B’nai B’rith International CEO Daniel Mariaschin called it “a cheap shot at Jewish customs” that plays into “blood libel” stereotypes, while the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s (SWC) associate dean and director of global social action Rabbi Abraham Cooper expressed outrage and frustration that in the media “no one else is fair game except our community.”
Their anger was directed at NBC, which has received significant backlash in the Jewish community for airing programming on two recent occasions that has been labeled by many as promoting “classic anti-Semitic tropes.”
One of the two offending incidents occurred on Feb. 9 airing of the drama, “Nurses,” which featured a young hasidic or Orthodox boy named Israel who injured his leg and is warned by his father not to accept a bone graft because it might come from a woman or Arab donor; and the Feb. 20 airing of the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL) where host and chief writer Michael Che quipped, “Israel is reporting that they vaccinated half of their population. I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half.”
In the “Nurses” episode Israel asks, “You want to put a dead leg inside me?” and the father responds, “A dead goyim leg from anyone—an Arab, a woman” and tells his son that the “Creator” will heal him. The son ultimately refuses the graft. There are no prohibitions in Judaism against receiving a bone graft from a cadaver.
In response to the controversy, NBC has pulled the “Nurses” episode from all its digital platforms but has not commented on either show.
“Nurses” is a Canadian series that was picked up by NBC in late 2020 to fill holes in its original programming schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The two incidents engendered swift and strong response from both national and local Jewish organizations that accused the network of spreading lies about Jews and Judaism, particularly Orthodoxy and Israel.
“There needs to be recognition and sensitivity in media outlets to the Jewish community and community practices,” Mariaschin told The Jewish Link in a phone interview from his Washington office. “It’s not humor and it’s not even good drama.”
He said NBC pulling the “Nurses” episode was insufficient and the network needed to apologize for its portrayal of the Orthodox community and its failure to research Jewish practices, although he said there is an industry-wide problem of insensitivity to the concerns and practices of the Jewish community.
“This is a blood libel and what Michael Che was able to do was what has been done since the Middle Ages about blood libels, that what we want to do is harm others,” said Mariaschin of the SNL piece. “There are millions of people in those audiences. What they heard was not only wrong, but outrageously wrong and we don’t want them learning about our community through off-handed comments.”
However, he expressed optimism the negative publicity resulting from these incidents might serve as a wake-up call to the industry.
Allison Josephs, founder and director of Jew in the City, was the first to call out NBC in her blog. The Teaneck-based group is dedicated to fighting anti-Orthodox bias.
Josephs told The Jewish Link that soon after writing her blog piece she put up a short video clip showing the offensive segment from “Nurses” on Instagram and followed with a tweet, receiving a million views in just over a day. Within 26 hours of the blog post there was enough of an uproar that NBC announced it was removing access to the episode.
Since she founded the organization in 2007, Josephs said she has been fighting the depiction of Orthodox and hasidic Jews in the media as dysfunctional. She said this wasn’t the first “disgusting” portrayal of religious Jews on NBC programming, including on “Law and Order SVU.”
“They can’t get off easy,” said Josephs. “They have a pattern, but to be fair, every network does. They all have their token horrible hasidic Jew.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center quickly put out a condemnation. There have also been demonstrations outside NBC in Los Angeles and New York. “The writers of this scene check all the boxes of ignorance and pernicious negative stereotypes, right down to the name of the patient, Israel—payos and all,” according to SWC.
“In one scene, NBC has insulted and demonized religious Jews and Judaism. Overreaction? Orthodox Jews are targeted for violent hate crimes: In the city of New York, Jews are the number-one target of hate crimes in the U.S.; this is no slip of the tongue. It was a vile, cheap attack masquerading as TV drama. What’s NBC going to do about it?”
In a phone conversation with The Jewish Link from Los Angeles, Cooper said the SWC’s CEO and president Rabbi Marvin Hier met with top NBC executives, the names of whom he was not at liberty to disclose, about the misrepresentations. “We’re not going to back down an inch,“ he vowed. “This is something about which we shouldn’t be silent.”
Cooper referred to “SNL” as “an established icon of American culture” and its status lends weight to the injurious jest. “It wasn’t just a joke,” he said. “An established icon of American culture has accepted and validated another lie about the Jewish people coming at a time when Israel has vaccinated 70% of its older Arab citizens.”
Cooper said the “Nurses” episode was “just straight anti-Semitism” and said those who viewed it and let it run “have no defense.”
He stressed it was important for the community to call out “a lie masquerading as a joke,” adding, “We may not necessarily win every battle but it’s important to engage or else we just become roadkill.”
Scott Richmond, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) New York/New Jersey regional director, said while “SNL” is satire that often has insensitive material and should be given some leeway, this Weekend Update segment crossed the line. “The joke was based on factual inaccuracies,” he told The Jewish Link. “In this case it seems pretty clear this joke was not just satire but was offensive. It really touched on the anti-Semitic notion that Israel discriminates against its own citizens and people of the Jewish faith inherently discriminate against others, which of course is the type of anti-Semitic trope that has been common through the ages about Jews being involved in acts against non-Jews. Dual loyalty is a trope and Jews have been dealing with this for a millennium… The Jews control the media, government, money; they’re greedy.”
Richman said Che likely didn’t intend the joke to be anti-Semitic but noted “non-Jews don’t see anti-Semitism the way Jews do.”
However, he called the idea that Jewish Israelis are somehow responsible for non-Jewish Israelis being sick “heinous” and “scapegoating” Jews since “Israel has made no distinction about who can receive the vaccine.”
He said the ADL has been in contact with “SNL” and its creator and producer Lorne Michaels, who is Jewish. While Richman said he was glad NBC was doing the right thing by pulling the “Nurses” episode, that didn’t excuse “the portrayal of a visibly Orthodox Jewish character harboring such hateful and bigoted thoughts about Arabs, about women, about non-Jews in general. It’s inflammatory and validates the worst stereotypes about religious Jews being insular and caring only about themselves.”
He said not only is the ADL requesting a response from the network but has also offered to work with their writers in the future to avoid a repeat.
Local reaction has also been negative with Jason Shames, CEO and executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, terming it “just inappropriate at a time of such heightened sensitivity.” Shames said he “cringed” when he heard about the SNL joke and said, “It reeks of bias,” adding if Che, who is African-American, had said the same joke but switched the location to America from Israel and substituted white people for Jews there would have been an instant outcry.
“Living in the sensitive environment of today, why is it okay to make Jewish jokes, that we are still a target but nobody else is?” questioned Shames. “It has to stop.”
The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, which encompasses Middlesex and Monmouth counties, put out a “fact check,” calling the programs “flagrantly anti-Semitic pieces of television, born from ignorance, and presented as entertainment, even comedy. The affronts shocked Jews and all thinking people who seek to squelch hate rather than inflame it, no less with falsehoods.”
It pointed out that Israel has said all its citizens, whether they are Jewish or not, are being vaccinated, including Arab non-citizens living in East Jerusalem.
Liran Kapoano, a member of the Federation board and its Jewish Community Relations Council, said although he thought the SNL segment was “misleading” and too cringed at its implication that Jews cared only about Jews, he looked at the segment from a slightly different perspective.
“I’ve seen a lot of comedy shows and I’ve actually seen Michael Che perform live stand-up,” said the East Brunswick resident. “A few years ago he was getting nailed for making jokes about transgender people. So does he really hate Jews or is that his gimmick?”
“I don’t like what he said and I thought it was over the line, but if he were only attacking Jews I’d be more concerned,” he said. “He seems to be an equal opportunity offender.”
Conversely, the “Nurses” episode “had no joke, no comedy and no point,” said Kapoano, adding, “It was just a depiction of Jews in the worst possible stereotypes they could find of Jews.”
He said he hoped NBC would launch an internal investigation into who approved the airing of the show, noting that he feared people living in areas of the United States and Canada where they likely would never meet a Jew would see the depiction of Orthodoxy in the show as being typical.
“The key is to get to the bottom of this process that allowed this to happen and reform the process,” he noted. “If they’re not willing to do that then there is a problem.”
By Debra Rubin