Jon Stewart Made It Okay to Be Ambivalent About Israel

The Daily Show star captures the way many of us who care about Israel struggle to reconcile our commitment to the country with a deep ambivalence about the direction of its policies – and the inability to have meaningful dialogue about it here in America.

Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer
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Jon Stewart wows Madison Square Garden (September 2, 2014).
Jon Stewart wows Madison Square Garden (September 2, 2014).Credit: Jon Stewart
Brian Schaefer
Brian Schaefer

Within days of taking over “The Daily Show” in 1999, Jon Stewart, then 36 years old and sporting floppy brown hair, was poking fun at the Jews. The catalyst was a skirmish in which a number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, “getting all Jewier-than-thou,” protested the praying of Reform Jews at the Western Wall. “Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe themselves to be superior to other Jews,” Stewart explained to the audience, “claiming the word of God was handed to them directly – right before he handed us big noses and took away our athletic ability.”

Stewart’s hair is much stiffer and grayer now and his jokes are more sophisticated. But that first zinger about Jew-on-Jew violence heralded a host who both embraced his faith and intended to skewer it, which he has done relentlessly for the past 16 years. His announcement this week that he will be leaving “The Daily Show” later this year (the exact date has not been set) elicited shock, disbelief and mourning amongst fans: How will we make sense of the 2016 presidential election now, let alone the daily headlines, without his sly and searing commentary? It certainly won’t be as fun – or cathartic. Unlike the pundits of cable TV, who puff up their viewers with rage, Stewart is more like a release valve, allowing us to exhale our anxiety and frustrations with laughter.

While other publications are rightly celebrating his contributions to American public and political discourse, it’s also worth appreciating how the proudly secular Stewart – born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz – emerged as one of the most nuanced voices on Israel in the modern media landscape (even if he insists he’s just a comedian, living in the realm of entertainment). Yet from that first story about the Western Wall, in which he counted himself a member of the tribe but also made clear that this tribe is not sacred, Stewart has demonstrated a complicated relationship to Judaism and Israel by refusing to either categorically reject or defend them, offering instead a thoughtful middle ground.

Stewart often targets people for their self-importance and self-obsession. He would probably find the fact that I’m focusing on his coverage of Jews and Israel, in an Israeli publication no less, maddeningly solipsistic. Yet it seems clear, over the decade and a half that he has lead “The Daily Show,” that he too is endlessly fascinated, confounded, enraged and even obsessed by Israel and the Jews. Whatever else you may say about his approach, the man clearly cares.

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Naturally, the show has primarily dealt with U.S. domestic politics – albeit sprinkled with jokes, jabs and sketches addressing the international news of the day. But Israel makes disproportionately frequent cameos. This speaks in part, of course, to the country’s outsized role in world affairs, but it’s also an indication of Stewart’s preoccupation with Israel’s fate.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the way he covers Israeli elections and the American politicians’ courtship of the Jewish vote, both of which he places under the popular “Indecision” banner reserved for U.S. presidential elections – albeit adjusted for the Jewish calendar. A 2008 segment featuring John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama speaking to AIPAC, for example, reads “Indecision 5768.” And that segment, in which the candidates compete to one-up each other on their Israel love, runs for five minutes, which is a lot of airtime for a half-hour show. It’s a classic Stewart bit: flabbergasted by the Jewish lobby, infuriated by the Israel loyalty litmus test, yet still identifying with, and invested in, the issue in a way that goes far beyond a mere news gag.

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His particular brand of exasperation – and the charming way his voice climbs two octaves when he can’t believe what he’s saying – seems to capture the way many of us who care about Israel have struggled to reconcile our commitment to the country with a deep ambivalence about the direction of its policies and, even more so, by the inability to have meaningful dialogue about it here in America (perfectly captured in the recent segment, below). Stewart became our hero not because he critiques Israeli policy and politicians (though he certainly does that) but because he so artfully critiques the rhetoric around Israel, exposing its ridiculousness and its danger.

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Stewart is an equal-opportunity offender. The beauty of his shtick (on the topic of Israel and otherwise) is that he goes after Democrats and Republicans alike; Israelis and Palestinians both – Fox News, as well as CNN. Try to pin him down in one ideological corner and five seconds later he’s at bat for the opposite team. His enemies are hypocrisy, self-righteousness, political grandstanding and blind allegiance. Obama hasn’t gotten off any easier than Bush. And as much as Netanyahu riles him, Abbas doesn’t get a pass either.

By spreading the criticism to all corners, Stewart offered a radical alternative to the narrow pro-Israel/anti-Israel dichotomy that our community generally defaults to. Perhaps he was able to do so because of his distance from any particular institution, publication, political entity, or advocacy group. Perhaps the sweet sting of his humor helps, too. Either way, in his world being both supportive and critical are not mutually exclusive – and a healthy skepticism is required not just of “them” but of us as well. The issues matter, of course, but Stewart reminds us that the way we talk about them does too. At the heart of his show is a plea for rational discourse – on an interpersonal, communal, national and international level. He has modeled the way with refreshing candor and brilliant, biting satire.

When it comes to Israel, Stewart manages to scrub away some of the rhetorical muck that taints the conversation, allowing a little more light in so we can see just a little bit clearer, and perhaps from a new perspective. Now we can only hope that a successor – whether on “The Daily Show” or elsewhere – will emerge to challenge and entertain us in a similar way, and do so with Stewart-like wit, intelligence and compassion.

Brian Schaefer is a New York-based contributor to Haaretz. He tweets at @MyTwoLeftFeet.

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