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Bassem Youssef Thinks Jon Stewart Is Wrong on Israel-Gaza—But Still Respects Him

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout

Comedian Bassem Youssef has been widely known as “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” ever since he gave up being a heart surgeon and made himself into the premier political satirist of the Arab Spring. Now, more than a decade after that career transformation took place, Youssef has been back in the news thanks to his mega-viral interview with Piers Morgan and subsequent outspoken commentary against both Israel and President Joe Biden.

In this episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Youssef breaks down how he has used the darkest of humor to draw attention to the fate of the Palestinian people. He also shares his strong reaction to Jon Stewart’s recent take on the Israel-Gaza War, and reveals why he thinks it might be “too late” for Biden to win back the Arab American support he may well need to beat Donald Trump.

“It’s an honor,” Youssef says of the nickname that still follows him 12 years after Stewart first invited him to be a guest on The Daily Show. “I mean, Jon Stewart is someone who has been my idol, so to be linked to his name in any way is an honor, not something to shy away from.”

Youssef says he’s “very happy” to have Stewart back hosting The Daily Show, and only wishes it was more than once a week. But that doesn’t mean he agrees with everything Stewart has been saying so far on the show. And while Stewart received some pushback after his first episode for seemingly equating Biden and Trump, Youssef has taken more issue with the way the host has drawn what he sees as a false equivalence between Israel and Palestine.

Stewart may have doubled recent Daily Show ratings in his first few weeks back as host, but those numbers come nowhere near the more than 22 million people who have watched Youssef’s showdown with Morgan on YouTube since it first streamed just 10 days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

Youssef says he turned down opportunities to speak with Morgan multiple times before finally agreeing to an interview because his “blood was boiling” watching the Israeli narrative presented without challenge. “I just felt like I had to do something about it,” he says now.

The comedian deliberately chose to employ “dark humor,” as Morgan put it (like joking that Palestinians are “very difficult people to kill—I know, because I’m married to one”), hoping that the interview would go viral and people would “pay attention” in a way they might not have otherwise. “And it worked for some reason,” he remarks.

Youssef has felt the enormous impact on his career both positively, including sold-out stand-up shows in theaters, and negatively, including what he initially believed to be the loss of a villain role in DC’s upcoming Superman film. Director James Gunn later said the character had been written out of the script long before Youssef spoke out on Palestine, and Youssef conceded that while that might have been the case, “You can see that from my point of view, the timing was bad.”

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Overall, Youssef says the response to the Morgan interview was “mostly positive” with a few allegations of antisemitism thrown in as well. “I was called all kinds of things,” he says, noting that he found it particularly funny when the pro-Israel side started accusing him of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Which is crazy,” he says, given that he initially gained prominence in Egypt for satirizing that group’s leader Mohamed Morsi.

After performing two nights in Detroit this week, Youssef heads out on a global tour next month with stops in London, Paris, Berlin, and several other major European cities before moving on to Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. On stage, Youssef focuses more on the personal than the political, telling the story of how he ended up fleeing Egypt and becoming an immigrant in America.

“I don’t really bring the current events of what’s happening in the Middle East to the show because I don’t want to make it part of it until I’m ready. I don’t think it’s the right time,” he explains. But looking ahead, Youssef can certainly imagine the Israel-Gaza conflict becoming a major part of his next hour of material. “I think it might be, yes,” he says.

Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by following The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Wednesday.

What have you thought about Jon Stewart’s pieces so far? He got some backlash from the left in that first week for criticizing Biden and I was curious what you made of that.

My point of view about Biden is known. The fact that all America has to offer is like two geriatric men to run for the presidency is just a shame. But his Tucker Carlson piece was wonderful.

I think one moment that got less attention from that first episode was when [Stewart] called out the president for understating Israel’s response as “over the top.” And then he went a little bit further than that this past week. But obviously he’s not gone as hard against Biden as you have in different venues.

Yeah. And also his piece about Israel was funny, but it was also very centrist. And I understand where it comes from, but the idea that he talks about blaming the U.N.—and everybody knows the U.N. is useless—but the U.N. is not the problem, the Arab nations is not the problem. The problem is that Israel keeps on building illegal settlements, keeps defying international law, keeps having unlimited support from America. So it was a way to kind of sit in the middle and kind of blame everybody, which is a legitimate comedic style. But as someone who’s from that part of the world, I cannot just stay in the middle. And I can see who’s the perpetrator and who’s really to blame and who has the power. The people who are in the position of power are the people who should be blamed more.

Jon Stewart gets a lot of flak for doing “both sides-ism” on Trump versus Biden, but I guess you think he’s doing that on Israel-Gaza as well?

Yeah. But at the end of the day, that is his opinion as a comedian. That’s the beauty of freedom of expression. I might not agree with everything that he said, but I appreciate his voice and appreciate him being back. But that’s the problem. Why do you have comedians facing backlash just because they don’t say exactly what you wanted? Again, I don’t agree with his take on Palestine-Israel, but he is a comedian and his voice is his way of expression. And I shouldn’t be directing anger to him, I should direct my anger to the people who are in serious positions of power who are letting this go.

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You said in a recent interview, “I don’t want Trump to win, but I want Joe Biden to lose.” I thought that that really summed up the way a lot of people feel right now in the Arab American community, and really all types of people. How do you think about that? Because you have to recognize the reality that one of those two men—unless something really crazy happens—is going to be the president. How do you reconcile that?

I mean, I don’t have to pay for the fact that America has bad options. If somebody is giving you two horrible cars, I don’t have to buy them. Seriously, I would rather walk [or take] the bus. The whole idea that I have to be blackmailed or cornered or have to choose—one of them is obviously a racist, right-wing white supremacist and the other one has been openly saying that “I’m a Zionist.” I hear people like Nikki Haley and other people saying, “Israel doesn’t need America, but America needs Israel.” Really? Are we belittling ourselves as a nation? I’m talking now as an American citizen. We are the superpower of the world. We are basically the empire of the world. And really, we are the ones who need Israel? It’s a client state. We pay for their lunch, and what do we get in return? What we get in return is terrible. What we get to understand is our image and our position in the world being compromised because we are supporting a rogue, unfair state.

And the fact that [Biden] says that Jewish people do not feel safe anywhere and that’s why they have Israel—that is the worst thing that you can say for Jewish people. Basically telling every Jewish person that you’re not safe in your country, not safe in America, and your loyalty has to be towards Israel. So as an American Jewish person, now I have to choose between my loyalty to Israel and my loyalty to my home country, America. That is terrible. That is a terrible thing to say. That is not even good for the Jewish people. It’s like saying you as a Muslim don’t feel safe and you need to go back to your country. That’s a terrible thing to say.

Do you think there is something that Biden could be doing on this issue that would win back your vote, or all of the people who are voting “uncommitted” in the primaries? What do you think he should be doing?

I don’t know, I think it’s too late now. And if he did it now he’ll do it purely for election reasons, which means that after the election, he’s just going to go back to letting Israel do what it does. So I don’t know.

You think it’s too late, the ship has sailed?

Yeah, I think so. But I mean, that’s my opinion. My opinion doesn’t matter. I’m just one person, and I live in California, where my vote doesn’t count anyway.

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You became a U.S. citizen about five years ago. How do you feel about that decision now? Because I think you’ve said that it’s a shame it only took this long for you to become so disillusioned by American politics and democracy.

It is very sad. I’m very happy to be an American citizen and I’m very happy to be part of this country. I think that this is a great country. It has a lot to offer and it gave me a second chance for life and I appreciate that, of course. But like many Americans, we love the country, we don’t like the policies. I’m Egyptian. I love Egypt, but I didn’t like the policies. I didn’t like the leadership. It is just very disheartening to have this illusion of freedom of expression, while you cannot really change anything.

When we talked back in 2017, it was that first year of Trump’s first term and you were expressing concerns about the U.S. becoming more like Egypt under Trump. And that seems like something that would only be exacerbated in a second term where he would have even less restriction. So do you still worry about that?

Well, of course I worry about a Trump presidency. I’m really worried that this would be some sort of vengeance tour when he comes back.

He’s said as much, right?

Yeah, and I’m worried about that, of course. And I really hope that doesn’t happen. But I really don’t know what can be done with that. I have all kinds of things to worry about, but at the same time, I don’t know how I can go and give Biden my voice.

I’m surprised in some ways that you say there’s nothing that Biden could do to change things now. I think the goal of those “uncommitted” campaigns has been to push Biden into change, right?

Well, I hope it works.

Listen to the episode now and follow The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts to be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Wednesday.

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