Everyone seems agreed that Jackie Mason is a pretty wonderful comedian, especially when he is making jokes about the nature of Jewishness, but there is a sizeable minority out there which doesn’t mind him being a wonderful comedian; they just wish he wouldn’t make jokes about the nature of Jewishness. This minority is, of course, Jewish. In the old days you could explain this in terms of the Jewish desire not to draw too much attention, which might cause trouble, but these days it is different. We are told that the danger of Jackie Mason talking about the Jews as a whole is that it might reintroduce racial and cultural stereotyping which might lead to a resurgence of Anti- Semitism. (My italics, but you’re welcome if you need some.) So a minority of Jews are worried.
Part of me is worried too, but what I am worried by is not just anti-Semitism, which is always worrying, but the fear of anti- Semitism. It strikes me that if people are so fearful of the re-emergence of anti-Semitism that they don’t like it when someone as Jewish as Jackie Mason jokes about the Jews (though they don’t object to him joking about blacks and Italians), then they are doing their cause as much harm as good. Stifling all comment and comedy in that area will lead to a backlash more certainly than to anything else.
Paul Johnson referred to this recently in the Spectator when he noted that there no longer seems to be a nickname for Jews. Nicknames can be friendly (Paddy for an Irishman, Frog for a Frenchman, Kiwi for a New Zealander) and they can be unfriendly (fill in your own), but at the moment there seems to be no nickname at all for a Jew because, thought Johnson, any nickname at all would raise spectres of anti-Semitism. It’s the same with vague generalisations. Call the Germans humourless, the French arrogant, the British hypocritical, and you will not be accused of racism, whereas a similar generalisation about the Jews will get you into trouble.
This is wrong, I think. The Jews should be as subject to criticism as anyone else, without cries of anti-Semitism being heard. So I have programmed the mighty Independent computer to produce some mild criticism of the Jews, so that they can be on the same footing as everyone else. He was worried. He didn’t want to get shoals of letters from Jewish readers. He hasn’t got time to answer them, now he is working on the Independent on Sunday as well. I told him not to worry. I would answer them. Reassured, he came up with the following.
“I would say that Jews can legitimately be criticised because:
a) bagels are never as delicious as you think they’re going to be
b) they lumbered us with the Ten Commandments, which are almost as antiquated and outmoded as the British law on Sunday opening, trespass, official secrets, etc, etc
c) there is no sensible way of pronouncing the name Koch
d) they keep Klezmer music to themselves
e) they fail to keep Al Jolson to themselves, when he was just a cantor in a synagogue and could so easily have been prevented from going out and filling the world’s airwaves with his sobbing and braying
f) the word ‘begat’ will be forever associated with the Old Testament, when it could so easily have become a useful Irish swear word
g) Rothschild is near impossible to spell
h) the Jews are responsible for the British not being afraid of hell – that is to say, the Jewish idea of a hot, fiery hell is based on a hot country where heat is the most feared thing, just as the Norse idea of hell was an icy cavernous place, as cold was the thing that Norsemen most feared, but by accident we in Britain have inherited the Jewish idea of hell which actually doesn’t sound too bad to us, as we are the kind of people who lie in the baking sun and think we are having a good time – no, the British would only be afraid of a damp hell, with leaking taps, rising damp, peeling wallpaper, wet patches in the ceiling and fungi on the walls…
i) Israel did a disservice to music by insisting on applying for and entering the Eurovision Song Contest (and confused people about where Europe ended, as well)
j) they have monopolised the word ‘Semitic’. To which the Arabs seem to be half entitled
k) they have caused untold annoyance to the women’s movement by blaming the first woman for falling for the first temptation and causing expulsion from Paradise, without the slightest scrap of evidence for this typically male chauvinistic accusation
l) for reviving Hebrew on the verge of extinction, when we need fewer languages in the world, not more, for heaven’s sake
m) for not dominating British comedy in the way that they ran American comedy, so that now you have to tell Jewish jokes in an American accent to make them convincing
n) for not buying Harrods.”
Seems fair enough to me
The Independent 1990