Yesterday I wrote about the controversy surrounding Seth MacFarlane's purportedly anti-Semitic Oscar night jokes which implied that Jews control Hollywood. But the MacFarlane case wasn’t the only recent episode involving: 1.Jews; 2. an attempt at being humorous; 3. supposed bigotry; 4.Condemnation.
The other episode is that of New York Assemblyman – and Orthodox Jew – Dov Hikind. His Purim costume – a blackface, an Afro wig, and the colorful outfit of a kind of basketball player – drew the ire of New York politicians. When condemned, Hikind tried to explain that this was simply innocent Purim humor, but when the barrage of criticism didn't stop he finally apologized. Sort of. "Anyone that was offended, I am sorry that they were offended", he said. That is, the problem isn’t with Hikind, It’s with the fact that other people were offended (which wasn’t his intention, of course).
I find the Hikind incident curious, especially when compared to that of MacFarlane and to the recent case of fashion designer John Galliano’s outfit. Hikind's critics thought that he was “hypocritical”, since he criticized Galliano for dressing like a Jewish Hassid to New York City’s Fashion Week. If Galliano can’t wear the black hat, why is Hikind allowed to wear the black face? And on the same token: If Hikind can mock the domineering presence of black basketball players on the courts, why can’t MacFarlane mention Jewish influence in Hollywood?
Questions related to the proper use of humor and the endless need for sensitivity can never be put to rest- these are all questions contingent on timing, context, impact, geography, intent and, of course, personal tastes and sensibilities. Galliano’s costume seems worse than Hikind’s, because we know that Galliano is a racist. Or is it? Galliano’s friends – bigot or no bigot, he still has friends - say that it wasn’t a Hasidic costume, just a coincidental likeness. Should he now guard himself even against the possible appearance of bigotry? The answer is obvious: he should, but he doesn’t want to do any such thing.
So intent is surely a factor in Galliano's case. But it’s fair to assume that both MacFarlane and Hikind had no intention to be considered as bigots. MacFarlane wanted to make people laugh. Hikind did what – let’s admit it – generations of Jews were doing before him.
I clearly remember school friends of mine wearing a costume not much different from Hikind’s during Purim. However, this was 35 years ago, and it was in Jerusalem (context and geography are important factors here). My friends in Jerusalem weren’t being racist, and if they were, it was an innocent kind of racism. They meant no harm. Most of them had never even met any black people at the time. Black people simply signified exoticism. They were wearing costumes of cowboys and Indians, blacks and Arabs, ancient Persians (of the Megillah story) and oriental Chinese. Was it offensive? There were no black people around to be offended. Was it an expression of racism? I guess to some degree it was, yet one without malice.
Now consider the following scenario: a Protestant kid in Idaho, who has never seen a Jew in his life, wearing a costume of a Jew for Halloween. Long nose, black hat, and a copy of Exodus at hand. He means no harm. It is just funny, and exotic to him. Or try this one: an Israeli Knesset member wearing a blackface and carrying a suitcase – it’s his Purim version of President Barack Obama. Now think about these two cases, with this added information: the kid from Idaho is the son of a Pastor known to be anti-Semitic. Does this change your outlook? And what if the Knesset member is a well-known leftist, highly supportive of Obama, and highly critical of Netanyahu’s coalition. Would he now be seen as less offensive?
See where I’m going with this- timing, context, geography, intent.
That’s why Galliano’s outfit was foul, even if it was in fact innocent. And Hikind’s costume was insensitive. And MacFarlane’s jokes were not as bad, even though his audience was much larger than the number of people who were ever made aware of Galliano’s and Hikind’s whereabouts.
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By the way: I saw many writers rushing to criticize the ADL’s Abe Foxman for making the case against MacFarlane. But I didn’t see all those Foxman-watchers criticizing him for speaking against Hikind. I must admit that this makes me suspicious and raises the possibility that for some people Foxman is always right to single-out Jewish bigotry and always wrong to single-out non-Jewish bigotry.