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Opinion: Two words that made Ramy Youssef’s ‘SNL’ monologue historic


Opinion by Dean Obeidallah

(CNN) — In a promo that aired in the days before he hosted “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, actor Ramy Youssef joked about making history as the first Arab, first Ramy and first Egyptian to ever host the comedy show.

But “SNL” cast member Kenan Thompson interrupted him during the taping of the commercial to note that the show had in fact been hosted before by an Arab American of Egyptian heritage with whom he shared a name (albeit one with a different spelling): Oscar-winning actor Rami Malik.

Youssef ends up comically revising his biography to say he was the “first-ever Egyptian named Ramy from New Jersey” to host “SNL.”

The fact is, Youssef — whom I’ve known for years — really did make history on the show this weekend, in a way I never expected.

During the final minute of his eight-minute monologue, the Golden Globe-winning actor said the words, “Please free the people of Palestine, please” — a line, as The Hollywood Reporter noted, that “received loud applause.” He followed that statement with a plea that the Israeli hostages held by Hamas should be released.

Youssef delivered the line as a part of a joke, telling the audience that he’s the only one in his group of buddies who prays. However, his friends sometimes ask him to pray on their behalf, he said. He told the audience about one friend, Brian, who’s locked in a messy divorce and asked Youssef to pray he’ll get custody of his beloved dog.

He then mentioned another friend, Ahmed, who asked Youssef to pray for his family in Gaza, telling him: “They’re suffering. I don’t know where half of them are. I don’t know what to do. Please pray for them.”

The comedian continued the joke: “So that night I go to pray, and my prayers are — complicated. I’ve got a lot to fit in.” He continued, “Please help Ahmed’s family. Please stop the suffering. Stop the violence.” He then added the line which elicited a roar of applause and approval: “Please, free the people of Palestine. Please.” Youssef continued, “And please free the hostages, all the hostages, please,” which also elicited applause.

He finished the joke with the punchline, “And while you’re at it, you know, free Mr. Bojangles. I mean he is, he’s a beautiful dog. I’m praying for that dog.”

Hearing someone on national network television say the words “Free Palestine” — and having the audience spontaneously burst into applause — is not something I’ve seen before. It’s something I wish my late father, a Palestinian immigrant to the US, had been alive to see.

Youssef was telling a joke, not making a speech. But comedians from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to Jon Stewart and others have used comedy to raise challenging political, racial and societal issues. For years however — and perhaps more than ever during the current conflict in Gaza — people have understood that speaking out in support of Palestinians can come at a price. We’ve seen examples of this in Hollywood when actress Melissa Barrera was fired from the film “Scream VII” after writing social media posts that called Israel’s actions in Gaza a “genocide.”

Jonathan Glazer, the director of “The Zone of Interest,” was also criticized for remarks he made at the Oscars while being awarded the Best International Feature Film honor, after speaking out against “an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people.” And actress Susan Sarandon was released by her agency after making pro-Palestinian remarks at a rally last November.

Youssef, though, has been undeterred, using his comedy for months to bring attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. In the fall, he announced that the proceeds from his comedy tour would benefit ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid), a charity providing humanitarian relief in Gaza. After Taylor Swift attended Youssef’s comedy show in Brooklyn, conservative talk show host Megyn Kelly called for a boycott of all things related to the pop superstar. (To which, I imagine, Swift would have responded: “Who, exactly, is Megyn Kelly?”)

At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Youssef, who co-starred in the Oscar-winning film “Poor Things,” was one of the celebrities wearing a pin calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. At the time, he told Variety, “It’s a universal message of, ‘Let’s stop killing kids. Let’s not be part of more war.’” He added, “We’re calling for immediate, permanent ceasefire in Gaza. We’re calling for peace and lasting justice for the people of Palestine.”

A Gallup poll released last week found that just 36% of Americans now approve of Israel’s military action — down from 50% in November. Indeed, support for Israel’s military response was down even among Republicans.

Perhaps this declining support is not completely surprising, given Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s military response has left some 32,700 Palestinians dead, 70 percent of whom, according to UN statistics, were women and children. So, the spontaneous applause for Youssef might have reflected public rejection of Netanyahu’s unrelenting military response to October’s brutal Hamas attack.

Even President Joe Biden — traditionally a staunch supporter of Israel — said during his State of the Union speech a few weeks ago that among the Palestinians killed in Gaza “thousands and thousands are innocent women and children.”

The president said there are “nearly two million more Palestinians under bombardment or displaced. Homes destroyed. Neighborhoods in rubble. Cities in ruin. Families without food, water, medicine. It’s heartbreaking.” And Biden added that while it “has a right to go after Hamas,” Israel “also has a fundamental responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.”

When the Gaza war finally ends and the Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas are released, the next question will be what comes next for the Palestinian people. My hope is for exactly what Youssef said he is praying for as well.

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