Dave Chappelle's Monologue Wasn't Antisemitic

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November 15, 2022

5 min read

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And I thought his monologue was funny.

Over the last few weeks, antisemitism has been in the mainstream news at an alarming rate, with the antisemitic tirade of rapper Kanye and the posting of an antisemitic documentary by NBA star Kyrie Irving. Unsurprisingly, another story developed with Dave Chappelle’s opening monologue on Saturday Night Live.

But I think this case is very different.

Chappelle is known to be a “shock comedian” who does not shy away from controversial issues. Whether it’s politics, social issues, or stereotypes, Chappelle is known to incorporate these topics into his comedy. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise with antisemitism in the headlines that he focused much of his monologue on the issue.

I didn’t think Chappelle was targeting Jews out of anger, hatred, or disgust. It was satire – making fun of a current issue that in most circles is off limits.

I thought Chappelle was very funny. I didn’t think he was targeting Jews out of anger, hatred, or disgust. It felt more like satire – making fun of a current issue that in most circles is off limits.

The target of Chappelle’s jokes included everyone involved – from making fun of Kanye ‘s delusional behavior, to calling out Kyrie Irving as a Holocaust denier, to satirizing those who called for the boycotting of these haters.

Should those standing up against antisemitism be grouped together with the antisemites themselves? Probably not – but Chappelle’s comedy is an equal opportunity one.

The question that exploded in the Twitter universe was whether comedy has its own rules. Is it fair game to criticize individuals or groups of people for the sake of humor? Does that give the artist a free pass?

Many felt so, including Elan Gold, a well-known Jewish comedian. Gold, who focuses much of his humor on the Jewish community, tweeted “I’m in Israel and my phone keeps going off about @DaveChappelle monologue. I watched it 3X. There’s not a joke in there I wouldn’t do myself. Just not as well written/performed as Dave.”

Many feel that it’s fair game for the person telling jokes to target groups if they themselves are part of that group. So Jews can tell jokes about other Jews, but these same jokes are off limits if told by non-Jews. Why is this so? Because a non-Jew who jokes about the Jewish people has ill intentions? That is certainly not always the case, and in this situation Dave Chappelle’s intentions are not clear.

I also think that Dave Chappelle’s routine was not primarily about the Jews. Antisemitism and the reaction to it that has played out over the last few weeks must be seen in the wider societal context it finds itself in. Chappelle’s delivery was a social commentary on today’s cancel/way-too-careful culture. While it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of these jokes, the reaction of “shutting down” those who speak hateful and/or untruthful words also has ramifications that lead to limiting the free exchange of ideas. Hate speech must be opposed, but having a discussion, even a funny one, about the limits of this is a productive conversation. If Jews are on the receiving end of the jokes that forces this conversation, that is certainly uncomfortable, but it is also important, and not antisemitic.

We should call out all hatred of the Jewish People. But I also worry at times that knee-jerk reactions to borderline situations can lead to the proverbial “the boy who cried wolf” scenario.

I am not here to defend antisemitism. I have spent most of the past 20 years fighting antisemitism on college campuses via Hasbara Fellowships, the organization I founded and directed. I believe strongly we should call out all hatred of the Jewish People. But I also worry at times that knee-jerk reactions to borderline situations can lead to the proverbial “the boy who cried wolf” scenario.

One aspect of Chappelle’s monologue that must be opposed is outright lies. Whether antisemitic or not, untruths propagate disinformation and incite negative behaviors. Chappelle made a statement that while the Jewish People have endured horrific situations all around the world, this can’t be blamed on African Americans. This is a horrific comment that has no basis in reality. No one in the Jewish community is blaming African Americans for the Holocaust or for rising levels of antisemitism. Hatred of Jews sadly comes from all races and religions – no single group has a monopoly or is the source of this hatred.

Why Chappelle would make this comment is puzzling and certainly causes one to not give him the benefit of the doubt that the rest of his commentary was toothless. One must hope that it was coming from a place of ignorance, and not hatred.

Judaism is a big fan of humor. The Talmud writes that “Before he began his lesson to the scholars, Rabba used to say a joking word, and the scholars were amused. After that, he began the lesson in earnest.” Humor opens us up to other messages, puts us at ease, changes our perspective. But Judaism also strongly believes that our jokes, and any of our words, can't be at the expense of others - whether individuals or communities. Hurtful language has real consequences and it's a powerful tool that is often underestimated.

Does that mean David Chappelle is an antisemite? Certainly not. Just someone who needs to be more careful with his words.

Counterpoint: Dave Chappelle’s Pernicious Antisemitism

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