipped, “…you might go out to Hollywood, and your mind might start connecting some lines, and you could maybe adopt the delusion that the Jews run show business. It’s not a crazy thing to think. But it’s a crazy thing to say out loud at a time like this.”
Chappelle’s claim that it isn’t crazy to think Jews run Hollywood is explicitly announcing these antisemitic beliefs in front of both a live and national audience. Even worse, perhaps, is that Chappelle’s statement isn’t the kind of declaration that will immediately strike most as overtly antisemitic — it’s a covert statement disguised as a joke that may strike many people as the sole truth. 2021 saw antisemitic hate crimes hit a record high, (3) evidencing that espousing these sorts of beliefs to the public is dangerous and only hurts overall perceptions of Jewish people and carries with it real material consequences.
However, the issue at hand might not be as easy as simply denouncing and shutting down Chappelle’s antisemitic remarks, and the whole affair raises the larger question of how to deal with issues such as this where something controversial or harmful is said, especially within comedy. Comedy can take on many forms, and it’s often difficult to distinguish what is comedically okay and what crosses the line of being too offensive, and, nevertheless, it’s difficult to decide if it’s ever okay to censor comedy. In our society, the response is usually to immediately cease any conversation about untrue stereotypes or dangerous ideas, but an approach centered on education and dismantling those beliefs may be more useful and constructive in the long run. Jewish comedian Jon Stewart raised this point in an interview with Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” expressing that we should talk about difficult ideas — and, after all, merely shunning someone for doing something wrong does not teach them to change their worldview.
Antisemitic beliefs most ardently show themselves in the form of conspiracy theories, such as the one stated by Chappelle, which are held by many across the political spectrum. From the far-right white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” to politicians on both sides of the aisle accusing Jewish people of having “dual loyalty,” anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are currently rampant in society, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Creating spaces for dialogue and learning in community settings could be one way that these sorts of theories are tackled.
Jewish comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen, known for his role as Borat in the satirical documentary films of the same name, parodies American culture, specifically tackling Jewish stereotypes and conspiracy theories by pretending to be sympathetic to far-right causes. In Borat 2, Cohen shows up at a synagogue, where, contrary to his beliefs, he meets with Holocaust survivors, who welcome him and attempt to educate him. The entire premise of the Borat movies is to satirize people who genuinely believe in these sorts of things, but by going to a holy Jewish space and showcasing Holocaust survivors, he exposes viewers to the kind of people who are actively hurt by antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Combating antisemitism in media is not an easy feat. Jewish people have long dealt with antisemitism and Jewish trauma through humor, explicitly commenting, attacking and discussing antisemitism through the platform of comedy. So there are some lessons, perhaps, to be learned from both Stewart and Cohen. Using comedy as a medium to attack these stereotypes, such as with Cohen’s work, is one option and something that has obviously been in use for a long time. However, just viewing these important topics as jokes is not helpful. Jewish comedians and celebrities engaging with Chappelle and others in a dialogue about why those sorts of stereotypes are harmful instead of blanket condemnation could be a useful way to address the issue — a wider audience could be reached, and these talks could be aired via social media or in another accessible way.
A combination of both tactics may be our most effective way of handling these problems. People love comedy and can be more willing to entertain an idea if it’s presented comedically, but ensuring that the public knows that these sorts of issues, such as antisemitism, are not just jokes but also issues that have serious real-world effects is just as important. Using the tools of social media and the ability to reach wide swaths of people and educate them both via comedy and discussion may be our most effective tool in fighting anti-Semitism when it appears in the media.
Samantha Rigante is a freshman majoring in philosophy, politics and law.