Jon Stewart and Blackface: Has Political Correctness Killed Jewish Humor?

Jon Stewart was being sarcastic when he said "Everyone knows you get to be racist on Purim." But has American Jewish defensiveness killed the subversive and plain fun of dressing up and playing with identities?

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
vered kellner
Vered Kellner

It caught me by surprise. Two days after Purim, I was watching "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," as I do every day, when on came a segment about the scandal over the conduct of New York State Assemblyman from Brooklyn Dov Hikind, who dressed up as a black basketball player, complete with a bad Afro wig and blackface makeup. The point of Stewart's satire was that Hikind had shown great and even overblown sensitivity for anti-Semitic comments but demonstrated extreme ethnic clumsiness by appearing in blackface. Stewart wasn’t buying Hikind's excuse that he was just wearing a costume, which is after all what you do on Purim. Everyone knows you get to be racist on Purim, Stewart commented with all due sarcasm.

It could be that Hikind's costume, which wasn't particularly entertaining and was also donned by a man who hadn't managed to show a sense of humor when it came to jokes at his own expense, is not a very fitting basis for considering this topic, but I admit that as an outsider to American public discourse (though an insider to Purim discourse), I hadn't seen what was so offensive about the costume.

Don’t worry, over Friday night dinner, I was given an in-depth analysis of the resounding historic significance of dressing in blackface, and I understand that for Americans it is a big no-no. Beyond that, it isn’t really my place to explain to members of another community why they should or should not be offended. But if we can put the interracial dialogue aside and look inward for a minute, I'm not sure my little daughter's pink-fairy costume or any of the other film tie-in, superhero-branded costumes that have taken over the market in recent decades convey worthier educational, cultural or social messages, and their ethnic homogeneity is hardly more sensitive.

Because on Purim, despite what Stewart might think, people really are allowed to be a bit racist, a little coarse, to loosen up and stop holding everything in. To play with identities. To try on Hasidic dress or a mafiosi's sharp suit, to squeeze into a Japanese kimono, or to branch out and see what wearing an Arab keffiyeh or what walking around with a pregnant settler's stomach is like. Purim gives us a chance – even for a fleeting 24 hours – a chance to shake off the shackles of political correctness. And while it's always better to laugh at your own expense, it's also okay to laugh at the expense of others. And in my opinion, as long as it's funny, it should be acceptable.

I thought the same thing about the "Jews control Hollywood" joke Ted, an animated teddy bear voiced by Seth McFarlane, made at the recent Academy Award ceremony. Maybe it says something about my warped sense of humor, but I found it very funny (as I did the song "We Saw Your Boobs" that opened the evening). So I was shocked the next day when in casual conversation I discovered that more than a few Jews found the joke offensive. Offensive? How can a crude bear named Theodore Shapiro be offensive?

Later, I came across a "Saturday Night Live" skit mocking the way the Republicans fawned over Israel at the Senate confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The skit was never broadcast, but a rehearsal got leaked to the public, and I found it online. I admit it. I found it funny. The joke was mostly at the expense of the Republicans, but it also said something about the power of the pro-Israel lobby. The Jews were perceived as meddling dealmakers, an image that spurs professional defenders of the Jewish community to action time and again.

Patiently, friends here tried to explain to me the special sensitivities of American Jews, a minority group that still remembers in its DNA when anti-Semitic stereotypes were more than just punch lines for a thick-skinned comedian. I guess it comes from a time when Jews really were outsiders to the American experience. A relative recounted a story for me about her childhood in the United States in the late 1950s. As the only Jewish girl in her public school, her teacher cast her as Jesus' crown of thorns in a Christmas pageant. On hearing this, her mother promptly called to reprimand the teacher and demand she instead be allowed to sing a Hanukkah song at the end of the show. The song, the lyrics for which my relative's mother wrote herself, celebrates how the Maccabees fought for freedom of religion "for you and me." She got choked up singing it again.

I tried to imagine her there, facing the other children and their parents alone, declaring her identity and extolling her fragile Jewishness. She had been forced to demonstrate how she was different. For a brief moment, I understood how others, more vulnerable and alien than me, must live. But the feeling dissipated quickly. "I don't have that note of alienation, of strangeness, so plucking at that chord doesn't resonate with me," I told her, almost apologetically.

Why? What prevents me from being offended like a good Jew? Is it a failing in my own personality or the Israeli insensitivity that allows us to tell our hosts the food is bad, ask everyone how much they earn and crack up over jokes about Jews of Moroccan, Kurdish or Polish descent? I hope it's neither. It seems to me the primary culprit is the Zionist enterprise, which sold the image of the New Jew to the world – strong, invincible and at home in his own land. Sometimes the coziness of feeling at home embarrasses me because of what Israel does in my name. But even then, I can't empathize with the feeling of being out of place. For better or for worse, I don't feel pursued or persecuted.

The self-confidence of the New Jew can express itself in various ways. One example is the laughably arrogant declaration by then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Ehud Barak on a visit to the Auschwitz death camp that, unlike in the past when the Jews were slaughtered on European soil, we now have the IDF to protect the Jews. As if all it would have taken to halt the Holocaust was a commando hostage-rescue raid, a kind of proto-Entebbe. I can understand why Diaspora Jewry would raise an eyebrow at a statement like that.

But that same overblown self-confidence has another, more photogenic and intimate side: an Israeli confidence in its 'at-homeness', without the constant concern – pace the Diaspora - for how 'others' see you. This confidence takes the form of a comic serenity that the joke is 'in the family' and never at your expense; the laughs are with you, and never at you.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York.

This October 18, 2012 file photo shows host Jon Stewart during a taping of 'The Daily Show with John Stewart,' in New York.Credit: AP
Screenshot of image on Facebook showing Dov Hikind, center, dressed in a black face.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Trump and Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, in 2020.

Three Years Later, Israelis Find Out What Trump Really Thought of Netanyahu

German soldier.

The Rival Jewish Spies Who Almost Changed the Course of WWII

Rio. Not all Jewish men wear black hats.

What Does a Jew Look Like? The Brits Don't Seem to Know

Galon. “I’m coming to accomplish a specific mission: to increase Meretz’s strength and ensure that the party will not tread water around the electoral threshold. If Meretz will be large enough, it will be the basis for a Jewish-Arab partnership.” Daniel Tchetchik

'I Have No Illusions About Ending the Occupation, but the Government Needs the Left'

Soldiers using warfare devices made by the Israeli defense electronics company Elbit Systems.

Russia-Ukraine War Catapults Israeli Arms Industry to Global Stage

Flame and smoke rise during an Israeli air strike, amid Israel-Gaza fighting, in Gaza City August 6, 2022.

Israel Should End Gaza Operation Now, if It Can