Television

John Oliver Accuses Israel of Committing War Crimes, Practicing Apartheid

John Oliver sits at his glass anchorperson desk, in front of a graphic showing Israeli and Palestinian flags.
Wading right in. HBO

A typical episode of Last Week Tonight opens with a short recap of news events from the week before, then moves on to a longform segment exploring an ongoing social or political issue in detail. Those longer pieces end up on YouTube, drive the conversation around the show, and are usually the most notable thing about any particular episode of Last Week Tonight. That’s not how things went this week. Although Oliver had a segment about stand your ground laws—they’re bad!—he devoted the first section of his show to a fiery monologue about Israel and Palestine, calling the week’s events “a pretty good reminder that while some things are incredibly complex and require a great deal of context, others are just wrong.” So if you have HBO Max, don’t content yourself with the YouTube clip from this week’s show, check out the full episode—it’s not every day an American talk show host calls Israel’s treatment of Palestinians “a form of apartheid,” or accuses the Israeli government of war crimes. Oliver ended the segment by condemning the false equivalencies and euphemisms that prevent us from talking honestly about the situation:

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Look, there is a real tendency, particularly in America, to both-sides this situation. And I am not saying that there aren’t some areas where that’s warranted, but it’s important to recognize there are also areas where it’s simply not. Both sides are firing rockets, but one side has one of the most advanced militaries in the world. Both sides are suffering heartbreaking casualties, but one side is suffering them exponentially. And it’s not like the U.S. is operating from the moral high ground here. It’s obviously no stranger to drone striking weddings and saying, “We were just trying to target enemy combatants.” This country has blood on its hands too. And look, if you believe Israel’s actions are warranted and proportionate this week, you’re welcome to try and make that argument.

But we have got to start having this conversation honestly, and falling back on convenient, sanitized terms like “real estate disputes” and “airstrikes on militants” feels a little disingenuous when what you’re describing is forcing people from the homes they’ve lived in for decades and killing civilians and children. And again, none of this frees Hamas from responsibility, but Hamas doesn’t represent all Palestinians, just as what Israel is doing right now doesn’t represent all Israelis or indeed, Jewish people. Lots is complicated here. But some things are pretty simple. One side is suffering much more. And if America really wants to help, it might want to seriously consider changing its long-held position here, because for decades, the backbone of America’s policy in the middle east is that America is an unwavering friend to Israel. Which is a great thing to try and be, but at the end of the day, I would hope that a real friend would tell me when I’m being an asshole, and definitely when I’m committing a fucking war crime.

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Compare Oliver’s tone this week to, say, Jon Stewart’s Daily Show segment about Operation Cast Lead from January of 2009, and you can see how far the ground has shifted. The show had just returned from a holiday hiatus, which Stewart used as his framing device:

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That’s not exactly a pro-Israel take—Stewart catalogs American politicians on both sides of the aisle mouthing the same platitudes about the situation—but it’s a long way from talking about “apartheid” or “war crimes.” Now here’s Oliver’s much less controversial main segment, about Stand Your Ground laws:

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You know the balloon is going up when a 19-minute-long discussion of the United States’ murderous gun policies feels like a welcome respite from strife and controversy.

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