An eight-second joke made by Michael Che on Saturday Night Live has sparked a weeks-long controversy about anti-Semitism, coronavirus, and vaccines in the Middle East. And nearly a fortnight after it aired, Fox News hosted the prime minister of Israel to condemn the joke on air.
The incident dates back to the February 20 episode of Saturday Night Live. During the Weekend Update segment of the program, Che read about a news item that celebrated Israel’s success vaccinating a big portion of its population.
“Israel is reporting that they vaccinated half of their population,” Che said. “And I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half.”
The reaction the next day was immediate. Che trended briefly and some conservatives condemned the comments as anti-Semitic and potentially reinforcing harmful stereotypes about Jews and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. And the Anti-Defamation League called the joke “deeply offensive.”
— ADL (@ADL) February 22, 2021
As the Washington Post laid out, however, there was some truth to the heart of the joke. Israel has received considerable criticism from global health leaders and Palestinian officials for not doing more to help those who are not Jewish to get vaccinated in the West Bank and other Israeli-controlled territories. Despite the great success Israel has seen in vaccinating Israelis, there are considerable barriers to getting the region’s full population vaccinated:
Palestinian leaders and international activists say Israel is obligated to ensure that Palestinians are vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“Israel bears moral and humanitarian responsibility for vaccinating the Palestinian population under its control,” said Physicians for Human Rights in an appeal to Israeli leaders Wednesday.
In an interview, Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein rejected that argument. But he acknowledged that it was in Israel’s self-interest to expand vaccinations into an adjacent population that sends thousands of workers into Israel on a daily basis.
That joke, which aired nearly two weeks ago now, has sparked minor protests and calls for NBC to comment on the situation. And neither NBC nor Che have addressed the slow-rolling controversy. And on Thursday, Fox News invited Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to address Che’s joke. He called it “outrageous” and “so false” and defended his country’s vaccine rollout.
“In fact, I brought vaccines and went especially to the Arab communities, the Arab citizens of Israel and vaccinated as many as we can,” Netanyahu said in an interview from Jerusalem. “I must’ve gone to half a dozen Arab communities already, talked with the mayors there, brought the leaders, brought the doctors there, Arab doctors, this is just outrageous.”
The politician’s account of apparently hand-delivering vaccines to Palestinians aside, the back and forth over vaccination policies, and the fallout from Che’s joke, has actually sparked calls from Israeli health officials who have recommended vaccinating all Palestinians as soon as possible, according to an NPR report. So while Che’s joke has certainly received criticism in the controversy, the actual situation he was joking about seems to have only gotten more attention and may have been addressed as a result.