Expressions of anti-Semitism by public figures generally follow a certain script in the media.
The politician/actor/public figure says something construed as offensive/hostile/insensitive to Jews. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, issues a condemnatory statement demanding penance. The offender expresses regret. If he deems it sufficient, Foxman issues his kosher certification absolving the sinner.
The recent incidents involving Christian Dior designer John Galliano and actor Charlie Sheen didn’t quite follow the script.
In Galliano’s case, it was Israeli-born actress Natalie Portman, a Jewish darling and Miss Dior model, who took the lead in responding to a video of Galliano’s drunken rant in a Paris cafe extolling Hitler and disparaging Jews.
“I am deeply shocked and disgusted by the video of John Galliano’s comments that surfaced today,” Portman said in a statement last week. “In light of this video, and as an individual who is proud to be Jewish, I will not be associated with Mr. Galliano in any way.”
Galliano was peremptorily fired, and French authorities opened an investigation into whether Galliano should be prosecuted for violating France’s anti-racism laws.
Then there was the Sheen drama, whose script seemed lifted straight from the loony bin.
The actor, a notorious loose cannon and habitual drug user, unleashed a vitriolic tirade against Chuck Lorre, the creator of his hit CBS comedy “Two and a Half Men,” referring to Lorre by his original, Jewish name: Chaim Levine.
Foxman, apparently undecided about whether this was anti-Semitism or merely a personal spat between Sheen and Lorre, issued a statement declaring it “borderline anti-Semitism.”
Sheen then went off the rails, giving increasingly bizarre interviews, calling on Foxman to apologize and, after days of nonstop media coverage, announcing that he couldn’t be anti-Semitic because he is himself Jewish.
The coup de grace came Monday, when CBS fired Sheen and the actor then appeared on a Beverly Hills rooftop waving a machete and declaring himself “Free at last.”
What are we Jews to make of this?
For the most part, the Jewish reaction broke down in one of two ways: Either the incidents showed that anti-Semitism is alive and well, or they said more about celebrity stupidity—and Jewish overreaction—than about anti-Semitism.
Or both. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic wryly noted “the disproportionate interest drunks and lunatics take in Jews and their meddling and mysterious ways.”
Coupling the Sheen and Galliano remarks together with Louis Farrakhan’s recent speech blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death and Muammar Gadhafi’s accusation that Israel is behind the Libyan rebellion, Foxman said the incidents are “a symptom of what we have been warning about for some time—that the inhibitions and shame about displaying anti-Semitism are eroding.”
Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer said the swift reaction to the Galliano and Sheen remarks show just the opposite, “that anti-Semitism in the 21st century, despite what certain august bodies such as the Anti-Defamation League tell us, is simply unfashionable.”
The Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle added into the mix Fox News host Glenn Beck’s recent remarks comparing Reform rabbis to radical Islam—an incident that followed the usual script of callous remark, ADL condemnation, apology, ADL acceptance—declaring them incidents of stupidity rather than anti-Semitism.
To “point the finger of the Jewish establishment and call Sheen anti-Semitic cheapens the weight of an ADL statement,” the Chronicle editorialists wrote. “Jews must be wary not to label every criticism, awkward comparison or stupid remark as anti-Semitic.”
To confuse matters further, Galliano reportedly told a “member of his inner circle” that he has Sephardic Jewish roots. That would give his anti-Semitic rant a Bobby Fischer-esque character—except that Galliano, unlike the late, self-hating Jewish chess champion, issued an apology by week’s end.
“Anti-Semitism and racism have no part in our society,” Galliano said. “I unreservedly apologize for my behavior in causing any offense.”
The ADL promptly declared Galliano forgiven.
“We look forward to working with him to move forward in helping to repair the damage so that he can contribute once again toward the fight against prejudice, intolerance and discrimination,” Foxman said.
Perhaps the greatest question about all this celebrity brouhaha is why the media is so transfixed by these episodes.
The same question, of course, may be asked of JTA and our decision to weigh in on the subject with a story of our own. The answer, of course, is you, dear reader: We’d probably stop writing such stories if you’d stop reading them.