What’s so funny? A brief analysis of Che’s controversial joke

William Billingsley, Asst. Opinion Editor

Two weeks ago, “Saturday Night Live” aired its usual Weekend Update segment, where co-hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che make light of current events with jokes that are received well by the audience. 

But two weeks ago, one of Che’s jokes appears to have not gone over all too well with some viewers, who decried Che’s joke as being antisemitic and demanded that he apologize. 

For context, here’s the joke in question: “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population. And I’m gonna guess, it’s the Jewish half.”

At face value, you might also misconstrue this joke as being inherently antisemitic. And at the risk of sounding like a nonsensical Jerry Seinfeld trying to explain why a joke is funny, let’s break down what Che is actually saying, and why it isn’t antisemitic. 

So first and foremost: The joke. Why did Che feel that this was an appropriate joke to tell millions of viewers? 

At the severe risk of stating the obvious, he, as a career comedian of over 10 years, simply believed the joke to be funny. But why is it funny?

In appreciating this joke for what it is worth, you have to also be cognizant of the context behind the joke itself. Namely, the fact that Israel has openly chosen to pursue an aggressive vaccination campaign … for Israeli citizens, who as a whole are overwhelmingly Jewish (roughly 75 percent of the population).

So you might be asking something like, “Who cares if Israel wants to vaccinate Israelis, so what? Isn’t that the policy for all countries, to vaccinate their own citizens first?”

Ah, you would think so. And indeed, Israel’s vaccination policy would normally not be so controversial … if it did not intentionally leave out millions of Palestinians in territory that Israel has occupied for quite some time now. As it turns out, when a country continues to occupy another country for any amount of time, the occupying force also has to take care of the population. 

But incredibly, Israel has even brazenly suggested that the responsibility of vaccinating the five million or so Palestinians under its control fell squarely on the shoulders of the Palestinian government, as the Washington Post reported two weeks ago. Talk about convenient.

And while Israel can pretend that they are not obligated to vaccinate those under their temporary jurisdiction, the Geneva Conventions clearly stipulate that it is their responsibility to do so. 

“To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate,” as per Article 55 of the Geneva Convention, 1949. 

As Che alluded to earlier, Israel does indeed boast the world’s fastest and most effective vaccination program – for Israeli citizens. Even though Israel has been so successful in acquiring and administering doses for their own citizens, they have been in no great hurry to vaccinate the Palestinians under their purview. 

In fact, according to a different article from the Washington Post last week, Israel has apparently been doing so well with their vaccine stockpile that they have begun to “give small amounts of surplus vaccine to several countries that have warming relations with Israel.” 

So, millions of Palestinians in areas occupied by Israel remain unvaccinated, but Israel has enough of a surplus that they are able to donate it to other countries like Honduras and Guatemala? There is a term to describe this kind of thing, but I just can’t place my finger on it …

Oh right, a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Earlier, I mentioned that some have criticized Che’s joke as being antisemitic, and that he should apologize. And if Che had made this joke without the controversy behind Israel’s vaccination program, there would simply be no mistaking what his punchline was intended to be. Ultimately, it is up to you to ascertain if Che’s joke was simple antisemitism, a reference to their ongoing vaccination policy or a mixture of both.

At the end of the day, I believe that Che’s joke succeeds at underscoring the sinister mendacity behind Israel’s vaccination rollout, and all of the implications that go along with it. 

Whether or not Che intended his joke to be interpreted as genuine policy criticism, his joke serves as a poignant example at how satire can be effectively utilized for the purposes of critique, but it also demonstrates how satire can be misconstrued and result in backfire.