Laughing matters

Laughing matters

An anti-Semite,” according to the old saying, “is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.”

Some sources say it’s a Jewish proverb, and some say it’s Hungarian (presumably, non-Jewish). It matters.

If it’s a Jewish joke, I like it: It’s in a long tradition of self-deprecating Jewish humor. We joke among ourselves about our cantankerousness, our argumentative streak. Even God calls us a “stiff-necked people,” and He wasn’t complimenting us on our posture.

But if a non-Jew says it, I take offense. So a little Jew hatred is okay, László? Should we talk about the history of “polite” anti-Semitism, perhaps in the parking lot?

Ethnic humor is like that. Jokes that are funny within a group curdle when they come from the outside. You can fill a geniza with Jewish jokes about thrift (Why did God invent gentiles? Because someone has to pay retail.). But just let a gentile call us cheap, and he’ll be hearing from the ADL.

The irony is that two of our great obsessions as a people — humor and anti-Semitism — both rely on the human tendency to think in stereotypes. Try to think of a joke that doesn’t depend on a generalization about a religion, age group, or nationality. Got one? Now try to think of a good joke that passes the test. See?

I bring this up in light of two recent stories: the latest release of Nixon tapes by his presidential library, and a hilarious public service announcement for the American Jewish World Service. To very different effect, neither would be as newsworthy without a little dose of Jewish stereotyping.

The TrickiDickiLeaks feature more of Nixon’s now familiar musings about his Jewish enemies. He tells Charles Colson that Jews have a “very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality.”

Talking about his Jewish advisers — they included Henry Kissinger, William Safire, Leonard Garment, and Herb Stein — he explains, “Most Jewish people are insecure. And that’s why they have to prove things.”

Perhaps most egregiously, Nixon suggests to Colson that amnesty for draft dodgers is off the table because so many of the “deserters” were Jewish. “I didn’t notice many Jewish names coming back from Vietnam on any of those lists; I don’t know how the hell they avoid it,” he says.

There is a lot to unpack here. (For example, there’s no proof that Jews served in lesser numbers than other white people of similar social, educational, and economic standing; besides, the Jewish War Veterans of America has a strong Vietnam contingent.) I would say this about Nixon: Abhorrent as they are, his remarks don’t immediately suggest he is any more prejudiced or anti-Semitic than probably 90 percent of the population. (His defenders like to point out how he shipped arms to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.)

At moments like these, Nixon sounds like exactly what he is: an unguarded American. If you don’t harbor these kinds of generalizations about some religion or race other than your own, you are either a saint or Mister Rogers.

Or you have never enjoyed a sitcom or standup comic.

From Jackie Mason to Chris Rock to Louis C.K., comedy is an industry based on shared recognition of stereotypes. The enlightened know it is transgressive to laugh when a comedian slips into dialect or compares whites and blacks, but they (we) laugh anyway.

The comedy club is a safe place to acknowledge our prejudices and defuse them with laughter (that’s the premise, anyway. I still suspect that for every person who laughed at Archie Bunker, there was someone laughing with him).

Judd Apatow, perhaps the leading figure in modern comedy, made the AJWS video, recruiting mostly tongue-in-cheek testimonials from a series of A- and B-list celebrities, including Lindsay Lohan, Tracy Morgan, Sarah Silverman, and Patrick Stewart.

In the ad, only Silverman plays off Jewish stereotypes: Jews are cheap, pushy, annoying, and well-off. Silverman’s slightly disingenuous shtick is that she is portraying a character too dumb or self-involved to realize she is a bigot. Her joke isn’t that Jews are pushy or Asians are good at math, but that “Sarah Silverman” doesn’t understand that to say so is politically incorrect.

Except we laugh, or at least I do, because — the ADL notwithstanding — we recognize and even cherish the stereotypes she pins on the Jews. Such stereotypes somehow bear testimony to our continuing distinctiveness as a people. Yes, we resent it when a gentile calls us “clannish.” But call it “peoplehood” and you can wrap a fund-raising appeal around it.

But in the Oval Office — or any office, for that matter? There’s a different set of rules for people in real power, and there’s nothing funny about a boss pulling his subordinates into his creepy ethnic musings.

Perhaps Nixon didn’t hate the Jews any more than he had to. But as David Greenberg once wrote in Slate, “Clearly he thought and spoke of Jews as a group, more or less united in their opposition to him, possessing certain base and malign characteristics, and worthy of his scorn and hatred. You don’t have to call that anti-Semitism if you don’t want to. But there’s no denying it represents a worldview deserving of the strongest reproach.”

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