Anti-Semitism Is Still Not a Joking Matter
Jonathan S. Tobin
Viewers of this year’s Oscars ceremony who were unfamiliar with the work of Seth MacFarlane were probably shocked or even offended by some of the host’s irreverent and off-color attempts at humor. In particular, many Jews were outraged by the scripted comedy routine in which the animated teddy bear “Ted” (whose voice is spoken by MacFarlane) told actor Mark Wahlberg that “if you want to work in this town” you had to be Jewish. The bear went on to say that his claim of Jewish identity and contributions to Israel might earn him a private plane after the next “secret synagogue” meeting. These lines earned MacFarlane a stiff rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, which inveighed against the use of age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes even if the intent was purely humorous.
But the problem with any such complaint, even one as measured as that of the ADL, is that in contemporary American popular culture ethnic and religious slurs, such as those that are spewed on MacFarlane’s long-running animated show “Family Guy,” are par for the course. Anyone who watches that show knows that its author will make fun of any individual or group in pursuit of a cheap or even clever jibe. The whole point of “Family Guy” is to push beyond every conceivable boundary in an effort to lay all our foibles, prejudices and even sacred beliefs bare in order to laugh at them. Any outrage directed at him, no matter how egregious his jokes might be, merely serves his purpose. Remonstrating with MacFarlane about his insensitivity and bad taste just makes the complainer sound like a whiny fool whose feathers ought to be ruffled.
Thus, the ADL will probably garner more brickbats than applause for criticizing the routine. But the ADL nevertheless had a point about the audience for the show that goes to the heart of the problem.
The group acknowledged that “insiders at the Oscars” knew the joke “should not be taken seriously.” Many viewers would point out that the definition of “insiders” should be expanded to mean anyone in the television audience who was familiar with the popular comedian’s work. That means most Americans got the joke and realized it was not to be taken any more seriously than his song about which actresses had exposed their breasts in their movies.
It may be hard for us to accept the idea that nasty stereotypes such as those uttered by “Ted” are just jokes. In fact, they aren’t–and can help spread the lethal virus of anti-Semitism. However, in the context of an America in which the barriers to Jewish achievement that were once both widespread and impenetrable are gone, it might be possible to treat the old “Jews control Hollywood” meme as merely humor when performed in such a manner as to lampoon hate.
But the problem here is that the Oscars show is viewed by more than a billion people around the world. While the abuse hurled at Jews and other groups in a “Family Guy” episode isn’t worth complaining about, the same thing must be understood differently when placed in the context of international opinion.
As the U.S. State Department noted last year in its annual report, anti-Semitism is on the rise around the globe. Crude and hateful traditional stereotypes about Jews mixed with anti-Israel propaganda are gaining more of an audience throughout the globe. Jew-hatred has become a principle export of the Arab and Muslim world, and Europe is seeing a revival of anti-Semitism that has not been seen on such a scale since the Nazi era. Just as they were once singled out for dissenting from the views of the majority about religion, now the Jewish people are once again marked for hatred and violence because of the belief that Israel has no right to exist or to defend itself.
To date, these offensive views are confined to the fever swamps of the far right and the far left in America, though they are gaining a foothold on college campuses with the BDS movement that seeks the destruction of Israel.
But for those inclined to tell the ADL to get a life, it’s important to remember that one of the most-watched television mini-series broadcast in the Muslim world in recent years was based on the premise that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was real and not an anti-Semitic forgery, and that anticipation is keen for another such show in production that will celebrate a seventh-century genocide of Jews.
That is why MacFarlane’s equal opportunity offender defense of his use of anti-Semitic stereotypes falls flat. Perhaps in a more perfect world, in which such hatreds were just heard on the margins of society, there might really be nothing wrong with poking at these old wounds with the comedian’s sharp stick. But in one where Jew-hatred is the engine driving an international movement whose goal is the elimination of the one Jewish state in the world and the slaughter of its people, the joke doesn’t seem quite so funny.