Lena Dunham received plenty of criticism for her insufferable New Yorker piece titled “Dog Or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz.” In it, the creator of “Girls” weighs the pros and cons of getting a pet or keeping her Jewish boyfriend: “He doesn’t tip,” and “he never brings his wallet anywhere,” and so on. The jokes may tell us something about her comedic abilities, her audience and the New Yorker, but, despite much handwringing, it tells us nothing about anti-Semitism.
The ADL’s National Director Abraham Foxman, the unelected voice of American Jewish conscience, allows that humor “is a matter of taste, and people can disagree if it is funny or not.” But Dunham’s piece, he argues, is “particularly troubling because it evokes memories of the ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed’ signs from our own early history in this country, and also because, in a much more sinister way, many in the Muslim world today hatefully refer to Jews as ‘dogs.'”
“Anti-Semitism” is rooting for Hamas. Making fun of your nebbish boyfriend is lame, but it should not make any rational person think of Iran’s Supreme Leader. I’ve heard plenty of malicious and offensive anti-Semitic jokes in my life, but it would be tough to conjure up the indignation to believe Dunham was flirting with anything resembling bigotry. Making fun of innocuous stereotypes – and Dunham is part Jewish and lives in a world teeming with Jews – in the pages of a friendly publication evokes memories of subpar Catskill comedians, not long-dead nativists.
In fact, why should Dunham, or anyone else, have to worry about inadvertently evoking memories of ancient wrongdoings that disturb the sensibilities of the professionally aggrieved? She’s a 28-year-old actress.
Sure, the media treats Right and Left differently. (You may remember the kerfuffle surrounding Sarah Palin’s use of the term “blood libel,” but there are countless other examples.) But conservatives don’t have to become professional prigs in retaliation. Not every ethnic, religious, regional, and racial idiosyncrasy has to be off-limits. If both sides are going to prosecute entertainers for thought crimes and failed jokes, our culture is going become even more tedious. Put it this way: humor without risk is Andy Borowitz.
Take Trevor Noah, the South African comedian picked to replace Jon Stewart as host of “The Daily Show.” He seems to have a habit of making wincingly bad jokes about Jews, women, fat people, Asians, and many others on social media. Salon predicted a wave of “right-wing rage” after his announcement. But, as is often the case these days, it was the Left that turned on him. And the Right.
A sampling of his Jewish jokes:
“Behind every successful Rap Billionaire is a double as rich Jewish man. #BeatsByDreidel.” Is that really anti-Jewish?
“Almost bumped a Jewish kid crossing the road. He didn’t look b4 crossing but I still would hav felt so bad in my german car!”
“Messi gets the ball and the real players try foul him, but Messi doesn’t go down easy, just like jewish chicks. #ElClasico”
You get the picture. At worst, these tweets reflect the work of an untalented comedian. At best, they are a trivial sampling of what is an otherwise impressive comedic mind. I imagine the market will decide soon enough. Mostly, though, it’s worth remembering that Noah is a TV comic, not a nominee for the Supreme Court.
If I treated “The Daily Show” as a serious news program, I’d find Noah’s celebration of Gaza flags and his anti-Israel gibberish far more problematic as a Jew. If I treated “The Daily Show” as a serious news program, I’d probably note the irony of Noah replacing a didactic scold whose entire shtick is predicated on making fun of people whose statements he has taken out of context. And though Noah asks for understanding, it’s unlikely he will be extending the same to conservatives. But, just as no one is coercing liberals to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck (although the Left has campaigned to banish both from the airwaves), it’s easy to ignore “The Daily Show.” I do it almost every day.
Now, as far as the Jews go, the argument for being vigilant is history. Here is Phoebe Maltz Bovy making the point in a piece exploring the casual cultural anti-Semitism of television (though, really, there is no genuine hostility or prejudice towards Jews in the examples she offers) titled “Anti-Jewish Jokes Don’t Get a Pass Anymore:”
There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when Jewish humor mocked the older generation’s preoccupation with anti-Semitism. In a 1996 ‘Seinfeld’ episode, Jerry’s Uncle Leo believes everyone who’s ever slighted him, including a chef who’s overcooked his burger, is an anti-Semite. It could, at that time, be presented as hilarious and anachronistic that a Jew would see anti-Semitism as a genuine threat. But that was nearly 20 years before Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic about the new anti-Semitism. The burden of proof now falls on those wishing to demonstrate that anti-Semitism isn’t a big deal.
Making fun of the Jewish fixation on anti-Semitism is nothing new. It was famously depicted in Alvy Singer’s “did Jew eat” rant in Annie Hall, and you can find the topic throughout any “Treasury of Jewish Humor.” It might be a display of confidence or anxiety, but it says nothing about whether bigotry is a “big deal” –nor should it. I hate to break the news to everyone, but Jew-hatred in the Muslim world, or in Europe for that matter, is not “new.” It was there 20 years ago. And 30 years ago. And 100 years ago. That’s no reason for American Jews (or anyone else) to avoid self-effacing humor, which in many ways is integral to cultural identity.
The problem with this kind of prefabricated reaction isn’t that it emboldens haters, but that it crowds out legitimate grievances. Everything begins to stink of politics and we start sounding like a bunch of humorless protesters. There is nothing wrong with calling out someone for the things they say, but there is something fundamentally illiberal about a mob hounding people for every stupid tweet or making snap judgments about entire careers based on a few comments. Most often, the purpose is to chill speech. At some point, Americans decided they were going to be offended by everything. And, I guess, that’s what really offends me most.