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Joking on ‘SNL’ and Harvard denial of Tenure to Cornel West converge on the issue of alleged Anti-Semitism

posted on: Mar 3, 2021

Joking on ‘SNL’ and Harvard denial of Tenure to Cornel West converge on the issue of alleged Anti-Semitism
Michael Che (r.) drops a joke on ‘Weekend Update’ about Israeli covid vaccination program Photo popculture

By: John Mason/ Arab America Contributing Writer

Michael Che’s joke about Israel’s Covid-19 vaccination program did not humor a certain segment of pro-Israel adherents. Around the same time, Harvard University denied scholar Cornel West tenure, seemingly because of his criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territory.

Michael Che’s ‘SNL’ joke about Israeli Covid vaccinations triggers a debate on anti-Semitism

Why did Che’s joke spark an uproar online? A week ago Saturday, on ‘Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, Che caused a commotion when he reported, “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m gonna guess it’s the Jewish half.” While recalling that this broadcast is satirical and not always accurate, it nevertheless prompted a huge debate about anti-Semitism. According to news source Insider, this intended joke “sparked an intense backlash online as several Jewish organizations called on the NBC show to apologize.” Contrary online sources advocated that “criticizing Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic.”

Regular news sources reported the ‘facts’ about the Israeli vaccination program. The Times of Israel thus noted, Israel has offered vaccinations to all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, in addition to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. ‘Citizens’ is the key to this statement, since several million Palestinians under Israeli control do not have a privilege of citizenship. Thus, some critics have faulted the Jewish state “for not vaccinating the roughly five million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.” One ‘minor detail’ that is missing from the Times report is that Jewish settlers on the occupied West Bank have also been vaccinated.

Numerous American pro-Israel lobby groups purported, according to Insider, that “Che’s joke promoted dangerous stereotypes about Israel and that the joke was anti-Semitic, while others celebrated the joke for calling out the Israeli government, as millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza await vaccination.” Some criticism was directed at Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government for its treatment of non-Jewish people living in Palestinian territories—namely an absence of vaccinations for Arab Palestinians

Joking on ‘SNL’ and Harvard denial of Tenure to Cornel West converge on the issue of alleged Anti-Semitism
An ultra-Orthodox Jew receives a vaccination against the coronavirus disease Photo Reuters

SNL’s Weekend Update, then, was specifically attempting to highlight by way of a joke, a mostly true statement about the disparity between Israeli vaccinations, which include some Palestinian Israelis, and those for Palestinians in the occupied territories. Some of the criticism came from the Palestinian Authority, which alleged that the Israeli government had blocked vaccine shipments to the West Bank and Gaza.

Interpreting the Joke as Anti-Semitic, depending on your perspective

Some critics of the joke were absolutely incensed, one of whom is Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-defamation League. He told Insider, “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.”

Times of Israel reported statements from the other end of the continuum, the anti-occupation group IfNotNow. That group defended SNL’s Che, stating, “The familiar cycle begins, 1) Media calls out Israeli government for structural inequalities between Jews & Palestinians. 2) Israel-Can-Do-No-Wrong crowd calls criticism antisemitic, and 3) Demand an apology to refocus conversation on words, not ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.”

But the Times defends Israel, noting that the country “rejects the claim that it occupies the West Bank, saying the territories it has ruled since 1967 are ‘disputed,’ rather than occupied. It also notes that it has pulled out of Gaza, though it maintains a blockade over the territory. As such, Jerusalem has never accepted the applicability of that international law statute to the territories.” This makes it appear that Israel can have it both ways—‘disputed’ and thus no need to support vaccination in the territories.

In its favor, Israel has donated several doses to Ramallah on the West Bank, intended so the Palestinian Authority can vaccinate medical staff.

Cornel West’s use of the “I word” costs him tenure at Harvard

Distinguished scholar Cornel West said that Harvard is denying him tenure because of his views on the “I-word”, Israel, and its occupation of Palestine. West’s views on Israel are specifically linked to his support for Palestine. Quoting him in Middle East Eye, West avers that “Palestine is a taboo issue among certain circles in high places.” Thus, the Harvard Divinity School professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy has suggested he might leave the university after it denied him academic tenure. West insists he was “being punished for his views on Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”

Joking on ‘SNL’ and Harvard denial of Tenure to Cornel West converge on the issue of alleged Anti-Semitism
Students treasure Cornel West, in part for his iconoclastic ideas Photo Amazon

Apparently West is not being told directly the reason for his tenure denial, especially given the fact that his academic colleagues, including deans of two schools, have supported his tenure. Academic tenure offers professors at American universities an indefinite appointment and is a safeguard for academic freedom. This is not the first time Harvard has faced the tenure problem, having refused to give it because of scholars who are characterized as controversial.

In an interview with Middle East Eye (MEE), a source close to the issue of West’s tenure said, “It is remarkable that one can criticize just about anything on an American university campus, including the US, but Israel is effectively off-limits.” In particular, West has regularly called for Harvard to divest from companies he describes as “complicit in the Israeli occupation.” The University purports to have investments worth around $200 million in companies linked to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. While denying West’s request for tenure, Harvard, in order to save face, had offered him a ten-year contract and a pay raise instead. West’s response to that is, “Either you stay or decide to go but you don’t go into the night silently.”

Harvard Students take a Stand on Cornel West—Give him Tenure!

Students at Harvard across its many schools and educational levels have demanded the University grant Cornel West tenure. Of 150 doctoral students favoring his tenure, one who was interviewed by the Harvard Crimson noted, “He was a University Professor before he left Harvard the first time, which is [Harvard’s] most distinguished academic position. So we all know that his scholarship corpus is not up for debate by Harvard’s own standards. So, I was led to conclude, if formerly Harvard made a decision based on their standards and their values that he was a tenured professor, then this decision has to be a political one.” As noted earlier, West’s outspoken criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, in other words, his politics, is the most-often suggested issue undermining his tenure.

Joking on ‘SNL’ and Harvard denial of Tenure to Cornel West converge on the issue of alleged Anti-Semitism
Cornel West and Bernie Sanders happen to be strongly pro-Palestinian in their views Photo Sevendays

Another student opinion shared by the Crimson was, “Professor West criticizes the darkness of the world around us. He challenges the status quo, he challenges Harvard, he is critical of the way in which our liberal institutions are failing the public, and that is something very difficult for people to reconcile. But it’s through that critique that an institution like Harvard can become better.”

From the examples of SNL’s Michael Che and Harvard’s Cornel West, it has become clear that how one uses the words “Israel,” and “Palestinian” can become a critical issue. While SNL is a show about humor, Cornel West’s situation is a very serious one about moral and ethical integrity and academic freedom. SNL revealed the raw nerve caused by a joke. West’s Harvard issue is much more subtle and potentially invidious. We all have to be the judge of what we believe is at stake.


“Why Michael Che’s ‘SNL’ joke about Israeli vaccinations sparked a debate about anti-Semitism,” Insider, 2/22/2021

“SNL under fire after actor jokes that Israel only vaccinating Jews,” Times of Israel, 2/21/2021

“Cornel West: Palestine is a ‘taboo issue among certain circles in high places,” Middle East Eye, 2/24/2021 

“In Light of Cornel West’s Threatened Departure, Harvard Doctoral Students Call on University to Grant Him Tenure, Harvard Crimson, 2/25/2021

 John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He did fieldwork in an east Libyan Saharan oasis and has taught at the University of Libya-Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo. John served with the United Nations as an official in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, the UN, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

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