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Anti-Jewish Jokes Don't Get a Pass Anymore

Trevor Noah and Lena Dunham learned that lesson the hard way

Comedy Central

Just as the furor over Lena Dunham's "Dog or Jewish Boyfriend?" jokes was winding down, a new controversy over Jewish jokes has begun. Trevor Noah, the newly announced replacement for "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart turns out to have tweeted some not nice things about various groups, Jews among them

Whether the newly (and not so newly) uncovered tweets lean more sexist than anti-Semitic is an open question, though these are not mutually exclusive categories. Did you hear the one about how Jewish women won’t perform oral sex?

What surprised me wasn’t that a comedian had made anti-Jewish jokes. It was that it’s become common for Jews—and non-Jews—to express outrage over them.

In my response to the latest Dunhamgate, I connected the response to her New Yorker to a growing sense that anti-Semitism is on the rise. Jeffrey Salkin had a similar take:

The heyday of Jewish comedians coincided with a sense that the Jews had, in fact, arrived. Jews felt safe. But this new wave of anti-Semitism has left Jewish nerves raw and frayed. Call us tribal, if you want—but there is something unnerving about seeing all of those silly Jewish stereotypes on display in the venerable pages of The New Yorker.

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.

But how exactly does one call out casual anti-Semitism in comedy? It can be tough to sort out, in part because it’s often unclear—even to a Jewish audience attuned to such things—if the joke-teller is Jewish. Lena Dunham’s half-Jewish heritage was not immediately obvious to all; that Noah is a quarter Jewish has gone largely unnoticed. Because Jews are only a quasi-visible minority, if that, it’s largely at the artist’s discretion if she is going to self-present as a Jewish performer. Humor that might not seem offensive coming from one comedian of Jewish background might seem so from another—especially if that comedian is a mixed-race South African. 

And what to make of questionable jokes written by Jewish writers but spoken by non-Jewish TV characters? In one “Modern Family” scene, Manny is selling Christmas wrapping paper door-to-door. “Do you love Christmas?” he asks a woman. She tells him she’s Jewish, so Manny—a prepubescent Latino—responds, “Well, then, you must appreciate a good value!” And yet, the show's co-creator is Jewish. Or consider a recent episode of “The Mindy Project,” in which Mindy Lahiri tells her boyfriend that she wants to raise their kid Jewish, even though neither of them are, “so he can get ahead in life.” Was this not offensive to the many Jews apparently in the writers’ room? Neither episode caused much of a stir—certainly nothing like the Dunham and Noah flaps—but perhaps they should have, regardless of the background of the writers rehashing these tired stereotypes. And who—apart from Jews and their most committed allies, that is—is even going to wonder whether a show’s writers are Jewish? Anti-Semites! And they’re hardly going to object to Jews-and-money humor.

That fact that we're having this debate indicates that anti-Jewish humor no longer gets a pass, that it's not hypersensitive or paranoid of Jews to complain about anti-Semitism. This, combined with a broader culture of calling out insensitivity online, has made Jews more comfortable speaking out about things that some of us had been noticing all along. There’s a parallel to Dreyfus-era France here; indeed, it's a pattern in Jewish history. When perceptions of anti-Semitism exceed a certain threshold, Jews start to see it as more dangerous to ignore anti-Jewish behavior than to speak up and risk being seen as excessively Judeocentric. 

At the risk of seeming insufficiently Judeocentric, this conversation doesn’t just apply to humor by or about Jews. There are only two registers for reacting to comedy about your group, whatever it may be. One is to announce yourself the victim of microaggression; the other, to roll your eyes at everyone who's so easily offended. The way people actually react, privately, outside any culture-wars context, probably falls somewhere in between. It’s just a shame there’s no way to acknowledge it.