Oscar’s big Jewish joke

In what seems like an annual compulsion, the writers of The Oscars telecast routinely include jokes about Jews to remind everybody in the industry — and everybody watching – that Jews indeed “rule” in Hollywood (whatever that imprecise measure of power means).

But for some in the Jewish establishment, this is akin to a crime. Talk of Jewish power is asur, forbidden. If it exists, it should be secret. Therefore the historic and enduring Jewish presence in Hollywood is publicly regarded as “myth,” a “falsity,” a “stereotype,” and should not be construed as fact. It is dangerous — much too dangerous – even to joke about.

Take for example, this year’s big Jewish Oscar joke which came courtesy of host Seth MacFarlane. It was delivered by the actor Mark Wahlberg and his snuggly-looking, smut-talking sidekick stuffed-bear, Ted, both of whom appeared in MacFarlane’s summer sleeper hit, “Ted” which grossed more than $500 million at the box office. Their whippy repartee not only mocked Jewish power in Hollywood, it provided a criterion for getting into the club: a Jewish-sounding name (duh) and a philanthropic commitment to Israel.

Here is a partial transcript of their conversation:

Ted: Look at all this talent, all this talent in one spot. There’s Daniel Day-Lewis… there’s Alan Arkin… there’s Joaquin Phoenix. And you know what’s interesting? All those actors I just named are part-Jewish.

Mark Wahlberg: Oh. Ok.

Ted: What about you? You got a ‘berg’ at the end of your name. Are you Jewish?

Wahlberg: Am I Jewish? No, actually, I’m Catholic.

Ted: (whispering) Wrong Answer. Try again.

Wahlberg: What?

Ted: (still whispering) Do you want to work in this town or dontcha? (to audience) That’s interesting, Mark, because I am Jewish.

Wahlberg: No you’re not.

Ted: I am. I am. I was born Theodore Shapiro and I would like to donate money to Israel and continue to work in Hollywood forever. Thank you, I’m Jewish.

Wahlberg: You’re an idiot.

Ted: Yeah, well, we’ll see who the idiot is when they give me a private plane at the next secret synagogue meeting.

On the surface, this exchange seems entirely unoriginal. Quips about Jewish last names, support for Israel, “secret synagogue meetings” and the like are hardly new to the canon of comedy drawn from anti-Semitic tropes. But the sketch nonetheless elicited the usual defensive outcries.

Abe Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (and self-appointed tribal arbiter of Jewish humor) condemned the sketch as “not remotely funny.” “It only reinforces stereotypes which legitimize anti-Semitism,” he wrote in a statement. “For the insiders at the Oscars this kind of joke is obviously not taken seriously.  But when one considers the global audience of the Oscars of upwards of two billion people… there’s a much higher potential for the ‘Jews control Hollywood’ myth to be accepted as fact.”

Dear me, what a horrible blight that would be on the perception of Jews worldwide. Especially since most people consider the Jewish reputation so pristine!

As Foxman pointed out, this is not the first time MacFarlane has poked fun at Jewish power. Last Fall, MacFarlane placed a “For Your Consideration” ad in Deadline.com’s Emmy Awards print supplement, Awardsline. “Come on you bloated, over-privileged Brentwood Jews. Let us into your little club,” it read, just above an image of Peter Griffin, the character voiced by MacFarlane on “Family Guy.”

It was a plea, not a provocation. But apparently it can be quite confusing to discern between diverting and disdainful. Though there must be some value in distinction; not all contexts are created equal.

 Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, sees little difference between joking about Jewish power or simply stating it. “When Marlon Brando said [something about Jewish power in Hollywood] on the Larry King Show several years ago, there was widespread criticism throughout Hollywood for those remarks, for which Brando profusely apologized,” Hier said in a statement released on Monday. 

“But the Oscars are not Larry King,” he added. No, indeed they are not; the Oscars are an entertainment centered around movies, and Larry King at least presented his show as a serious news enterprise. 

“Every comedian is entitled to wide latitude, but no one should get a free pass for helping to promote anti-Semitism,” Hier argued.

He’s not actually all wrong. For those inclined to dislike Jews, the idea that they are powerful in Hollywood – meaning, I guess, funny, creative, talented, successful, rich, populous, award-winning and in possession of top-jobs – will probably not prove endearing to their detractors. Haters, after all, are going to hate. Should Hollywood’s Jews deflect negative attention by pretending they are powerless? Does AIPAC feign weakness in Washington?

A deeper read of MacFarlane’s Jewish joke underscores other, worthier reasons for public fascination. Its unoriginality for one, was actually striking this year: The Oscars are nothing if not traditional, so even though it was utterly in character for the show to play to redundant, conventional tropes (“Jews control Hollywood: Surprise!”), it seemed to ignore a shift happening elsewhere with erstwhile sacred cows.

Take Israel, for example. The assumption of industry-wide support for Israel intimated in MacFarlane’s sketch is perhaps unsurprising. It even seems obvious considering Hollywood’s founding, its history and current Academy demography – which, according to a 2012 study conducted by the L.A. Times consists mostly of white men at a median age of 62, many of whom are presumed to be Jewish though, oddly, the Times did not account for ethnicity or religion. Still, it is an interesting choice, in 2013, to kid about support for Israel at a time when Hollywood’s presumed liberal values appear in conflict with Israeli behavior.

Of the two Israel-focused documentaries nominated for Oscars this year, itself a considerable feat, neither paints a pretty portrait. The Israeli-Palestinian co-production “5 Broken Cameras” is one Palestinian man’s account of life in a West Bank village, where he is both witness to and victim of horrors at Israeli hands. In “The Gatekeepers” each of the living former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, unanimously regret and condemn Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank.

Neither film won the Oscar, of course. But the very same Jewish academy members who “donate money to Israel,” as Ted so illustratively put it, also voted this dual nomination onto the ballot. With their irrefutably provocative positions towards Israel, the impulse to recognize these particular movies evinces a deepening awareness (and an implicit acknowledgment) of Israel’s faults and flaws.

The inconvenient truth for traditionalists is that many of today’s Hollywood Jews are feeling far more comfortable in their Jewish skins than ever before. There is far more freedom and nuance in expressing Jewish characters, talking about Israel, and embracing the legacy of profuse Jewish power than in years past. It’s even become a bit of a joke.

Jews in Hollywood understand this; so do the industry’s non-Jews, like MacFarlane. It is simply a minority of old-time Jews with the loudest mics who see offense where most find humor. Seth MacFarlane isn’t poking fun at Jews because he’s anti-Semitic. He’s poking fun at Jews out of the seriously comic irony that in Hollywood, he is the outsider. If MacFarlane has no trouble owning the truth of Jewish accomplishment, why can’t we?