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A Jewish Response to Dave Chappelle

If you haven’t watched Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer” yet, I suggest doing so before reading this. It is available on Netflix and is well worth it.

The show got a lot of press for Chappelle’s comments on transgender. If you want to read about that angle, there is plenty to read on the internet, so I won’t directly address that issue. But I’d like to address the much smaller focus on Jews in the show, and how it relates to his larger message.

Chappelle made one joke early on that could be taken as antisemitic or anti-Israel. He described a movie he’d like to write about a group that leaves earth for a few thousand years and then comes back to claim earth as their own. The movie would be called “Space Jews.”

There was an audible groan from the audience. He says, “It’s gonna get a lot worse.” But I don’t think the audience reacted that way at any other point, even though it arguably did get a lot worse.

Chappelle is a Muslim, and the show was in Detroit, which has a sizable Muslim population. He says at the end of the show that he’s going to stop making jokes about transgender. Maybe he was testing the waters on switching to anti-Israel material? If so, I’m glad the audience didn’t go for it. I was disappointed by the joke, but knowing I was watching a show that many people found offensive, I decided to take it and keep watching. But now having seen the whole show, I’d like to respond to that joke, as I don’t think it fit with his overall message, which I found quite meaningful.

Chappelle addressed the fact that he is frequently accused of “punching down” on transgender people, in other words, looking down on them when he makes fun. He seemed bothered by the fact that transgender activists don’t acknowledge the suffering that African Americans have endured in this country. As an example, in a response to a transgender person saying, “You don’t know what my people have been through,” Chappelle responds, “Were your people brought over on ships?”

I think he made clear over the course of the special that he is more than willing to connect to the suffering of transgender individuals, but not willing to treat their suffering as somehow greater or more important than that of Black people in this country.

I relate to this viewpoint very much. I am bothered by some of the “woke” activism for the same reason. We seem to pick a small number of favored “victim” groups and act as if everyone else is privileged and needs to understand and accommodate the suffering of those in the favored group. This then minimizes the suffering of those who didn’t make the cut for favored-victim status.

And somehow Jews never qualify for favored-victim status, despite our long history of persecution in almost every part of the world over the last 2,000 years, which unfortunately continues to this day.

The second Jewish reference in the show came later, after Chappelle told a story of a freed slave who later became a successful landowner and then became a slave owner himself. It was a powerful story of forgetting your own roots. He said that a movie was going to be made about this story, and jokingly said it was going to be called “Space Jews.”

It could be that this was just a passing, lighthearted reference to his earlier joke that fell flat. Now I might be reading into it too much, but I sensed a deeper meaning. There were unfortunately Jews throughout history who were involved in the slave trade. And Jews of all people should have known better. The Torah is full of warnings to treat others well, because we were once slaves in Egypt. This is our founding narrative. So enslaving others is forgetting that message. If this is what he meant, then it is a fair point.

However, by the same token, I need to go back to the first reference to “Space Jews.” The implication was that like the people in his movie, the Jews “left” Israel thousands of years ago before returning to claim the land as their own. The problem is that Jews left Israel after the destruction of the Temple much like Black people left Africa—in captivity. The reason Black slaves sang Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”) is because they related their own plight to that of Jews in exile, much as they also related to the Exodus story as a shared experience of slavery.

As recently as the civil rights movement in America, Black and Jewish people still had a shared experience of oppression and exclusion. But lately, that cooperation has waned. I think a reason that many Jews are less sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement, aside from the anti-Israel streak within the movement, is that it has become exclusionary. Just as Chappelle feels that transgener activists are highlighting their own suffering to the exclusion of Blacks, many Jews bristle at being considered “white oppressors” who can’t possibly understand the Black experience.

On the contrary. If given a chance, we very much understand that experience, because it is our experience. We don’t need to argue about who suffered more or for longer, and the experience of discrimination can change over time, place and circumstance. The important thing is we can support others who are suffering through a human-to-human connection, but it needs to be reciprocal. Or, as Chappelle put it: “Empathy is bisexual. It goes both ways.”

Jewish and Black Americans need to do a better job of relating to each other as partners in a shared experience of oppression, and support the other in their time of need, instead of trying to outdo the other by comparing our suffering. So Dave, if your message was that we should all have empathy for each other’s suffering, then we are with you all the way. Just don’t punch down on us.


Ben Sandler lives in Teaneck with his wife and children.

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