Why are jokes against the Jews still considered OK? | James Harris says the circuit has a blind spot when it comes to antisemitism

Why are jokes against the Jews still considered OK?

James Harris says the circuit has a blind spot when it comes to antisemitism

As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, I’ve been thinking about antisemitism – racism against Jews – my whole life. You don’t really have a choice. That’s most of what I got, really, from my Jewish heritage – my grandad thought religion itself was ridiculous, so it was a shame people killed most of his family on behalf of theirs.

 A generation later my resolutely secular family would watch documentaries about the war while eating bacon sandwiches. And my Dad is very much Welsh.

It’s been a surprise, then, given that I am not really in any traditional sense Jewish to, in the UK of 2019, regularly experience antisemitism. When I was leaving my flat a while back, for example, and a man rode past on a bike, got off and came over to ask: ‘Are you Jewish?’ To which I replied, ‘Well’, and he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to indicate coins, and hissed.

 Or a few months ago paying a bill in a restaurant, when a friend said to another, ‘Come on, pay your share. Don’t be Jewish.’ Or having to explain to acquaintances why, no, Hitler wasn’t a Zionist, with the best analogy I could come up with that Hitler was a Zionist in the same way in which slave-traders offered Africans a new life in America.

Recently, my work as a comedian has also been affected. Last year I was in the semi-finals of a moderately prestigious UK comedy competition. It was a full room, at a nice London venue, and, it being a competition, all the acts were doing what they considered their best stuff. I did my set – I hate competitions, until I win one – and went to sit and watch the rest.

The comedian did a set which could fairly be described as outrageous, but all within standard norms of sex jokes and gross-out humour. At the end of their set though, they picked up a large piece of blank card, and addressed the audience, shouting in Beyoncé style:

‘Who runs the world? After me!’

And the audience chorused back.

‘Who runs the world!’

‘Ho!’ said the comic.

‘Who runs the world!’

‘Ho!’

This was repeated about five times until the fifth time where the comic turned round the piece of card to reveal the word ‘Jews’.

There was a definite collective intake of breath, some rather mild laughter, and the act left the stage.

At the interval, I made sure to find the performer.

‘Excuse me, could you explain what you meant with that last joke?’

‘Well, it’s because Beyoncé has a song where she says girls run the world, but people say Jews run the world, so I replaced it with that.’

‘Yes, but what have you done to make it funny?’

‘Well, you know...’ 

‘I actually don’t. Because from what I see you’re just repeating the idea that Jews run the world, which is indeed a very long-standing concept. But you’ve not put any twist on it to distance yourselves from the idea.’

The next stage of this idea is, as you may recall, using the idea that Jews run the world to justify horrendous violence against and persecution of them. Burning Jewish houses, Smashing their shops, expropriating them; you name it, it’s been done to Jews in the name of their ‘privilege’.

The comedian had no answer, but they thanked me from the feedback. Neither of us went through the competition.

This hasn’t been my only experience of antisemitism doing comedy in the UK. I’ve had promoters tell me ‘Jews have more money than other people’ (no evidence was provided) and listened to comics speculating on whether Isis was founded by Israel – which is pretty rough when you consider Isis’ intentions for actual real-life Jews. 

I don’t believe that UK comedy is any more antisemitic than any other area of UK life, just that if there is an intensification of antisemitism in society, as there seemingly is, it also has consequences in the comedy world. 

And the type of anti-Jewish racism I am noticing is usually of this kind: there is an powerful Jewish elite, conspiratorially running things behind the scenes. It is this particular form of antisemitism which progressive milieus, which comedy ostensibly is, seem to have such trouble recognising – perhaps because it persecutes Jews due to their ‘elite’ rather than inferior status. 

Even today, racist jokes against the Jews are seemingly not seen as ‘kicking down’ in the same way as those against other historically disadvantaged communities. After all, if the Jews are so rich and powerful they can take it, right? Perhaps they even deserve to be mocked given how sensitive they are. 

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, herself German and Jewish, said the problem in 30s Germany wasn’t that the Nazis hated the Jews but that the middle-class failed to stand up for them. That seems relevant to me to a situation where a comic can perform a comedy routine in London in 2019 with which Hitler would have agreed, and no-one calls them out for it – and this in an age where we are rightly more concerned about cultural sensitivities and minority perspectives. 

Where was the promoter having a word with the act? Why was the only act who called them out on it the one with Jewish heritage? What was going through the comedian’s head in the first place? Ironically these days Germany, where I lived for ten years, seems to have a much more sophisticated understanding of how antisemitism works and how it has never solely located one part of the political spectrum. And it’s not enough just to say you’re ‘against all racism’ in order to be free of this old hate; you have to respect Jewish people enough to find out how antisemitism actually works.

Let’s do better. I am appealing for other comics, and audiences, to call this kind of material and sentiment out when they see it, and to stop what is becoming our general cultural tolerance for antisemitism. 

Some cases are harder than others – and this article is very much not intended to discuss either the politics of the Israeli state or the personal convictions or otherwise of Jeremy Corbyn. But the idea of Jews secretly running the world, conspiratorial anti-Jewish racism, really is the easy stuff to recognise as antisemitic, just as clear as that money-rubbing gesture was to me outside my house that day. It’s all very old material indeed – which is why the audience, thankfully enough, didn’t laugh that day. Maybe they’d heard it before. Jews certainly have.

Published: 10 Jul 2019

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