Martin J. Raffel, DJOP board member and former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs
In a nutshell:
* Michael Che’s joke on SNL about only vaccinating its Jewish population was neither fact based, nor funny. Was it antisemitic?
Major Jewish organizations say yes; others say no. Regardless of how one answers that question, it would be a mistake to turn the SNL joke into a cause célèbre.
* Israel’s foremost obligation is to vaccinate its own citizens. It is unclear whether Israel also has a legal obligation to help Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza get vaccinated.
* Legalities aside, there are moral/humanitarian and especially practical reasons for Israel to assist with Palestinian vaccinations.
* Domestic Israeli and PA politics seem to be preventing cooperation on vaccinating Palestinians in the territories. One possible way to overcome this obstacle — building on the Abraham Accords — is to involve Arab states in this effort as neutral third parties alongside Israel and the PA.
Michael Che unleashed an avalanche of criticism from Jewish organizations, including accusations of antisemitism, in the wake of a joke he told during Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” segment on February 20. The Joke: “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half.”
There are several issues to parse here: Is the joke antisemitic? The joke aside, does Israel have a legal obligation to provide vaccines to non-citizen Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza? If there is no legal obligation, does Israel have a moral obligation and/or self-interest to help vaccinating those Palestinians?
Is the joke antisemitic?
Not surprisingly, there are differences of opinion. Some of the mainstream centrist Jewish organizations think it is. Here are key statements:
AJC’s David Harris tweeted: “This 8-second segment by Michael Che… is totally outrageous. He accuses Israel of vaccinating only Jews. Not true. Every Israeli — Jew, Muslim, Christian, etc. — is eligible for the COVID jab. He should apologize ASAP for spreading an anti-Semitic lie.”
ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt said, “Saturday’s deeply offensive joke about Israel’s Covid 19 vaccination process not only missed the mark but crossed the line – basing the premise of the joke on factual inaccuracies and playing into an antisemitic trope in the process.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — the Jewish community’s lead umbrella organization that ostensibly speaks on behalf of the entire community — issued a blistering statement: “We find the use of age-old antisemitic tropes on last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live to be deeply troubling. It is particularly painful for this to occur at a time when antisemitic incidents, some resulting in death and injury, are at record highs. The State of Israel’s successful COVID-19 vaccination campaign is a model for the entire world. More than a fifth of Israel’s population is non-Jewish, and all Israelis – Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike – along with Palestinians living in Jerusalem, are participants in the vaccine rollout. The vaccine is equally available to the entire population of Israel, regardless of gender, race, or religion. Saturday Night Live’s ill conceived ‘joke’ adds to the heap of lies and conspiratorial allegations surrounding the Jewish people and COVID-19 that recalls medieval accusations of Jews being responsible for disease and plagues. NBC should know better, and must not only stop spreading harmful misinformation, but take action to undo this damage caused by propagating Jew-hatred under the guise of comedy.”
On the other hand, stopping short of calling Che’s joke antisemitic, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the Reform Movement asserted the joke was in “poor taste.” In fact, Jacobs wrote in a tweet, “Israel is a world leader in Covid vaccinations, protecting Jewish and Arab citizens alike. As Israel shares its scientific data, the world’s fight against Covid is getting stronger. The truth isn’t funny, but it is worth knowing.”
Writing in Ha’aretz, Joshua Shanes, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, denied there was anything antisemitic about Che’s joke. “Comedians exaggerate realities of discrimination all the time by punching up at the more powerful group or actor. This time, the more powerful actor is Israel. Michael Che did not mean that Israel is literally only vaccinating Jews, any more than they literally meant any other punchline on that segment for the last 45 years. It was humorous exaggeration of Israel’s open and systemic discrimination against non-Jews.”
In a similar vein, our friend and Democratic Party consultant Steve Sheffey wrote in his February 28 newsletter: “Che joked that Israel vaccinated half its population — the Jewish half. I didn’t think it was funny, fair, or true, but it’s not anti-Semitic and it’s not blood libel. It’s satire, which almost by definition is unfair and exaggerates for effect. We don’t help our cause by conflating anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel or by fixating on an SNL joke that most people wouldn’t have seen but for its amplification by some organizations.”
The astute Andy Silow-Carroll, editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, wrote: “To me it sounds like a one-liner written by a roomful of writers who live and work in a city with the world’s largest population of Jews outside Israel. It is a joke Jews and even Israelis might tell each other, but which becomes uncomfortable and even anti-Jewish when released into the wild.”
My take: The joke immediately made me feel uncomfortable. Was it because it touched a nerve having heard that Israel was failing to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the territories and was even shipping vaccines to other countries? Or was it because, like the centrist Jewish organizations, I instinctively felt it crossed the line and was at least borderline antisemitic given the long and sad history of Jews being falsely accused of causing harm to non-Jews? The term “their population” in the joke jumped out. Israel is offering the vaccine to its population – Jews, Muslims, and Christians – on an equal basis. If the Arab population is behind the Jewish population in getting vaccinated, it is for other reasons. The joke writer probably wasn’t distinguishing between citizen and non-citizen Palestinians, so the “their population” language was inaccurate.
Yes, I do think the joke was insensitive. We tend to throw around the antisemitic word too cavalierly. Here? Maybe. But the reaction, in my opinion, was an overreaction that likely drew even more attention to vaccination issues in Israel. Also, the more substantive issues – the ones that I wish our Jewish organizations would devote more attention to – are the continued gap in services and resources between Jewish and Arad citizens of Israel and the ongoing occupation of millions of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
The Michael Che joke aside, does Israel have a legal obligation to help vaccinating non-citizen Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza?
This is a complicated question, and like most legal issues, there is not a clear-cut answer. Those groups that argue Israel is legally responsible for vaccinating Palestinians in the territories, not just the Israeli settlers living there, cite Article 55 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states “to the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power [Israel] has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population.”
On the other hand, those denying Israel’s legal responsibility cite the Oslo Accords which created the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA has jurisdiction over most of the Palestinians and is responsible for civilian affairs, including health care. Thus, they argue, the Geneva Convention obligation no longer applies.
Then there are arguments for Israeli legal responsibility even if the Oslo Accords take precedence over the Geneva Convention. First, the Accords stipulate that epidemic control would be a joint responsibility. Moreover, Israel, it is argued, cannot have it both ways. While, on the one hand, it uses the Oslo Accords as a shield to deny legal obligation toward the Palestinian population, on the other hand it violates them through settlements and land expropriation, not to mention plans — temporarily shelved because of the Abraham Accords — to annex a segment of the West Bank.
Worth noting, non-citizen Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are offered vaccine on the same basis as Israeli citizens. Many have been reluctant to take advantage of this opportunity due to suspicion of Israeli authorities.
If there is no legal obligation, does Israel have a moral obligation and/or self-interest to vaccinate those Palestinians?
The debate in Israel over this issue primarily revolves around moral and practical considerations, not legal ones. That said, it should be stipulated up front that Israel has a legal, moral, and practical obligation to vaccinate its own Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens first, and, on that front, it is doing a better job than almost any other country in the world.
What about the non-citizen Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza? Jewish values suggest that there is a moral obligation to assist those Palestinians with vaccinations as well. According to the Shulchan Arukh, “Some argue that maintaining a synagogue is more important than tzedakah, but tzedakah…to impoverished sick people is even more important than maintaining a synagogue.” Of Rav Huna, the third century rabbi, the Talmud recounts, “Whenever he discovered some [new] medicine, he would fill a water jug with it, suspend it above the doorstep, and proclaim, ‘Whosoever desires it, let them come and take of it.’’’
There also is a very practical reason for Israel to help vaccinate Palestinians in the territories as quickly as possible, especially in the West Bank. Israelis and West Bank Palestinians mingle on a regular basis, including the more than 100,000 Palestinian day laborers who work inside Israel and the settlements. Israel’s Palestinian citizens routinely visit the West Bank. High infection rates there inevitably will lead to more infections among Israeli citizens.
Recently, Israel agreed to vaccinate the West Bank laborers. But Israeli health officials are urging Israel to go further and help vaccinate the entire Palestinian population. In an interview to NPR, Itamar Grotto, a leader of Israel’s response to the pandemic and former deputy director general of Israel’s health Ministry, said, “it is an important objective from a public health point of view, and, of course, from a humanitarian point of view.”
Writing in Ha’aretz, Professor Nadav Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University and member of the Israel national Covid-19 advisory committee, and Joseph Bruch, a Ph.D. candidate in Population Health Sciences at Harvard, assert that providing Palestinians with vaccinations is a “public health imperative.” They write: “cross-border transmission along with the emergence of new variants and continued high rates of infections in certain Israeli populations, ensure that the pandemic is not going to and in the immediate future without a joint public health response. Failing to respond to the crisis in Gaza and the West Bank will make it more difficult to return to normal in the entire area and stop the rise in infections.”
What coordination, if any, has taken place between the Israeli government and the PA? The situation is somewhat murky. In addition to the vaccines for West Bank laborers, Israel has provided some 5,000 doses for Palestinian health care workers and senior officials. The PA has not officially requested Israeli assistance with a widespread vaccination campaign, preferring to seek large numbers of doses from Russia, COVAX and other sources. Israel has not made an offer to the PA to help vaccinating the entire Palestinian population.
This reticence on both sides to reach out has a political dimension. Both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas are facing elections in the period ahead. Netanyahu is reluctant to be perceived as helping the Palestinians when his own citizenry is not fully vaccinated. And Abbas does not want to appear weak in the eyes of his voters. Of course, the pandemic is a matter of life and death for both peoples, which, in principle, should supersede political considerations.
In his latest column, the always insightful Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum suggests a possible way out of the stalemate between Israel and the PA. That is to build on the Abraham Accords to involve the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco as outside third parties to facilitate the vaccination of Palestinians in the territories. “If states that have diplomatic relations with Israel agree to serve as middlemen, Israel can use them as a pass-through to provide the vaccines that will go to Palestinians (assuming that the Israeli cabinet approves the distribution), and Palestinians can accept them directly from non-Israeli actors. Israel does not have to concede any absolute legal obligation to provide healthcare in the West Bank, while the Palestinians can maintain the legal fiction that they are not bending to Israel when it comes to vaccines.”
One additional matter: Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to distribute modest amounts of the vaccine to other countries has been suspended by the Attorney General because of legal questions and decried by his coalition partners Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. It is hard to justify providing vaccine to Honduras, for example, while Israel’s own citizens are not yet fully vaccinated.
On the international level, Israel has received a fair amount of criticism for not doing more for the Palestinians. In addition, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has asked Israel to provide more vaccines to the Palestinians.
My bottom line: Consistent with the obligation to give priority to its own citizens first, Israel would have been well served to offer (and better late than never) to work with the PA directly, or through outside Arab parties, to vaccinate Palestinians in the territories. That would be the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do.