November 21, 2018

Looking Back—Hollywood as a Barometer of Jews’ Sense of Security

A frequently ignored fact about Hollywood, its images and messages is that it can serve as a barometer of the Jewish community and its feeling of belonging in America. The invocation of potentially anti-Semitic tropes at one point in our recent history can be viewed as insidious yet  may seem innocuous and hardly raise a hair in the community at a later time.

In recent decades most minority groups and women have become more sensitive to slights, insensitivity and even “micro-aggressions”—-“political correctness” prevails. In contrast, the organized Jewish community has become less touchy, less inclined to call out certain behaviors that once were viewed as toxic. As Jews have become more comfortable and secure in their place on the American scene, they seem to be somewhat inoculated from the harm that might result from jabs and pointed humor.

In the mid-1970s, Norman Lear’s production company produced a hit television comedy series, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. The program was a lighthearted look at a beleaguered heroine and her daily travails in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio. In one episode, a young friend of Mary’s, Loretta, who was pursuing a career in entertainment as a country western singer, gets a big break and is flown to Hollywood to appear on the Dinah Shore Show (a fictional show within the show).

While cooking sweet potato pie, Loretta describes how pleasant all the people were whom she had met since she arrived in Hollywood (from “Mr. Raskin, to Mr. Julius the hairdresser, to Mr. Schwartz” the show’s producer), she expresses surprise that “they’s all Jewish, I couldn’t believe that this is the people what killed our Lord.” This particular program was nationally broadcast on, of all days, Good Friday (the commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus).

The following Monday the calls came in to ADL offices across the country — the community was up in arms not only about the invocation of the deicide charge and because of the timing of the broadcast during Holy Week but also because the program had become a craze  which reached an audience of millions—-Mary Hartman had been on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

The fear — expressed and implicit — was that reminding Americans of the deicide charge, especially at Easter time, could result in hate and violence being directed at Jews in various communities across the country. A wellspring of bigotry might be tapped and be dangerous.

In my career in the Jewish community and dealing with civil rights, few events have provoked such a tidal wave of outrage.

I handled Hollywood related complaints for the Anti-Defamation League at the time and so I was charged with making representations to the producers, Norman Lear’s operation, about the broadcast.

Jews had become increasingly successful and the community felt empowered by the increasing acceptance of minority religions, races and ethnicities — demographics in America were changing at warp speed.

We met with major personalities in Lear’s company at a reception for leaders of the ADL they hosted in the roof garden at Metromedia’s then new headquarters on Sunset Boulevard. We made clear that deicide was not a joking matter in general and that it was potentially incendiary when invoked during Holy Week. The producers and directors (virtually all of whom were Jewish) listened attentively and expressed their view that they thought Americans would get the humor of the dialogue and the inappropriateness of the comment. The pointed out that it was coming from a rube who was seemingly unaware of how offensive it was and that Dinah Shore’s shocked response (as well as the director’s pained expression) made the messaging clear and unambiguous.

The incident stood in sharp contrast to an eerily similar incident some twenty years later. The response across the country to the later broadcast was as different as one might imagine.

In 1996 or 97 the then new The Daily Show—pre-John Stewart—aired a segment about the Orthodox Jewish tradition of kaparot — the High Holidays’ ritual of grasping a live chicken, circling the carcass around one’s head while reciting prayers to metaphorically transfer sins to the chicken. The Daily Show “news” item — broadcast a day or two before Yom Kippur — showed the ritual taking place in Jerusalem with a young hasid swinging the chicken while explaining the symbolism. Host Craig Kilborn then commented that “Jews used to swing young Christians, instead of chickens, before they got too expensive.”

Unlike Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, there were a few isolated complaints coming in to the ADL about the humor. Some callers from disparate parts of the country, but no groundswell, no wave of indignation, no fear that anti-Semitism might result from the oddly timed attempt at humor.

The forces at play were manifold—entertainment had become more atomized; we weren’t all watching the same few channels. But there was also a difference in tone from those who complained—less anger and angst. Jews had become increasingly successful  and the community felt empowered by the increasing acceptance of minority religions, races and ethnicities, the demographics of America were changing at warp speed. The societal change in attitudes towards what constitutes an “offense” was dramatic and palpable in a mere twenty years.

When I received a copy of the videotape of the program I was prepared to go after Comedy Central—the home of The Daily Show—daring to invoke the “Blood Libel” charge on the eve of Yom Kippur seemed like an egregious act of insensitivity, if not rank anti-Semitism.

I watched the broadcast (having never seen the program before) and realized that a good deal of the humor of the show was in poking fun at minorities (racial and ethnic) and other unusual targets and that the entire “mockumentary” had a light touch. I realized that Jews couldn’t demand an exemption from being the butt of humor; Jews had come of age. They were not a disadvantaged minority that needed special protection from jokesters and satirist. The overwhelming majority of Americans wasn’t going to believe the Blood Libel because of a joke on The Daily Show—they got the humor.

Polls of Americans’ attitudes towards Jews and bigotry reflected the change that I had seen in the response to Hollywood. Polls in the 1960s and 70s found anti-Semitic attitudes among Americans hovered around a third of the public harbored such beliefs, by the mid-90s that percentage was down to a historic low of 12%.

I filed no complaint, there was no meeting with network execs there was no cause for concern, the community and its leaders felt un-threatened.

There are few instances in the past two decades, with the possible exception of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ in 2004, that have generated broad scale reactions of outrage and concern similar to what I witnessed in prior decades. Today, the majority of Jewish civil-rights groups’ complaints regarding insensitivity and anti-Semitism in the media appear to be centered on foreign broadcasts from places such as Egypt and Pakistan to European broadcasters—they offer a context and make American transgressions seem tame by comparison.

Times and attitudes have indeed changed.

David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization chaired by former Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

A version of this essay first appeared on cai-la.org.