Jewish Journal


7 Comments on a Jewish Habitat Called Hollywood

by Shmuel Rosner

February 28, 2013 | 8:00 am

Macfarlane hosting the Oscars, photo by Reuters


Coming late to this round of responses to Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar night Jewish (or anti-Jewish) jokes makes life so much easier. Of course, I didn’t join late because I knew it would make my life easier, but rather because I thought – and this was an obvious mistake– that there are things of higher importance to talk about before turning to MacFarlane’s musings (a third Intifada, the Haredi draft and such).

Anyway, I realize now that attending to the Oscar kerfuffle is a matter of the highest priority. But then again, so many people have already done it. So this post is going to be about MacFarlane, but also about those who responded to him, and those who responded to the respondents and so on and so forth (in short- about the Jewish chain reaction).


Whether you think MacFarlane is funny or not isn’t relevant to the question of whether MacFarlane is anti-Semitic. Rob Eshman was right to mock the ADL for attempting to be “not just the arbiter of anti-semitism, but of humor”. What I think is relevant, though, is the question of how MacFarlane is perceived by different audiences. In other words: Eshman and David Suissa – both of whom wrote eloquently in defense of MacFarlane (the Jewish Journal, generally speaking, seems to be on MacFarlane's side) – should take into account the possibility that there are Jews who just don’t get it. Not because they dislike humor, or can’t tolerate humor that is aimed at Jews. They don’t get it because they are of a different age, or mentality, or because they haven't caught up with new comedic trends, or because they don’t live in California. Whatever the reason, MacFarlane doesn’t make them laugh, he makes them nervous (of course, that they don’t think it’s funny doesn’t mean that he should not be making such jokes).


One more thing about people who don’t get it: A writer whom I esteem – J.J. Goldberg – made a claim that is admirably ridiculous in his take on the MacFarlane affair. Take a look: 

There’s an important distinction to be made. The critical word to look for is “the,” as in “the Jews control Hollywood.” We use the definite article to describe a deliberate act by an organized group… It’s fair to say “the Jews” play a big role in getting foreign aid through Congress—lobbyists are acting in our name with our charity dollars. That’s a fact of politics. By contrast, Jews run Hollywood, but the Jews don’t. 

What Goldberg is essentially saying is this: since MacFarlane hinted that “Jews” control Hollywood but not “The Jews” – i.e., there are a lot of Jews in town but not a Jewish cabal controlling it – his words should not be interpreted as bigotry.

To this line of argument all I can say is this: only a Jew would assume that an audience of millions watching Oscar night at home would engage in distinguishing between “Jews” and “the Jews”. And in general: when dealing with stereotypes – whether you liked MacFarlane’s jokes or you didn’t - parsing expressions in a Talmudic fashion is not the way to go.


Since everybody seems to be on MacFarlane’s side (I’m also on MacFarlane’s side – and I’ll explain why a couple of paragraphs down), I want to say something in defense of Abe Foxman and the ADL: A long time ago, writing about another incident involving an ADL denunciation of a suspected anti-Semite, I said that if Foxman keeps operating the way he does, he might put the Jewish people in danger of losing a “stereotype that would be a pity to lose on the long and winding road to eliminating anti-Semitism: They, the Jews, have an excellent sense of humor”.

My position hasn’t exactly changed since that long-forgotten article, but my view of Foxman’s habit of outing anti-Semites is more forgiving. Yes, shaming the bigots makes one, at times, a party pooper. Yes, showing up repeatedly with the dour face of the professional Jew doesn’t make one the most trendy person on the block. Yes, Foxman might have a tendency to be trigger-happy when it comes to catching the anti-Semites. But really, is it that bad to have someone that is over-sensitive to any hint of anti-Jewish bigotry? Is it such sin to take these matters too seriously?


Now, let’s talk about MacFarlane. Strangely, both critics and defenders rushed to add to their case a similar claim: he was rude to everyone, his show was in what we used to call “bad taste” (we now call it “bold”). He joked about the Lincoln assassination when “America is facing an epidemic of gun violence” (as one writer put it). He insulted women and minorities. As another writer argued, his was a “hostile, ugly, sexist night”. Is this proof enough of his guilt, though?

To some it is – to others it is proof of innocence. Since he was nasty to “women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, the Christian right, the poor, and other groups”, as Adam Chandler writes, it seems “a little much" to isolate his jab at the Jews. If you want this line of defense in other words, try this: if one hates everybody, one shouldn’t be specifically blamed for hating the Jews.


So the question really becomes one of boundaries: how rough should Oscar humor be allowed to be? The Jews of Hollywood are probably well equipped to come up with an answer to this question.


So why am I on MacFarlane’s side?

The way I see it, there is the fact: Many Jews play a major role in the movie business; and then there are different options regarding how we want to communicate this fact to other people (namely, the non-Jews).

We might as well admit it: the Jews don’t really want other people to be ignorant about Jewish Hollywood. They want the respect and admiration associated with the great achievements of the Jews of tinsel town. Naturally, they don’t want these achievements to become a weapon at the hands of bigots. And MacFarlane, surely, was stereotyping the Jews, and was perpetuating a view that can become a burden to the Jews.

So there are roughly three options that I see regarding “Jewish Hollywood”:

  1. Don’t talk about it in hope that no one will notice it. There are two problems with this option:
  1. If it succeeds, no one will know that the Jews have such a say in the movie business.
  2. If it fails, people (namely non-Jews) might assume that the Jews are hiding something.
  1. Talk about it, but prevent other people from talking about it. This will ensure that people are aware of “the fact”, but can't turn it against the Jews. Again, two problems:
  1. It won’t work. The Jews – or simply Jews – might control Hollywood, but they don’t control what other people talk about.
  2. Again, it makes it seem as if the Jews have something to hide.
  1. 'It’s a free country, and we have nothing to hide'. Again, two problems:
  1. Abe Foxman.
  2. Seth MacFarlane.

Which of these three options is the most appealing – even if not perfect – is clear to me.

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