Michael Che/Vaccine
Michael Che makes a joke about Israel's vaccine rollout on Saturday Night Live on Feb. 20, 2021. (YouTube via JTA)

The vaccine quip was the natural outcome of a sustained campaign of the type of lies that have led to injury and death to Jews in the past.

On NBC’s Saturday Night Live on Feb. 20, comedian Michael Che “joked” that Israel had vaccinated half of its population — the Jewish half.

The point is not whether Che or the “joke” were antisemitic. The questions are whether it is true and if it encourages prejudice and violence against Jews.

Critiquing Israel is fine. Israelis and Jews do it all the time. However, a one-off joke about Jews keeping a vaccine only for themselves, without context and devoid of any truth is not — given Jewish history and current threats — a critique.

And the joke did not appear out of nowhere. The joke would not have been made if the audience had not been subjected to weeks of misinformation and unfair allegations against Israel for the alleged sin of not providing vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In short, it was the natural outcome of a sustained campaign of lies — the types of lies that have led to injury and death to Jews in the past.

Alan Edelstein
Alan Edelstein
Times of Israel

Israel is vaccinating all its citizens regardless of religion or ethnic or national background. This includes the almost 2 million Israeli citizens who are Arab. This is unremarkable because all Israelis are covered equally by Israel’s universal health care system.

What prompted the “joke” was undoubtedly the unfair and unjustified charges that Israel is not providing the vaccine to the West Bank and Gaza. The “joke” was neither funny nor accurate.

On Dec. 21, the Palestinian Authority declared that it was not seeking vaccines from Israel and that it was securing its own supplies. Israeli offers to coordinate efforts were rejected.

But once several human rights groups and other organizations started criticizing Israel, and once there were delays in the delivery of the Russian Sputnik vaccine that the P.A. had ordered, the P.A. reversed its position.

Why not turn an unfortunate snag in getting the vaccine into a chance to bash Israel a bit? The usual suspects were sure to join in.

Israel has shipped several thousand doses to the P.A. for health care workers and some other essential workers, and, as part of a broader hostage deal, Israel has reportedly bought $1 million worth of Russian vaccine for Syria.

Michael Che’s comment is not funny, not based on fact and contributes to a dangerous environment for Jews. And it contributes to the campaign to delegitimize Israel, whether intended to or not.

The reason many Jews fail to see the humor in the “joke” is because we understand that the “joke” plays into the old canard that Jews are selfish, controlling, manipulative, sneaky people who watch out only for themselves.

And we understand how that canard has been used through the centuries to paint Jews as evil and subhuman and to discriminate against them, to engage in pogroms and to send them to ovens.

And this is not far away. Think Poway and Pittsburgh. Understand that while it may not make national news, Jews are being beaten up and subjected to bigotry on a weekly, if not daily, basis. There is a reason virtually every Jewish day school in the U.S., every Jewish community center, many synagogues and other Jewish institutions have security guards, security codes, security fences and fearful people.

So, joking about Jews being selfish, keeping lifesaving medicine to themselves is no joke. Whether intended or not, it is part of the mix of antisemitism that leads to Jewish injury, death and hurt.

Alan Edelstein was a lawyer and lobbyist in California. He lives in Jerusalem and Sacramento, Calif., and blogs at edelsteinrandomthoughts.com.