Trevor Noah, the newly-named replacement for Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, is still an unknown quantity to many Americans. Curious fans and critics, eager to learn more about the South African comedian, have been combing the Internet for clues, and have turned up troubling comments about Israel and Jews that have some wondering if the new host will, like Stewart (Leibowitz), take to hiding his Jewish-sounding name to avoid controversy. (I kid.)
One tweet, from June 2010, seems to evoke hostility toward Israel:
South Africans know how to recycle like israel knows how to be peaceful.
— Trevor Noah (@Trevornoah) June 2, 2010
Another seems to make fun of Jews directly, using a classic stereotype:
Before analyzing these for evidence of prejudice (or the lack thereof), three caveats are important. First: even nice people post nasty tweets sometimes–or simply clumsy ones that fail to express their intended meaning. Second: Noah makes his living telling jokes–and, as with all comedians, some of his jokes are going to bomb. Third: Noah’s repertoire largely consists of racial humor. That makes him an odd choice for a sophisticated show about media, but set that aside for now.
The first tweet is offensive because the joke relies on a shared assumption that Israelis are bad people. The context for the remark was the immediate aftermath of the Gaza flotilla incident, which the international media covered as if Israel had committed a war crime by defending its civilian population from an attempt by radical Islamists to break an anti-terror quarantine. South Africa’s media and political elites are virulently anti-Israel, a prejudice that Noah’s comment reflects. In mitigation, it should be noted that his target is not Israel but his fellow, stereotypically disorganized, South Africans.
The second tweet mentions Jews specifically, so it is even riskier. The context was the sale of Dr. Dre’s Beats company to Apple, which made Dre a billionaire. It is unclear what Jews had to do with that, though the hip hop industry has plenty of Jewish producers. The “BeatsbyDreidel” hashtag is a clever, though inapt, Jewish pun on Dre’s name. Again, in mitigation, the joke seems intended to take Dre down a peg, not to target Jews.
Offending one group or another (or several) is an occupational hazard of the kind of comedy Noah performs. The real question is not whether he has any particular animosity towards Israel or Jews (and the outgoing Daily Show host was hardly stellar in the Israel department), but rather whether those jokes reflect a perspective that seems mired in the provincial clichés of South African commentary.
Noah deserves a chance–but may have some catching up to do.