Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
“The Jews”
Duration
0:00 / 53:00
Published
November 23, 2022

Dave Chappelle’s controversial monologue on the November 12th episode of Saturday Night Live, which found much to laugh at in Kanye West’s and Kyrie Irving’s recent antisemitic remarks, set off a new round of discourse about blackness, Jewishness, power, and the entertainment industry. Chappelle’s monologue, which some viewers accused of propagating antisemitic tropes itself, also revealed that part of what is at stake in the current contretemps is comedy—specifically, the nexus of Black and Jewish comedy, where an American idiom of humor about insiders and outsiders, envy and identification, privilege and suffering was born. What makes us keep returning to this well of humor, and what happens when the laughter stops? Jewish Currents senior editor Ari Brostoff, JC contributing writer Rebecca Pierce, critic and essayist Jasmine Sanders, and writer and Know Your Enemy co-host Sam Adler-Bell discuss.

Articles, Books, Films, Tweets, and Clips Mentioned:

Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America, dir. Ronald Dalton Jr.

Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live monologue

Jonathan Greeblatt tweet about Dave Chappelle

Kanye West performs on Chappelle’s Show

Donald Trump on using tax loopholes

Oreo by Fran Ross

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Transcript

Ari Brostoff: Hi everyone, and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. This is Ari Brostoff. I’m a senior editor at Jewish Currents and today, we are going to be talking about “The Jews.” By “The Jews,” I don’t just mean any Jews, but the capital-T, capital-J Jews as they were imagined in Dave Chappelle’s Saturday Night Live monologue on November 12, in which Chappelle addressed Kanye West’s and Kyrie Irving’s recent, antisemitic outbursts in a monologue that some viewers thought was antisemitic in its own right. The controversial segment made it clear that part of what’s at stake in this escalating discourse is actually about the long-fraught entanglements of Blackness and Jewishness in American comedy. Where do Black and Jewish comedy shade into each other? What kinds of humor get produced where they meet? Who is it for, and when is it funny?

I have three guests with me today who have agreed to take on the grave task of spending an hour analyzing 10 minutes’ worth of Dave Chappelle jokes and using them as an entry point into the deep structures of American entertainment. My guests are the writer Jasmine Sanders; writer and co-host of the Know Your Enemy podcast, Sam Adler-Bell; and filmmaker, essayist, and comedy writer, Rebecca Pierce, who is also a contributing writer at Jewish Currents. So I’m going to start with a question for Rebecca. Rebecca, you said before we started recording that as a comedian, all of this is actually so funny. At the risk of making you explain a joke, I’m wondering if you can say why.

Rebecca Pierce: One of the fundamental ideas in comedy is escalation. So this idea that your joke grows and grows with every beat, and that’s the root of humor. And I would say that this is a constantly escalating situation, whether it’s Kanye’s behavior, Kyrie jumping in with this documentary that’s Holocaust denial, like Hebrews to Negros, whatever. And then Chappelle going on SNL and blowing it up even further? That, in a way, is pure comedy.

Sam Adler-Bell: It has the structure of a joke.

RP: It has the structure of a joke.

AB: Do people think that the Chappelle sketch itself was funny?

Jasmine Sanders: I feel like you can’t talk about it independently, almost. He kind of hasn’t been funny in years, and the closest he can come to humor is sort of an examination of his own current class position.

AB: Where did you see that coming through? Where do you see class in his monologue?

JS: Like when he talks about like rich people problems, like being canceled. His biggest problem is like, “I can’t say what I want to say.” He’s not expressing any alignment, you know what I mean? Like what solidarity is he expressing with other Black people that aren’t rich? Like what benefit is it going to get me for Dave Chappelle and Kanye West to be able to spew whatever they want? How would that benefit my life? You know what I mean? It’s kind of like he just wants the freedom to be a rich person with a platform. And I can’t figure out what would be the benefit to anyone who’s not rich and has a similar platform.

SAB: I thought it was funny. I thought it was really funny. And that doesn’t mean that it is, obviously. But I think there was something that struck me about it, which I realized when I was watching it, is that a lot of this whole discussion about Kanye, Kyrie, and antisemitism–what I found really strange about it as a Jewish person was that I felt like every time I talk to Jews in my life about it, we would just make jokes about it. And then when you go online, it’s like Greenblatt from the ADL and 100-tweet threads being like, “Here’s all the racist things these Black celebrities are saying,” and “I feel so bad,” and “I feel so endangered.” And I just felt like the distance between that experience for myself and what was actually happening in my friend groups and with my family and stuff was really weird to me. I didn’t really know how to articulate what was weird about it. But then, when I watched the Chappelle thing, I realized what was weird about it: It’s that everyone was being so fucking serious about it. And it is a really, super complicated, knotty situation that we’re gonna have a much more sophisticated conversation about, like in a few minutes.

But the thing that I enjoyed about the Chappelle monologue is that it was saying we can still make jokes about this. And I think one of the things about–this is like something I said to Ari that doomed me to have this conversation–was that I feel like watching it and then thinking about why I had been so confused about the whole situation beforehand and about this new round of anxiety about antisemitism, I realized that I maybe have a new heuristic for whether I feel like we’re at an okay place with antisemitism in America, which is that it is very important to me that antisemitic jokes are funny. And if they’re not funny, we’re in trouble. Like we’re not safe enough if antisemitic jokes aren’t funny. As a Jew. I mean that for Jews, joking, doing antisemitic jokes–that’s our bread and butter. We’re always making jokes about being Jews and what it means to be a Jew, including about how we’re in danger, like how we’re afraid, and how jokes about death are just so important to Jewish humor. And so, even though Chappelle is himself not Jewish and so there’s the whole question of like: Are you inside enough of this community in order to feel comfortable making jokes about it? But for me, I just felt like it was funny, and that made me feel more safe. Because I was like, “Okay, I actually do think we’re at a place where the Jews are not so in danger that I don’t think this is funny.” Like, that’s not the end or the beginning of this discussion, but it is something that I felt.

RP: I think what is interesting for me in this situation, and with Chappelle in general, is: What are we laughing at, and what is laughter doing in this in this space? And I think a lot of people who liked the Chappelle, including a lot of Jewish people who liked the Chappelle monologue, where we act into the relief that comes from laughter.

SAB: Yes!

RP: We’ve all been holding in this tension around this issue. And I have a lot of like white Jewish friends who responded to me about how they’re afraid from this, and I’m like, I’m not quite afraid. I think it’s ignorant, you know, but I think that having the ability to laugh, especially when you’ve been afraid, or when you’ve been told that you should feel afraid, or when you’re anxious or uncomfortable, there’s a huge relief in that. And I think a lot of people are reacting to that relief. And just to go back to your question, Ari: The times that I did laugh in this monologue were when Chappelle was talking about his relationship with Jewish people growing up. Like that joke about “sha na na”/Shabbat and the alienness and familiarity of this relationship between Black and Jewish people, because I do think sometimes we focus a lot on the ways that we’re alienated from each other and not the ways that our communities do interact in ways that are objectively funny sometimes. And when the laughter becomes a problem for me is when it’s turning away, or giving us permission not to think deeper, about an issue at hand. And I do think Chappelle, in his oeuvre in general, has had this problem of using laughter to be where a conversation ends when he says something that’s incredibly loaded, whether it’s about trans people or other groups. It’s like the laughter is a stopping point. It’s where the conversation ends. The monologue’s at the beginning of a show, at SNL, and so the idea is it’s opening up something, But I don’t think that what he was actually saying about the Kanye and Kyrie situation was opening much of a discussion other than one that he wants to have, which is about who’s allowed to say what, and what can I get away with without having consequences, personally? Because that’s what he related it all back to in the end.

SAB: At the end? Yeah,

JS: I was thinking about what you just said, Sam. Earlier in the year, I wrote about Margo Jefferson, so I was reading a bunch of her old stuff. And she writes really intelligently and provocatively, I think, about poverty, traditions, and the history of race and like a city. And so I found in my notes a quote, where she says: “If a group’s status in America is fairly secure, ethnicity becomes a matter of style. But if the group’s status is perpetually up for grabs, or periodically up for grabs, or even in question, every guffaw is attached to a social or political judgment.” And she goes on to talk about All in the Family, and it reminded me of something that you said about like, Jewish people are in trouble if you can’t laugh at the joke. Like it would mean that your status here is so insecure.

SAB: Yeah, I think that’s right. I also think comedy, like relating to what Rebecca just said about the relief of tension– something that I feel like people really miss about what comedy does, including these sorts of libertarian comedian types who are like, “I’m a dangerous person who says dangerous things, and if you don’t like it, fuck you, that’s what comedians are.” And there’s an extent to which that’s true in the sense of like, the figure of the jester is the person who can make fun of the king without getting killed. But actually, the reason it works–the reason a joke works–is because it relieves tension. Freud wrote this impenetrable book about jokes, which like, it’s hard to recommend because it’s so annoying. But he’s right about the fact that the structure of a joke is about pointing to contradiction, pointing to real wounds, on all sides. And often, there are people in a room who might have tension with each other which the joke points to, and the function of the joke is to find a way to sublimate ambivalence into laughter.

But the thing about that–like Rebecca, what you were saying–is it doesn’t solve it. It doesn’t solve the problem. But what it might do, if it’s effective, is create a sense of community in a moment, in a particular place. And the weird thing about comedy is that standup comedy is supposed to happen in a room, like with other people. And you think about how, when you go see comedy, how much more generous you are than you would be, maybe, if you just saw something on TV or whatever. And for Chappelle to be on SNL, that’s like the biggest room you could be in for comedy. And the question of whether or not it works is like what we’re talking about here. But I think the intention–and I guess, just totally subjectively, why I found it so rewarding–was that I felt that it was really effective at doing what jokes do well, when it was funny, which was saying like, “This is so fucking messy. Like it’s really messy, and everybody who has been talking about it has been talking about it like it’s simple, you know?” Like, “there’s all these Black celebrities who are antisemitic and that’s the problem.” Or like, “Black people can’t be antisemitic because of oppression.” And a joke could point to the fact like, this is so fucked up and messy. And if it works, it’s like for Freud, it’s this encounter between our unconscious understanding that this is an irresolvable contradiction and our desire to feel a relief from tension. And that’s what a joke does.

JS: I think the reason I don’t find the Chappelle bit funny is because his joke is not funnier than the situation itself. Which is like, there are two Black celebrities; one of them’s like an unmedicated, mole-person who’s spewing shit on Twitter, and then another one’s talking about this documentary. Like he’s like a multimillionaire NBA player who was like a flat earther at one point, and now he’s talking about this insane documentary. And then millions of people on Twitter are like, “Oh, my God, we have to leave the country.” You know what I mean? I think the situation itself is funnier than the joke.

SAB: Yeah. I feel like it’d be productive to talk about a few of the jokes. I mean, some of them are just stupid, silly ones. But like, when he said Kanye got in so much trouble, Kyrie got in trouble–that’s not what happened. But it’s funny for the reason Jasmine is saying. Like it is pointing to this like, there’s this echelon of rich, Black celebrity where it’s like, “Kanye got in so much trouble, and Kyrie also got in trouble,” as if these are just the same things.

JS: That’s kind of like celebrity racism. Like, the racism that Black celebrities will experience is like: you say something fucked up, and now I–

SAB: I have to respond to it.

JS: Yeah.

SAB: You know, I’m willing to be convinced–and I’m actually already becoming convinced by the things that Rebecca was saying, about how ultimately, it’s all about license for him. It’s all about escaping accountability for the things that he’s said in the past. But during the monologue, just as its own thing, he was doing this thing where he was like, going in one group’s direction and making them feel good, and then kind of like cutting it off, and then pointing to this other contradiction. So he’s making this interesting, complicated point that other people have made. It’s like, you can’t blame Black people for Jewish suffering. You can’t blame Kyrie for the Holocaust. Kyrie was nowhere near the Holocaust. And then he says, “He’s not even sure it happened.” That’s funny.

RP: That’s funny, I think for me where it became–and this is a different metric–unhelpful; when he’s talking about “Kanye saying there’s a bunch of Jews in Hollywood. That’s not a crazy thing to think, but it’s a crazy thing to say in this climate.” Like, Kanye did a lot more than just say there’s a lot of Jews in Hollywood. This all began earlier than the “death con 3” tweet. This started with Kanye posting a message from Diddy to his Instagram, where he responded to Diddy saying like “Why are you out here with Candace Owens wearing a white lives matter shirt?” And Kanye responds to that like, “Did the Jews put you up to this?” basically. So Kanye’s antisemitism starts as a defense mechanism for his anti-Black, reactionary, MAGA politics. And what’s potentially dangerous about this is the relationship that this has to an ideology of violence that targets both Black and Jewish people that Kanye, somehow–while he claims to be both Black and Jewish–isn’t actually aligning himself with either those groups of people when it comes to oppression because he’s rich, and that’s his end in all of this is making, is a lot of money and relating more to MAGA-type politics because he doesn’t want to pay taxes or whatever. But when you reduce it down to like, “He’s just noticing what’s already out there,” that’s reducing and acting like we don’t know stuff that we know. And for some people, it was objectively funny. Is that laughter that elicits helpful in this moment? And that’s a tall order to ask of comedy, I don’t think comedy is going to fix everything. But I think at the very least it should be like journalism, you know: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Even as Kanye loses billions of dollars, he’s still a rich person who’s exercising all this antisemitism in this weird defense mechanism of his ego and status.

AB: I think that there’s an interesting kind of “narcissism of small differences” thing going on between Kanye and Chappelle that you see in this Chappelle monologue, too. Where like, I don’t know what their actual relationship is with each other.

SAB: He said he always pulls up when Kanye he gets in trouble. Except for this time.

RP: Kanye’s big break–for me, when I first knew who he was was Chappelle’s Show.

SAB: Me too.

RP: So yeah. And I think that they come from a similar cultural background. They both come from the Black middle class. They both come from like–

JS: Very, almost radical Black mothers.

RP: Yeah, exactly.

JS: Almost like Black, revolutionary mothers in a way that’s kind of alarming to people. Which is why I think I keep coming back to like, the situation itself is so much funnier.

AB: I think where I’m seeing the “narcissism of small differences” thing is like, Kanye becomes a Trump guy and Chappelle becomes an Andrew Yang guy. Which means, just as obnoxious but with the distinction that he thinks that he’s smarter. So in this case, I think he sees himself and Kanye as both being truth-tellers in the midst of bullshit, but he also sees Kanye as being a dupe and sees himself as being the smart one.

And I actually did think that it was funny in a bunch of moments, and also that it was kind of mild overall. Like, there were some jokes that he made that I was like, “Billy Crystal could say this at the Oscars, and nobody would blink.” But the moments that actually got under my skin were the moments that felt really condescending. And I think this is also where some of the class stuff comes in that Jasmine was talking about, where it feels like what he’s implicitly saying is that he’s the Black, rich guy who’s comfortable enough being rich that he’s comfortable being around Jewish power, and that other Black celebrities–and I think Kyrie in particular because he’s so young and seems like he’s a little bit clueless–are not really insiders. And so yeah, there was just this kind of flubby, winky, “Here I am on SNL, in the center of actual power. You’re all in on the joke with me, right, guys?” And it was like, “Oh, who are you winking at?” And again, going back to what Jasmine was saying before, it feels like the wink is to other smug, rich people.

RP: At the beginning of the monologue, he opens with that statement, like, “I stand up against antisemitism, I support all my Jewish brothers and sisters or whatever, that’s all you had to say, Kanye.” Kanye’s mistake, in his mind, is not knowing when to shut up about it, and not knowing when to say the right thing, and that’s it. Not like, this antisemitism that is getting all this attention was the extension of these far-right politics that we’ve been seeing for a long time. Also, this whole thing with him–you know, it’s been revealed that he was at TMZ saying shit about Hitler?

AB: Wait, can you explain the TMZ thing?

RP: Someone from behind the scenes at TMZ said that Kanye showed up at their offices with the Kardashians when he was with Kim Kardashian, and made–it’s not clear what exactly was said–but like, praising statements towards Hitler and Nazis. And this was on camera and not released by TMZ, and sort of covered up, it’s implied, by TMZ and the Kardashian Corporation.

SAB: I mean, it’s interesting to think about where Chappelle is situating himself in relation to the lowly, idiotic, Trump-person like Kanye versus himself, who still, despite his semi-cancellation for being a transphobe, gets to host SNL. On the other hand, there’s a whole part of the monologue that’s about Trump and Trumpism and the appeal that he feels that he has a real unique access to from living amongst all these white people in Ohio. I thought that part about Trump as the honest liar was actually fucking brilliant. I thought it was so great.

RP: As close to the old Chappelle that I miss from my youth that I’ve seen in a long time.

SAB: So, for the listener: his whole concept of Trump as the honest liar is that in 2016, Trump is running for office, and he’s up there on stage, on the debate stage, and he’s saying, “Of course, the system is rigged.” And then Obama and Hillary Clinton are saying like, “No, it’s not.” And Chappelle is watching and he’s like, “That’s not true. Of course, it’s rigged.” And then his whole concept is the idea that like–

RP: Trump says, “I know it’s rigged because I use it.”

SAB: “Because I use it.” That’s so good. And he’s right. That is part of the appeal, and what he says is like “Trump is the guy who came out of the house where all the elite craziness is happening and said ‘everything that you guys, you the rabble, think is happening in there? It is happening in there.’ And then he went back inside and kept playing the game.” I mean, that is partially what was so great about Trump.

AB: And that he pulls out his Illuminati membership card and does a line of coke off it.

SAB: Cuts up a line of cocaine and does it on camera. Yeah.

AB: Yeah, which is the one moment in the monologue that I actually laughed out loud. It’s a good joke. And that often made me think about this insider-outsider, clubhouse kind of humor, like what’s so funny about that is like he’s actually naming the clubhouse.

RP: What’s interesting, though, is the clubhouse that he’s talking about is what a lot of people place the blame on Jews for.

SAB: And that’s a slippage in the monologue.

RP: You know, if we were really trying to break this shit down–which like, maybe that’s not the policy goal, maybe that’s not the goal of comedy, whatever. I think that making that linkage would have turned this from something that’s about his own interest in protecting himself from critique and limiting how far critique can go to something that’s actually generative of like, “It’s the system.” That’s the issue. And when you make Jews the issue, you’re doing service for that system, in addition to being anti-Jewish.

SAB: There is a joke from it that I think is one of the most complex and potentially doesn’t work, but because it’s so complex it’s really useful. It’s the one where he says, “I was in Hollywood, I saw there’s a lot of Jews.” But you know, that doesn’t mean anything. “There’s a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri–doesn’t mean we run the place.” That’s a hilarious joke.

RP: Yes.

SAB: It’s a hilarious joke. And it’s funny because you see people clap, and you wonder: Are they clapping because they think like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good point. Maybe the Jews don’t run Hollywood.” But no, the Jews do run Hollywood, in a way that is not at all comparable. So he’s also introducing this internal contradiction to the joke, which is that there is a difference. Like there is a difference. It doesn’t resolve the contradiction, but it’s pointing to–from his perspective, it seems to me–that this is an unresolved thing. It’s like what Black people suffer as a result of being the predominant population of Ferguson and not running it and what Jews suffer for people pointing out that there’s a lot of them in Hollywood–these are not commensurate harms, you know? Like they’re not comparable harms. And that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to give into stereotypes about Jews running the media or whatever, but that’s kind of internal to that joke, which makes it so powerful.

JS: The way that I first became aware of like, “Black people seem to have weird feelings about white, Jewish people,” it was through rap and hip hop. Like, I remember Jay Z, all of a sudden he talked about, like, “I would have a Black bar mitzvah,” and I was like, “I think something’s happening here.” And I remember Russell Simmons saying something similar. It’s kind of saying, “You think you’ve done really well for yourself” or something, like, “You have a lot of things.”

SAB: It’s aspirational.

JS: And so, for a while, it was hard for me to understand–which I don’t know, maybe it is for a lot of Black people, I don’t know, or like people in general–to understand how it is an antisemitic, white-supremacist trope.

SAB: Well, it’s like Donald Trump is a trope in rap, too, right? Donald Trump has a lot of money. We want to be like Donald Trump. And then Donald Trump getting in trouble for being on stage at some Jewish Republican convention and saying, “I only let Jewish people deal with my money.” Which could have been in a rap song, right?

JS: Yeah!

SAB: I mean, this is a tangled knot

AB: Trump’s line about “I only let Jewish people deal with my money” could be in a rap lyric, and it also could be a Jewish joke. It’s almost like there’s this well of humor that’s like, I almost don’t know quite what to call it, because it doesn’t belong only to anyone, it belongs to this whole web of race and class dimensions. I think another place that we saw this happen was with the video that came out where Kanye–this was a couple of weeks after his initial meltdown–where Kanye says, “I got misdiagnosed by a doctor. And I’m not gonna say what group the doctor is from,” and then he continues on his rant. And then, as though he just cannot help himself, he crosses his arms and goes, “It was a Jewish doctor.” In that case, I think it’s actually really hard not to call it a Jewish joke.

JS: Have any of you read Oreo by Fran Ross? She’s a Black Jewish woman who was a comedy writer for Richard Pryor. And so her book starts with, she talked about how this Jewish woman found out that her son was marrying a Black woman, and she died. Like the Jewish mother dies. And then she goes, like, “When the Black woman tells her Black father that she’s marrying a Jewish boy, his body freezes permanently in like a half swastika.” You know what I mean” Because it’s kind of like, there are people who can do it.

SAB: Yeah, like we were talking earlier about how comedy, by pointing to contradictions and then relieving tension, can generate community. But the other thing is that a lot of Jewish jokes function on, you only get it if you’re Jewish. A great example of this is like, here’s a Jewish joke: Two Gentiles meet in the street, and one of them says to the other, “How’s business?” and the other one says, “It’s fine.” That’s the whole joke because they’re not complaining. That’s it. That’s the whole joke. And like, that’s not a particularly funny one, but it identifies this thing which is sometimes, a Jewish joke functions specifically by like, “outsiders won’t get this.” A lot of jokes function that way, like you won’t get this if you’re not inside this.

RP: Black and Jewish humor does have this function, and I think also share the contradiction of visibility and becoming everybody’s humor. Like the visibility of black entertainers, whether it’s hip hop, or comedy, or film, or we look at online culture–this is definitely true. Black in-jokes become everyone’s vernacular. And because of the history of Jewish folks working in vaudeville, working in radio, working in TV, working in comedy, a lot of Jewish humor in Yiddish, in the theater world, as well, becomes part of everyone’s vernacular. So it’s this weird, inside-outside thing where everyone’s in on our jokes, but also not. At the same time, you have the hard, other side of comedy. Whereas on one hand it can relieve tension and bring people together, on the other hand, it’s a space to identify who’s in and who’s out, and excusing and endorsing the ideologies of oppression. And when Black folks are the butt of the joke–and Chappelle was part of this, in some cases, giving white people permission to laugh at Black people–the consequences of that are our experiences are not taken seriously. And for Jews, I think a lot of Jewish folks who are stressed out about Chappelle or Kanye, there’s the feeling of that happening.

SAB: Jews are being minstrelized.

RP: In some ways. It’s hard because like, you can’t make a one-to-one between the experience of antisemitism and racism, but they are functioning under the same umbrella of systems, and they’re rooted in a lot of the same ideas. I think Jews were an early other in Europe prior to colonization, and the consequences of that are the Holocaust, which happened within the last century. At the same time, Jewish people in the United States today are living in a totally different reality than folks were in Poland, in Germany, in the 1930s. So that’s why this is also loaded and messy. On the other hand, you’ve got to be real about: Where are we, as Jews? Where are we as Black people? And I’m speaking from both and neither, you know, at the same time, when I’m saying this. Where are we, actually, in relation to each other? And that becomes really tricky to speak about in these moments, especially because with Kanye, there were Nazis waiting to pounce on that and be like, “Kanye was right.”

SAB: Yeah.

RP: So we can’t even have that honest conversation about “how are we relating to each other?” because white, Christian fascists are jumping in to take advantage.

SAB: And I think the thing you were saying about how there’s an encounter between Jews and Black people in the entertainment industry, which provides a shared set of humorous tropes, and also a shared set of inside-or-outside a relationship to the mainstream popular culture, that’s also totally at stake here. Because really, what’s happening when Kanye fires his agents and hates them because they’re Jewish, it’s because there was this thing that happened with the entertainment industry, where Jews were in a position of power, which they weren’t originally–they were just also vaudevillians–but then now they are. And then when Black people came into a position of relative visibility in the entertainment industry, then they were working with Jews. And the thing that creates the tension in this particular example of like Hollywood Jews, Black entertainers, it starts in this shared history of being on the outside. But then the tension it has recreated has to do with the fact that Jews have risen higher.

JS: Beyond representation into like actual power.

SAB: Yeah.

RP: Has anyone watched Atlanta? In the latest season, there’s this episode where Paperboy, he’s at a bar mitzvah, and the father comes up and is like, “I’ll pay you a million dollars to like hang out with my son who wants to be a rapper, and like, help him be a rapper.” And then through this, Paperboy is approached by another OG rapper at the studio, where all these white kids are rapping and making awful, god awful, TikTok rap. And he’s like, “You know, you’re making a million, you could be making 10 if you managed these kids.” And they end up becoming managers for what they call young, white avatars. Then Paperboy is repping this kid who’s like, always drunk, always at risk, and eventually, that kid dies. But I was like, “This is the most interesting, nuanced take on the Black Jewish entertainment”–

SAB: Their roles are switched.

RP: They switched it, and I can see in a lot of ways Jewish people, who at one point are under the same racially restrictive housing covenants that Black folks are, like being banned from living in certain neighborhoods, banned from certain work, and then are able, because of the ability to assimilate into whiteness, able to then move themselves forward, and they end up in these sometimes exploitative relationships with people who, at one point, their relationship with was different. For me, that’s the best way that I’ve seen this tackled at all, because it’s not about pointing fingers and it’s not about blaming Jews or whoever, it’s about this encounter, and how do we encounter each other? And how does one effort to move yourself forward, like what’s the cost of that, you know?

JS: But if it’s going to be put into those terms of like, racial or ethnic other, who sort of have to become white in this country–is that innately different from every white ethnic in this country? I don’t know how to distinguish that from like, the Italian American trajectory. Or you know, God bless the Irish, I love them so much. But you know, like they’ve been through a lot, too. I know that a Jewish person and a white person are not synonymous. However, in the context that they are talking about it, it is.

SAB: Yeah.

JS: Like they’re talking about Jewish Palestinians. You know what I mean? That’s not what they’re talking about, and that’s not the context in which they’re working.

RP: And also you can talk about like, power and control are the currency that’s being traded on when we’re talking about this stuff. And so to me, that’s why antisemitism is something we do need to talk about, because it’s like, why should Jews have this scrutiny that like, Irish, Italian, whoever Americans don’t have?

SAB: Well, I think part of what I was reminded of, by what Jasmine is saying is like, the problem with antisemitism, core to its structure, is that it simultaneously historically identifies the Jew as powerful and weak, right? The Jew is a secret overlord and an insect to be crushed. So there’s this contradiction in how can the Jew be the over-powerful person, and to call them that is antisemitic at the same time that it was antisemitic in the 1930s and 40s to say that the Jews were like an infestation? Obviously, that contradiction serves a political purpose, psychological purpose, in different times. But that’s inherent to antisemitism in a way that isn’t inherent to other kinds of racial or ethnic animosities. That complicates the matter. We’re comfortable saying like, “Italians make the best pasta,” but people get a little antsy when you say, “Jews make the best movies.”

RP: Well, wait, wait, wait, pasta is actually Italian.

SAB: And a certain kind of entertainment in the American context is Jewish. And there are some Jewish comedians who will say like, “Yeah, we make the movies. Do you like the movies? They’re good, right? All right, enjoy.”

JS: I think that also a part of that, in talking about American entertainment, like the genesis and alpha omega, ground zero of American entertainment is always going to be minstrelsy and blackface. And so it is interesting to think about how this is like a linchpin of Black people and people who are like, no one can figure out if they’re white or not.

RP: Like there were Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson who elevated themselves through blackface.

JS: Absolutely.

RP: So, I don’t know, it’s just...

SAB: Ari, settle this for us, explain it to us. Fix it.

AB: I can’t. I can’t fix this part. But I can fix something else. So I thought the two best jokes in the monologue, which I think were next to each other, where a group of Italians is a mafia, a group of Black people is a gang, a group of Jewish people is a coincidence.

SAB: A coincidence

RP: You could never talk about it.

AB: You could never talk about it. And then also, he says, “There’s two words that you can’t say next to each other in America. And those words are ‘the’ and ‘Jews.’ ” Which is a great joke, because I thought that the two words were gonna be “Jewish” and “media,” which is such a like “duh,” like you’re just explaining the premise of the joke. That’s not a joke. And the idea of one of the words being “the” is just very funny. It points to these gaps in American language for talking about Jewish power, essentially, and Jewish groupness. I mean, really, the technical nonjoke way of delivering that joke would be to say that “a gang is a euphemistic way that people refer to Black people gathering in groups in order to not say the word, Black, when they are being racist against Black people gathering in groups.” But there’s a way that there’s no such euphemism that exists: it’s just a group of Jews. It’s just the Jews.

And there was this very uncanny moment where like Monday night–so a couple of nights after the monologue came out–there’s this really complicated tenant organizing situation on my block right now that centers on a bunch of like, essentially Jewish gangsters who have been employed by a landlord to push a Black tenant out of his home so that he can flip the building. And it’s a really long story, but there was an altercation between some people in the house, who were Yeshiva students, and other neighbors. And there was this moment where the tenant that this landlord is trying to push out, who’s an older Black guy, was trying to–

SAB: Describe these people?

AB: He was trying to talk about the people that were 15 feet away from us and making animal noises at us. He knew that he wasn’t supposed to say “the Jews,” but he didn’t know what to call them, and so he just very politely broke off in the middle of a sentence and whispered to me, like, “Help.” And I think the word he was actually looking for was like “Hasidim,” but I was like, “Oh, I don’t actually know if that’s better.” So I was just like, “Students,” and he was like, “Yes, the students.” Oh my god, like literally the joke came to life.

JS: I’m not sure if I would say Jew.

SAB: The way you just said it? I didn’t feel comfortable. [Laughter]

RP: Don’t even mess with her!

JS: There’s trepidation

RP:

There is the sensitivity, like what you’re pointing to, around Jewish people. I think in some ways, it’s right that we’re sensitive because language and the role that played in fascism. But also there’s like, a distinct lack of sensitivity when you’re talking about Black people. There’s a distinct lack of sensitivity when you’re talking about people who are the focus of white supremacy in this country, and our whole system and culture is organized around directing violence and negativity toward Black folks. And I think a lot of people in the Jewish community I’ve heard, like Sarah Silverman and others, will act like it’s the opposite case, that everyone’s up in arms when something happens to Black people and no one cares when it’s about the Jews. I think every group can fall into this, like, “Everyone cares about everyone else, no one cares about us” thing.

JS: I feel like always they’re talking about Black people.

RP: They are.

JS: Just like, “Why don’t people care about antisemitism?” It’s like, what you’re not going to say is “and they care about racism,” or “they care about anti-Blackness.”

SAB: That’s totally right.

JS: Like, after a Trump presidency, it’s kind of galling to me that somehow the bastions of antisemitism are now like, an aging comedian and like a kind of illiterate rapper.

SAB: You’re so fucking right.

RP: America gets off on punishing Black people for shit that everyone else is doing.

JS: Like people do have a real desire to correct and punish Black people in public, like sort of publicly chide them, which I felt was in play with the Whoopi Goldberg thing.

RP: At the same time this is all happening, Trump is out here doubling down on his “The Jews are ungrateful to me” thing.

JS: Yeah!

RP: And he’s running for president again.

JS: If I were a Jewish person–which I wish I were, and sometimes I think I may be–I would really be suspicious of myself if I decided that, like, “Yes, the pinnacle of antisemitism is Black people.”

SAB: Yeah.

JS: I would just be like, we have had an actual fascist President. And not saying that–like, obviously ideology makes these things possible. But it’s like, yeah,

SAB: It’s 100% true that antisemitism is a problem in America–in the world, more so than in America. And we need to find somebody to punish for it. It’s like Kanye and Kyrie: perfect. Exactly. Yes. Yes. Perfect. But I wanted to say, because it’s moving in this direction, that one of the things that sucks so much about this whole situation, and sucked about the reaction to the Dave Chappelle thing, that made me get back into my corner of being like, “No, it is fucking funny. Actually, he is funny,” is that Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL tweets out: “We shouldn’t expect Dave Chappelle to serve as society’s moral compass. But it’s disturbing to see SNL not just normalize but popularize #antisemitism. Why are Jewish sensitivities denied or diminished at almost every turn? Why does our trauma trigger applause?” It drives me crazy.

And I also think the problem for me is that the ADL’s investment in Jewish victimhood is not an innocent investment. So when the gatekeepers of Jewish victimhood are people who are invested in it for the sake of absolving Israel from killing Palestinians, then my investment in Jewish victimhood makes me feel so fucked up. Like I don’t want Jewish victimhood. And this is also where I feel like Zionism is not funny. This is not a controversial thing to say, but Zionism is not funny. And in part, what I think I was saying earlier is that part of what it means to be a Jew is to laugh with some kind of pain. We laugh with some kind of sorrow. We laugh because we’re outsiders. We laugh because of the wrongs. And in some ways, it feels like the project of Zionism is to make antisemitism not funny, to make the Jews not funny, because no one could laugh at a Jew when they have the right to kill anybody who challenges the right to be a Jew.

I’m not asking anybody to agree with this, but I was talking to somebody recently, he converted to Catholicism. And he was talking to a friend of his who’s Jewish, and he was like, “I’m happy for you, you know, it’s good. But you know, there is a problem, which is that the New Testament isn’t funny. The Old Testament is funny.” There are moments in the Old Testament which are just truly funny. And they’re always funny because we’re suffering in some way. So like, you remember in Exodus where Moses brings the Israelites out into the desert–and sometimes it’s translated as like “grumbling,” and sometimes it’s translated as “complaining”–and they say, “Why did you bring us out here? Like, we’re gonna starve in the desert, at least when we were in Egypt we got to eat meat and stuff. Why shouldn’t we die there instead of dying out here?” That’s like you could hear Larry David through the Bible, delivering that as a joke. It’s so funny. And so there’s something about the project of eliminating the existence of Jewish outsiderness, of Jewish fear and creating Jewish military hegemony, which to me is an offense to Jewish humor, but which is also an offense to what it means to me to be a Jew.

RP: I think that on the Jewish left, we have some work to do in terms of like, owning what we think the conversations should be. And a lot of times, we’re either letting the ADL speak up and own the conversation or complaining about the extent to which they do and not like figuring out: What do we actually have to say about antisemitism? Who is our audience? And for me as a Black Jew that’s working on issues of whiteness in the Jewish community, on issues of the antisemitism of Christian hegemony within the Black community, and figuring out like, where are we getting stuck, where we’re getting hung up?

JS: I have such a like– Reflexively, I kind of recoil at them being equated.

RP: They’re not the same thing at all. I’m spending a lot more time working on whiteness in the Jewish community than I am like doing these talks on antisemitism, for example, because of the scale. But where it becomes important is the unfortunate reality that more attention is going to be paid to Black antisemitism in these cases. And that term, Black antisemitism, I don’t think that’s a real and specific and unique thing. It’s American antisemitism as it can manifest in Black communities. But it’s still worth, as Black folks, us having a conversation about where and how this does come up because it does matter. The roots of it are also, I think, an interesting and worthwhile thing for us to engage as black folks, too, because how do we come to have these ideas? The roots of them are in European Christianity, which was, for some Black people, through slavery. And we’ve turned, in some cases, to liberation theology and in other cases, it still manifests in really regressive ways, whether it’s misogyny, homophobia. And antisemitism is interwoven into these same narratives, you know? Part of grappling with that is grappling with ourselves and thinking about: What are the ideas about ourselves and other people that we take on? How do we fit into a power structure that like, the only way you can push yourself forward is to be part of oppressing Black folks, indigenous folks, and other groups? It’s a mess. Yeah.

JS: I agree. And I think the interest to me, as a Black person, and what I think would be really valuable to Black people in this country especially, is like, if you want to understand what race is, like how it is that people come to be a racial other, you have to understand antisemitism. And in that way, we are incredibly similar. So I think that’s really valuable. I also think back to what you were saying, Sam, about, how it’s sort of this really pernicious way of being pro-Israel. I remember when the Kanye thing first happened and there was like, “Let’s understand antisemitism 101. Here are a bunch of words that are used as a dog whistle to mean Jewish people.” And one of them was a banker, one was Zionist, and I was like, “Oh, whoa, you’re saying that people–” You know what I mean? I was like, “Oh, that’s what’s going to become the point.” I can’t help but think that–like, yes, Farrakhan is an idiot and is a famous antisemite, but if you think about the fact that he’s 25% right, which is like, his first point was that Jewish people have no claim to Israel. And then the similarities between like, the thing we have in common with them is we’re also a stateless people. He paralleled Black American identity and Jewish American identity in what is a really fascinating way, but everyone was kind of like “No, like, we’re not stateless, actually.”

SAB: I’ve thought, since the beginning of Kanye coming out and doing his antisemitic stuff, that on the one hand, we know part of it is like he watched Candace Owens’ documentary. But a lot of the stuff he’s saying is obviously because he’s got NOI friends! There’s no question – I just think that’s not really legible to an audience. And I actually think that people like the ADL and a lot of white Jews want to completely ignore that part of it. Which is not exculpating–

RP: I don’t think that they’re ignoring that at all. Actually, if you look at the ADL dossiers, they do have a lot of stuff explaining Black nationalist religions, like the Nation of Islam and Black Hebrew Israelites. And actually, what they do that I think is kind of problematic is connecting like when Black Lives Matter for example, or Movement for Black Lives does work with Palestinians, they’ll like connect it.

SAB: Oh, that’s antisemitic. Right.

RP: And also, I want to say the politics of Farrakhan are ultimately anti-abortion and homophobic, transphobic, and antisemitic.

JS: Absolutely.

RP: And so to conflate this–and also we’re doing this with like, Alice Walker–like trying to conflate these different, actually opposing Black political ideologies–

SAB: With like a liberationist project?

RP: Yeah. And like, you can have an analysis of race like Farrakhan does and still actually be functionally conservative and in service of white supremacy. And people see Black people and are like, “Oh, that’s the left.” And that’s the tendency that you do see, a conflation that happens when some of these Jewish groups are talking about Black folks. I think that they do actually, in some cases.

SAB: They are talking about it. Yeah, you’re probably right. Yeah, I was thinking more like, it’s like progressive, white Jews who want to collapse the difference between fucking alt-right antisemitism and a Black antisemitism that Kanye might have encountered by knowing a lot of old heads in Chicago. Which is different.

JS: Like what is Black antisemitism? Is it just when Black people are antisemitic? Or is it– I don’t know.

RP: You’re right, though.

JS: Like, again, I know so many NOI and Black Hebrew Israelites, and I think what’s really funny to me is I think they would be delighted to know that people take them so seriously. You know what I mean? Like one person ranting at the table just like, “We’ve got to get back to Israel,” and I’m like, “Uh huh.” I think he would be like, astonished that there are people who think that you’re an actual threat. You know what I mean?

SAB: I think what you just said, Jasmine is a really important point. That’s what I mean, is like the conflation of what tends to be a very impotent, NOI-style, antisemitism with the kind of antisemitism that progressive groups are really concerned about on like a massive scale.

JS: It’s just like conservative, Black nationalism.

SAB: Yeah, it’s just conservative, Black nationalism.

JS: Like there is a really good lesson to be learned that a certain type of conservativism encompasses all of these, like anti-Blackness, antisemitism, you know what I mean? And then the proof that antisemitism and anti-Blackness are given the same heft is like, “Well, he did deny slavery also, and everyone was fine with it.”

SAB: Yeah, like, kept the Adidas deal then. But okay, this is where it doesn’t solve anything. And Rebecca is right, that it doesn’t necessarily set up even a particularly good conversation. But it is very funny when Chappelle says at the end, “I hope they don’t take anything from me, whoever they are.” It’s not like a moral joke and a progressive joke. But there’s something funny about that. It points to something real about a sort of unsatisfactory aspect of our discourse. He doesn’t want to have the very, very intelligent conversation that Rebecca would lead about what this is all about. But it is funny, I’m sorry.

RP: You can laugh, don’t be sorry for laughing,

JS: It reminds me of like this Jewish comedian I saw years ago in Chicago. And he was like, “You know, Jewish people, we’ve become white. It’s confusing, like we don’t know how we feel about it yet.” And I was like, “Oh, sometimes it does still seem like that in this country.”

RP: That’s something we should hold. Like I want white Jews to hold on to that discomfort and think about what that means and wrestle with it, and like, come up with a different thing to be. It’s easier said than done. But we have–and this is to your point, Sam, earlier–we need to not hold on to victimhood for victimhood’s sake, but remember what it fucking feels like because we do know it’s in our living memory. It’s in our epigenetics if you want to go there. Remember what that means, and not just for yourself, but have it be the basis of some empathy. I think we could all use a little empathy.

AB: Sam, I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the thing you were saying to me over text the other day, about seeing an upswing in like frog-style, antisemitism.

SAB: Like, alt-right.

AB: And I thought Rebecca might be able to jump in there, too.

SAB: I mean, what I’m about to say is very much not in keeping with everything that I’ve said in the podcast so far, which is that like, I’m not that worried about antisemitism and that I think it’s very funny. But it is true that I cover the right and I do a podcast about the right, and in terms of the really hardcore, online alt-right, a lot of them are anonymous Twitter accounts. Their names are known by people who are obsessed with reactionary politics, with their identities or not, that I think there is a moment of antisemitism coming back into normal discourse, and that it’s something like the end of the hangover from Charlottesville. That there was a chastening of these groups and their proximity to the mainstream right which is beginning to unravel. And I do find that concerning, and I think that I tend to–and maybe more so than I should–think of that phenomenon as separate from the way that we’re having this conversation, very publicly, about people like Kanye and Kyrie. Though the fact that Kanye did come by some of his antisemitic ideas through Candace Owens, who is in the employ of Ben Shapiro, and the contact between that part of the right and the alt-right, is not negligible. That there could be something going on here, though I do want to say that spending time–some very unpleasant time–with that part of the alt-right, the far-right–they hate Black people so much that Kanye and Kyrie or any of these Black people who are voicing plausibly antisemitic things are not seen as allies of their movement. It might be like a good chance to make a joke. But these people that I’m describing, they’re white nationalists or white supremacists. They despise Black people at least as much as they despise us.

RP: I don’t think that the real Nazi types who really do hate Black people, I don’t think they’re seeing Kanye or Chappelle as their allies, but they’re very willing to take advantage of what they see as the normalization of their narratives. So like, the first thing I even heard about Chappelle, before I even heard his monologue, was I saw someone I know who monitors the far-right tweeting what they were saying about it. And one of these accounts is saying, “The Dave Chappelle thing is great. Talking about the reality of Jewish power is being normalized. He’s doing it in a very soft and respectable way.” And so, I think that they’re aware of the cultural currency that Black folks have in this country and the visibility, and they’re perfectly willing, as much as they hate Black people and think that we’re lesser and all this stuff, to take advantage of that and see their ideas being popular. And it’s not inconceivable that some little weirdo on the internet who loves hip hop and is also being blackpilled is seeing these things at the same time. And it’s doing the weird, connecting the dots that conspiracy is all about. So for me, if we’re going to talk about the real danger, if we’re going to use that term around this, it’s the extent to which it can be taken advantage of. And just the ecosystem of conspiracy on the internet that is both fueling Kanye and Kyrie, to a certain extent, and it’s fueling the far right, it doesn’t care so much about the origins of this stuff as long as these ideas are being normalized and brought to the fore.

SAB: Yeah, I’m sure you’re right about that. I mean, that’s why the kind of work and conversations that you’re trying to have are so important because you have to distinguish. You have to generate the conditions for solidarity. And if you don’t do that, then you can give these real nasty, reactionary freaks a way to use Black celebrities to forward their cause.

AB: This has been On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. Thanks so much to Rebecca, Jasmine, and Sam for joining us today, and thank you to everyone tuning in.

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