No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-semitic.
That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech.
The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane, “offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-semitism, but of humor.
Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s umbrage and raising it to world-historical levels.
“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout the world,” said the Center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people to contribute to the myth that Jews own Hollywood.”
I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-semitism.
Seth MacFarlane was joking. He was poking fun. He was mocking the widespread understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment business. This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking about it “feeds” anti-semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of anti-semitism.
One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is difuse prejudice. It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light. That explains everything from Charlie Chaplain in “The Great Dictator” to Sascha Barron Cohen’s character of Borat, who got hundreds of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.” Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew-hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.
MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all it takes.
Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face — but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his "Chanuka Song," or Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/Gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t gone before.
So why the outrage? Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive. Maybe because an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of Family Guy/South Park humor. Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense — this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved, flattering profile of Howard Stern. Stern's brand of satire paved the way for comedians like MacFarlane.
Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion of being powerful. But here's the fact: Jews are disproportionately represented in Hollywood. The Jewish state has over 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of power in the Middle East. Jews are also disproportionately represented in government, finance, law, publishing and medicine. Only Jews can read these factual statements and think, Oy! I often wonder if our instinct to cringe and keep quiet, to not publicly own our power, as a self-help guru might put it, is also a way of avoiding having to think about what the responsibilities of that power are, what our true potential is, and what it means to be both Jewish and powerful.
The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the humor, they are missing the opportunity. MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good comedy can get people thinking, can open a conversation: Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood? How does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices? How would Hollywood look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs, or Thais, or anti-semites?
Hollywood is one of the Jews' greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2 billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of Best Picture? There is nothing to hide, and plenty to joke about.
Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.