The Dave Chappelle SNL opening this past Saturday upset me so much more than any of Kanye’s rants in recent weeks. It threw me into a funk I can’t seem to shake. I keep doom scrolling the hordes of anti-Semites on social media using it as a rallying cry, and reading the posts of countless Jews on Twitter impotently complaining about how tired they are of defending themselves, and I am even arguing with Jewish friends who didn’t find it offensive (or not as offensive as I did). And there is a reason not everyone was as hurt by it as I am. Chappelle walked an extraordinary linguistic tightrope, couching his use of antisemitic tropes and nods to conspiracy theories in humorous observations and kernels of truth, giving the audience permission to laugh without guilt. This is what the best propagandists do and why they are so effective.
Kanye and Chappelle have a few things in common. They are both talented, wealthy, and influential celebrities. They are both role models for scores of young kids who look up to them and dream of one day being successful and famous. But there is also a major differences between the two.
Back in 2017 when White Supremacists marched in Charlottesville, it was easy to condemn their chants of “Jews will not replace us!” That was Nazism, simple and clean-cut and identifiable. Kanye in his manic state made no effort to sugar coat his antisemitism, thereby putting himself into the same category as the neo-Nazis. The category that is easy to point a finger at and say “That is wrong!” Chappelle is so much more clever than that. Chappelle’s smart and thoughtfully crafted monologue was a skillful, subtle gaslight of the Jewish community.
Gaslighting is a particularly effective form of manipulation that makes the victim question their own sanity. It is administered slowly, like a toxic ivy drip into the vein. Eventually, like the proverbial boiling frog, the victim begins seeing being abused as their own fault.
Having made a noticeable effort to position himself as the unapologetic comedic “truth teller” in American society in recent years with his monologues following every major election, Chappelle had many options for what to discuss on his SNL opening during this busy news cycle. But rather than talking about the midterms, Chappelle started with Kayne and “The Jews.” In his vigilantly written and perfectly delivered routine he sharpened his lens on cancel culture, subtly positioning cancel culture as the real Bad Guy, not the antisemitism, and himself and his fellow celebrities as the true victims.
He did this while conveniently ignoring the fact that hate crime against Jews is at an all-time high and towers over crime against any other religious group. Ignoring also that it is sometimes perpetuated by people who quote the antisemitic tropes Kanye popularizes verbatim. In this way he managed to mainstream antisemitic rhetoric in a way Kanye could only dream of. All I could think was “Et tu, Dave?”
“When it’s blacks, it’s a gang; when it’s Italians, it’s a mob; when it’s Jews, it’s a coincidence and you should neeeeeever speak about it,” he started, using the “coincidence” terminology that is regularly used by White Supremacists in their Jewish cabal conspiracy theories straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: the implication being that Jews pull some kind of invisible puppet strings to control the world. “I’ve been to Hollywood – it’s a lot of Jews…Like, a lot.” he joked.
Yes, there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood — an industry some talented Jews built when they were shut out of almost every other — and a number of them are even powerful executives. But when you refer to us as “The Jews,” you’re talking about all of us, and the targets of antisemitic violence don’t tend to be Hollywood executives. Tell the 11 murdered worshipers from the Tree of Life synagogue how powerful Jews are, or the Jews who were held hostage for 11 hours in their shul in Colleyville, Texas, or the five stabbed to death with a machete on Hannukah in New Jersey. I could go on.
Possibly the most egregious segment was when he brought up Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving, who in the wake of Kanye’s rants, was suspended after posting a link to an antisemitic film that promotes a hateful ideology and asserts that the Holocaust never happened. “I know the Jewish people have been through some terrible things all over the world. But you can’t blame that on Black Americans, you just can’t,” he said, “Irving’s “Black a– was nowhere near the Holocaust.”
Who in the Jewish community has ever blamed Black Americans for the Holocaust or any of the other atrocities we have survived? This statement, which was not even delivered with a comedic intonation and was followed by several seconds of thoughtful silence, did a significant amount of work towards a favorite strategy of White Supremacists and Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam: pitting Blacks and Jews against each other.
Instead of framing the Kyrie story in such a divisive and manipulative way, he could have mentioned the rich history of Jewish and Black communities uniting for civil rights, or he could have been brave enough to address the antisemitism in his community, but instead Chappelle chose to position Kyrie as the “real” victim here. At a time when Jewish kids all over the country go through metal detectors to enter Hebrew school and High Holiday services have stricter security than the airport, this is the pinnacle of gaslighting.
He finished by saying, “It shouldn’t be this scary to talk about anything…it has made my job incredibly difficult. And I hope they don’t take anything away from me…” adding a quiet, conspiratorial “whoever ‘they’ are.” The clear implication being that the “they” he is referring to are all those powerful Jews. In this artful way Chappelle managed to add himself to the list of the real victims, along with fellow celebrities Kanye and Kyrie. Chappelle insults the intelligence of his audience, assuming we are incapable of holding two thoughts at once: cancel culture is bad and also antisemitism is bad. Rather than addressing both ills as just that, he chose instead to scapegoat Jews for the harm caused by cancel culture. Blaming “The Jews”: an antisemitic tradition as old as time.
Unlike Kayne, Chappelle’s subtlety succeeded in placing Jews in the impossible situation of either being oppressors for being offended, or of laughing along as antisemitic vitriol is being mainstreamed in real time. Can you imagine a scenario where Jerry Seinfeld or Amy Schumer go on SNL and talk about “The Blacks” this way? Would the audience laugh? Would Twitter blame Black Americans for being offended?
As a comedian, Dave Chappelle’s primary job is to be funny and I generally think we should be able to laugh about anything, especially at ourselves. There is certainly no shortage of self-deprecating Jewish humor. But instead of using comedy as the powerful unifying tool it can be, Chappelle once again used it as a weapon aimed at a people who are already hurting. Choosing this angle for his monologue was at best tone deaf and unkind. At worst it was purposefully malicious.
But let me be clear: I despise cancel culture. I roll my eyes at the punitive punishments and the token canned “apologies” and “statements of support”. I think the whole notion is useless and gross and deserves mockery. I don’t think Chappelle should be “cancelled.” It’s a free country. I was disgusted by his anti-Trans jokes in his comedy special, but I defended his right to tell them just as I believe he has the right to his antisemitic monologue of this past weekend. But let’s call it what it is: cleverly worded antisemitism. How many people who look up to him will internalize these tropes? Will any of them go on to use his words as fuel for further anti-Jewish violence? For someone who is clearly aiming to be some kind of moral compass for our society, he not only dropped the ball, he flung the grenade.