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September 30, 2013

The Meaning of Racism

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/the_meaning_of_racism/

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I work in Santa Monica several days a week, and every time I’m in the city I grab the Santa Monica Daily Press newspaper first thing in the morning to see what’s going on. I mainly read the paper for three features: the “What’s up Westside” calendar on the inside page, the “News of the Weird” column, and the comic strip “The Meaning of Lila,” which usually has a humorous take on dating and relationships.

Last week “The Meaning of Lila” had a strip that I and many others found offensive. Here’s the brief dialogue:

Girl #1: Jdate.com? But you’re not Jewish.
Girl #2: It doesn’t say anything about having to be Jewish.
Girl #1: It’s implied.
Girl#2: So I’ll stretch the truth already. Is that so wrong?
Guy: Maybe she IS Jewish.

I don’t think that a serious argument can be made that the strip is not at least moderately offensive, as it implies that Jews are inherently dishonest. Substitute “Ldssingles.com” and “Mormon” in the preceding dialogue, and I would have been just as offended.

What I found interesting was the newspaper’s apology, issued two days later, which appeared below a letter to the editor criticizing the paper for running the strip. Here it is: “The Daily Press would like to apologize to anyone who was offended by the ‘Meaning of Lila’ comic strip that ran in the Sept. 23 edition of this newspaper. We regret publishing the cartoon and do not consider racism to be a laughing matter.”

I can think of lots of adjectives to describe the strip in question. Offensive? You bet. In poor taste? Definitely. Anti-Semitic? Possibly. Racist? Not at all.

Jews are not a “race” of people, and I don’t know of a Jew or Mormon who thinks of them as one. I know that it’s tricky to state with precision whether Jews are members of a nation, tribe, and/or religion, but I’m pretty sure that defining them as a separate race is probably as offensive as the Lila comic strip was.

I know what the Daily Press was trying to say, but newspaper editors more than most people should know that words matter, and even highly-charged words like “racism” have precise definitions. I will continue to read the Daily Press and The Meaning of Lila, but I was disappointed both by the portrayal of Jews in the offending strip and by the mislabeling of the offense by the newspaper. They can both do better than that.

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