Last night, Stuart Schoffman, a visiting fellow from The Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, held up a provocative political cartoon that ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2003. In it, a Jewish star doubles as a security fence entrapping Palestinian men, women and children inside a symbolic Jewish prison.
“Is this anti-Semitic?” Schoffman asked me after the lecture.
“Yes?” I guessed, but with much hesitation. Was this a trick question?
I told him the overt Jewish-star-as-prison-camp reference threw me off. Any sensible person would consider this anti-Semitic.
“Well,” he said, “it doesn’t have to be.”
Schoffman’s point was that Jewish eyes see a Jewish star and a dangerous equation. When really the cartoon is a political critique. Once the State of Israel decided to put the Jewish star (magen david) on its flag—a symbol of Jewish nationalism—they ran the risk that criticisms of the state could be misconstrued as criticisms of Jews.
“Since the Jewish star is also the symbol of the State of Israel, a cartoon that is a harsh criticism of Israeli policy could be construed as an attack on the Jews, even when it isn’t necessarily,” Schoffman wrote via email.
Schoffman is suggesting that the cartoon is misunderstood; it depicts not a Jewish prison, but an Israeli one. Which, I would argue, is part of the point: How can we separate the two? During his lecture the other night, Schoffman told a roomful of Jewish academics, leaders and rabbis that after 22 years of living in Israel, he can no longer separate out his identity; being Jewish and being Israeli is one and the same.
So what, then, is anti-Semitism?
It’s a loaded, catchall phrase that seems to cover everything from violent pogroms to tasteless jokes, and in its truest form is a very real threat to Jewish life. But today the term gets thrown around so frequently, especially in the media, that what anti-Semitism actually is – and what it’s definitely not – has become frighteningly mysterious. In the past four days alone, two major public relations coups (one involving former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez; the other, the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi) have followed allegedly offensive statements about Jews. And yet, the severity of the backlash would suggest these men had behaved violently, when in reality, they were more or less acting insensitively. As Jews, we’re so preconditioned to the idea that everyone wants to kill us, we pounce at the slightest insult.
“One aspect of Jewish (over)sensitivity is the question of whether anti-Israel equals anti-Semitic,” Schoffman wrote. “Which immediately raises the question of what one means by ‘anti-Israel.’ A great many Jewish and Israeli Zionists are opposed to many policies of the Israeli government regarding the Palestinians. This obviously does not make them anti-Israel.”
The impulse to label any criticism of Jews ‘anti-Semitic’ becomes even more obvious when confronting Hollywood stereotypes. A writer for The Daily Beast recently charged a Jewish character on “Glee” with being anti-Semitic. Why, because he’s obnoxious? Masturbates in public? Tried buying a girlfriend? If this is the 21st century criteria for anti-Semitism than no wonder we Jews think everything is anti-Semitic.
“We have become, as a people, extremely sensitive to [anti-Semitism],” Schoffman said. “We Jews have historical hypochondria; we throw around this terminology in a free and easy way.”
But just because something is tasteless and stupid doesn’t mean it’s anti-Semitic. For example, last week Rick Sanchez called Jon Stewart a ‘bigot’. That was crass, rude and unsophisticated—but anti-Semitic? Sanchez further asserted that Jews have a lot of power and influence in the media. If we’re honest, that’s probably true (I haven’t run the numbers)—but is it anti-Semitic to say so?
In a column for Slate.com, the prominent Jewish atheist Christopher Hitchens wonders, “Is it so offensive to note the effectiveness of the Jewish lobby?” Hitchens, too, seems puzzled as to why seemingly innocuous remarks have been met with such maddening outcries.
“So why the fuss?” he wrote. “I think it has to do with the tone of voice in which these facts are stated.”
I happen to agree. In a recent Hollywood Jew post, about CNN’s decision to fire Sanchez, I wrote: “If Sanchez had made an objective comment like, ‘Even though small in number, the Jews are disproportionately powerful in the media industry’ than that might have come off as rational. But the comments he made were mean-spirited, coming from a place of anger and resentment that stems from his own perceived failings.”
Sanchez was legitimately upset with Stewart, because more than once he had been on the receiving end of Stewart’s signature skewering. Which is, as anyone who watches Stewart can attest, not the most uplifting experience for the ego.
Even Stewart said as much on “The Daily Show” last night: “Mr. Sanchez was apparently angry at me and our program for some of the fun we poked at, quite frankly, his extremely poke-able show.”
Hitchens also sensed Sanchez’s vulnerability: “In the manner in which Sanchez spoke, there was something like a buried resentment. He didn’t descend into saying that there was Jewish control of the media, but he did imply that liberalism was linked to a single ethnicity. Still, there is nothing criminal about this.”
Although many expected Stewart to retaliate, he fairly concluded, “If CNN got rid of Rick Sanchez because they didn’t like his show, fine! (We weren’t that crazy about it either.) But if they fired him for making some intemperate statements and some banal Jew-bating, I gotta tell ya, I’m not even sure Sanchez believes what he was saying, because I know, when Rick Sanchez has time to think things through…” And then Stewart showed a clip of Sanchez calling a white supremacist – wait for it – a bigot.
The point is, there’s a difference between being anti-Semitic and being offensive or insulting. For what it’s worth, Rick Sanchez seems to be as confused as to what constitutes a ‘bigot’ as Jews are about what constitutes anti-Semitism. And another irony, which Stewart pointed out, is that after he made a single joke about Sanchez at a televised benefit over the weekend, the media immediately responded with grossly sensationalized headlines.
Is this the age of overreaction?
As further proof, I offer a summary of what some have termed an unspeakably offensive joke told by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi last weekend and caught on video:
In the clip the prime minister recounts how a Jew charged another Jew about $4,000 a day for hiding him during World War II. The punchline of the joke states, “The Jew says, the question now is whether we should tell him Hitler is dead and the war is over.”
The only thing more laughable than cheap offenses being spun into anti-Semitism is the fact that after Berlusconi delivered an indelicate joke, it was a Vatican newspaper that condemned him.
For a great many Jews, that joke will never be funny. But that doesn’t mean it is hateful, dangerous or destructive. Jews, of all people, know how tenuous survival can be; all the more reason to choose our battles wisely.
[This post has been UPDATED]