SNL under fire after actor jokes that Israel only vaccinating Jews

Weekend Update co-host Michael Che accused of anti-Semitism following crack that while Jewish state boasts vaccinating half its citizens, only the ‘Jewish half’ got the shot

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Saturday Night Live Weekend Update co-host Michael Che on February 20, 2021. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Saturday Night Live Weekend Update co-host Michael Che on February 20, 2021. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Israeli officials and several major US Jewish groups on Sunday accused Saturday Night Live of spreading anti-Semitic tropes after one of its actors joked in a news segment that Israel has only been vaccinating its Jewish citizens.

“Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m gonna guess it’s the Jewish half,” cracked Weekend Update co-host Michael Che to a chuckling audience.

As of Sunday, over 4.3 million Israelis have received their first vaccine dose, and almost 3 million have received the second, out of a population of 9 million.

Israel has offered vaccinations to all of its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, in addition to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. But critics have faulted the Jewish state for not vaccinating the roughly five million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

The American Jewish Committee began circulating a petition on Sunday demanding that SNL apologize for the joke.

“Saturday Night Live’s ‘joke’ isn’t just untrue — it’s dangerous, a modern twist on a classic anti-Semitic trope that has inspired the mass murder of countless Jews throughout the centuries,” the petition read, claiming that the joke referred to the ancient libel that Jews are responsible for plagues. The document will be delivered to NBC, which broadcasts SNL.

Israel’s Consul General in New York Israel Nitzan tweeted at SNL, writing, “Spreading antisemitic lies & misinformation is already a problem. Fanning the flames just to get a laugh is not only wrong, it’s irresponsible. Israel has made the vaccine available for its entire population equitably, regardless of gender, race or religion.”

Ellie Cohanim, who served as US deputy special envoy to combat anti-Semitism in the Trump administration, tweeted, “Under the Oslo Accords the Palestinian Authority is responsible for all health & social welfare needs. Contact SNL & NBC and demand they apologize for their modern day blood libel against Jews.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the anti-occupation group IfNotNow appeared to defend Che. “The familiar cycle begins,” the group wrote. “1) Media calls out Israeli government for structural inequalities between Jews & Palestinians. 2) Israel-Can-Do-No-Wrong crowd calls criticism antisemitic. 3) Demand an apology to refocus conversation on words, not ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.”

Critics of Israel’s vaccination policy point to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an occupying power is required to provide vaccines to the inhabitants of the territories under its control.

Israel 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.

Israel also maintains it is not responsible for inoculating the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The government points to the 1995 Oslo Accords, which stipulate that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, while both sides are to work together to combat epidemics.

In recent days Israel has transferred several thousand doses to Ramallah for the Palestinian Authority to vaccinate medical staff, and on Friday, the PA announced that Israel had agreed to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinians who are employed in Israel.

Israel also temporarily delayed the transfer of Russian-donated vaccines to Gaza, which is under an Israeli blockade meant to prevent the flow of weapons to the enclave-ruling terror group Hamas.

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