November 06

Funny Antisemitism is Good for the Jews

Dan Friedman

When Jerome O’Malley calls you a “Fucking Yid” in the playground, that’s antisemitism. When your friend gets beaten up at a bus stop for wearing a kippah, that’s antisemitism. When your teacher – a reverend gentleman of the Episcopalian persuasion – refers to the high school students (some Jewish, some not) who are misbehaving in his class as “Hebrews” that’s also antisemitism.

But is it antisemitic for the notoriously backward fictional Kazakh named Borat (played by the Jewish Sacha Baron Cohen -- who is, by way of full disclosure, a good friend of mine) to expect Jews to be shape-shifting, money-demanding vermin in his new film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan?

Even if the characters are explicitly rather than implicitly ridiculed for doing so (as in, for example, The Office) is it acceptable to tell an overtly racist joke (like the “black man’s cock” joke) three times in a thirty minute sitcom?

Is it acceptable if sterotypes are superficially exploded, as in Sarah Silverman’s song “I love you more…” from Jesus is Magic ? That song certainly examines stereotypes and clichés in a funny and uneasy way -- that “Jews love money” and that “Asians are good at math” -- but it also reinforces them. Stereotypes have an uneasy truth-status in culture and pop culture: We know they are not simply true, but usually we act as if they are. Is the repetition of stereotypes OK if it's funny?

Silverman is also a master at violating taboos. In one bit, she compares how Jews and African Americans deal with controversial symbols. “Jewish people driving German cars, " she says, is "the opposite of FUBU [the African-American 'For Us By Us' label]…it’s like take back the night." But then she says, “maybe it’s like when black guys call each other”-- the “N” word. The discomfort is palpable; white people aren't supposed to say that word.

Given the questionable use of comedy to fight prejudice, why is there so much recourse to prejudice in comedy? On one level, it's simply catharsis. Of the various possible responses to antisemitism, it's the only one not haunted by childhood memories. Remember? Fighting back led to a bloody nose, calling the cops (or the teachers) to a reputation of tale-telling. So what do we do? Make fun of the racists, which works as a response, and also, hopefully, makes us popular. First we joke to each other, then with like-minded friends, and eventually – if we are funny enough – everyone is laughing at them and the culture has changed.

Consider Rob Schneider’s response to Mel Gibson’s drunken antisemitic outburst, which was to write a funny letter (well, it’s intended that way) explaining how he will never work with Gibson again and printing it as a paid advert in the Daily Variety. On one level this response succeeded, garnering attention, mocking the self-righteous tone of the ADL and similar prejudice cops, and even shaping a brief debate, while Ari Emmanuel’s blog and Gavin de Becker’s earnest letter as advert in The Hollywood Reporter largely failed to attract discussion. However, the fact that a superficial response to the outburst was more effective than any substantive debate may merely be illustrative how much easier it is to use humour and irony to deflect uncomfortable yet important issues.

Schneider is not to blame for the limits of the debate. As a comedian his response was appropriate, but his success, however limited, just highlights the shortcomings of a view that thinks of comedy as redemptive, audiences as basically just, and antisemitism as a sad form of ignorance rather than a deeply rooted pathology. It’s a view that conveniently forgets the reactionary, racist, sexist, homophobic comedy that has had such a long history and still lives on today. As Paul Lewis points out in Cracking Up: American Humor in a Time of Conflict, irony and joke-making is not always a way of telling truth to power. In fact, it can be a conveniently slippery way of refusing to take responsibility for actions or utterances, a way of reinforcing the sorts of stereotypes that make the joker and his or her audience feel good at the expense of the butt of the joke. Lewis quotes Jay Leno being interviewed in the LA Weekly (Sept 17-24, 2004), saying that “you don’t change anybody’s mind with comedy. You just reinforce what they already believe.”

Today, cultural attitudes are changing locally and globally, and the acceptability of prejudice in general (think Danish cartoons and the Pope’s comments on Islam), and antisemitism in particular, is currently in a process of re-evaluation, at least in the English-speaking world. That antisemitism is again on the rise is indubitable, even as figures like Mel Gibson, Ken Livingstone, and Iranian President Ahmadinejad have been sharply criticized for comments that were either antisemitic or perceived as being so. Surely it is no coincidence that at the same time as this resurgence, figures such as Sarah Silverman, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Larry David have displayed different aspects of antisemitism in their comedy. The question is: are these funny Jews making things better, or worse?

What Is Antisemitism?

"[The term] Antisemitism, especially in its hyphenated spelling, is inane nonsense, because there is no Semitism that you can be anti to."
-Yehuda Bauer, Professor of Holocaust Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Antisemitism is a pervasive influence on Jewish culture. It drives Jewish philanthropic giving, inspires countless Jews to marry within the tribe, and, when push comes to shove, it connects with impressionable Jewish youth in a way no Friday night service can. Even in the first month of Zeek’s existence, and even in articles unrelated to the phenomenon (which we, unlike most Jewish media outlets, do not cover very frequently), it kept cropping up in the magazine. We even had to make an editorial decision about the spelling of the word, ultimately deciding that, unlike the OED, but like Emil Fackenheim and the Hebrew University "Center for the Study of Antisemitism," we would spell it without a hyphen.

We did this because "antisemitism" is itself a contentious term. The word comes from the misconceived intersection of philology and racial studies, a moment when the study of racial characteristics seemed as worthy and objective a scientific project as the study of the history of languages (including the Semitic language group). Coined by the demonstrably racist Wilhelm Marr in 1879, the term was meant to make modern, race-based hatred of Jews seem different from, and more scientific than, the old religious hatred. Zeek decided on “antisemitism” as way to reflect the history and importance of the term over the past century, but hoped that the banishment of the hyphen would mark a break with Marr’s late nineteenth century German discourse, also avoiding the implication that being opposed to “semitism” is anything but a specific form of blind prejudice. (Getting rid of the hyphen also has the effect of disallowing the already disingenuous claim by Jews or Arabs that they can’t be antisemitic because they are “semitic.”)

Despite the usual rationalistic claims of the latest generation of antisemites, antisemitism is a generalized and irrational feeling of hatred towards Jews. In his seminal Réflexions sur la question juive (most recently translated as Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate), Jean-Paul Sartre called it a “passion” – a feeling of hatred that demanded a subject: “If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would have to invent him.” Historically speaking, it is a set of Christian European prejudices about the Jews they ghettoized for more than a millennium that have spread wholesale to North America, Africa, Australia, and the Middle-East following the patterns of European colonialism. The general feeling has many specific examples which are outlined, surprisingly stridently, by David Mamet in his recently published screed The Wicked Son: Anti-semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews. These spread either metaphorically (through things which are like the specific libel) or metonymically (through things which include or are included by the specific libel). These libels are based on a myriad of self-doubts, self-loathings, and insecurities experienced by mainstream European culture – especially in the face of an alternative – and turned on the Jews as the pre-eminent “other” in a continent with a negligible amount of other minority communities.

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