I’m sure that Trevor Noah, the 31-year-old South African comedian tapped to be the new host of The Daily Show after Jon Stewart retires this fall, was expecting to be compared to Stewart from a comedic point of view. I’m sure he knew that he would hear how no one could fill Stewart’s shows, etc. And perhaps he even expected the criticism over his past tweets that have led some to label him as misogynist or anti-Semitic or racially insensitive. That comes with the turf of this type of high-profile gig.
What I doubt Noah could’ve expected was that he would be pulled into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within hours of Comedy Central naming as the new host. Even I was a bit surprised, but frankly I should have expected it.
We saw the conservative Daily Caller run a story titled ”Is New ‘Daily Show’ Host Trevor Noah Anti-Israel?” The entire basis for the article was a 2010 comedic tweet by Noah: “South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful.”
Apparently to The Daily Caller, these 71 characters (including spaces) expose Noah’s view that Israel “is an inherently belligerent country.” The article also went on to slam Jon Stewart for being anti-Israel because he had the audacity to mock certain policies of the Netanyahu administration. Of course, The Daily Caller slams the Obama administration’s policies hourly; so does that make it anti-American?
The Jewish Forward, a progressive publication, took a much more nuanced approach asking, ”What Does Trevor Noah Think About Israel?” It quoted tweets from liberal Jews who expressed concerns over the loss of Stewart and wondered what Noah’s views would be on the Middle East conflict.
How often does a comedian taking a new gig have to pass a litmus test on support of Israel like a United States politician? But The Daily Show is no ordinary comedy show given that Stewart had so often spoke about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a way that resulted in cheers from the left and slams from the right.
But I think something else needs to be raised when it comes to Noah. He is South African and was raised during the final years of apartheid. I have no doubt that the Netanyahu-type Israel supporters know full well what that could mean.
Noah has heard South African leaders like Nelson Mandela offer pro-Palestinian statements over the years such as “South Africans would not feel free until Palestinians were free.” Desmond Tutu has long been a critic of Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians. Noah is even probably aware that the United Nations passed a resolution in 1983 decrying Israel’s conservative government headed by Menachem Begin for violating the worldwide boycott of South Africa’s apartheid government by supplying it with support in “the military and nuclear fields.”
So I get why the right-wing Israeli supports might have cause for concern. On the other hand, I understand why some progressives are in a tizzy over the loss of Stewart. He not only called out the Netanyahu administration in a way we had almost never seen before in the U.S. media, more importantly, Stewart talked about Palestinians in human terms.
I wrote about this very issue during last summer’s Gaza war in an article titled “How Jon Stewart made it okay to care about Palestinian suffering.” I had never seen a comedic host, or almost any host in the U.S. media for that matter, discuss the suffering of the Palestinian people with such empathy. For example, Stewart criticized the 2009 Gaza war that left 700 Palestinians civilians dead, calling it a “civilian carnage Toyotathon.”
During that war, Stewart also mocked the conservative talking point that Palestinians in Gaza could just leave if they wanted to avoid being killed by the IDF’s bombs: “Evacuate to where?! Have you fucking seen Gaza? Israel blocked this border, Egypt blocked this border. What, are you supposed to swim for it?”
Stewart also made it clear that criticizing the policies of the Netanyahu administration was not anti-Semitic. After all, Stewart is proudly Jewish.
Consequently, Stewart gave many guests leeway to discuss the conflict in a way that we had never publicly engaged in before. And in my mind, Stewart at least contributed to the views we see of Netanyahu that are split along partisan and ideological grounds. For example, a poll released a few weeks ago found that only 17 percent of Democrats hold a favorable view of Netanyahu.
And a new poll released yesterday finds that 58 percent of liberals support the establishment of a Palestinian State while only 30 percent of conservatives feel the same. I can’t discount the influence Stewart may have had on some liberals to see Palestinians as deserving of self-determination thanks to his framing of them in terms of their humanity.
But here’ s the thing both conservatives and my fellow progressives need to come to terms with: The Daily Show will never be The Daily Show once Stewart leaves. I don’t mean Noah will not be funny or successful. It’s just that on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Stewart’s comedic views became part of the mainstream media’s discussion of the issue because of who he was.
And I have to go back again to Stewart being proudly Jewish. His criticism of Netanyahu’s policies or his recognition of the Palestinians as human beings deserving of concern was at least infused by his Judaism. It gave his words more weight.
I’m sure Noah will do material about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict too And when he does, he will be cheered and jeered like Stewart. But I doubt it will be nearly as influential or inspiring. And for that reason, I will always long for the days where Stewart held court four nights a week at 11:00 PM.