Replace Abe Foxman with Jerry Seinfeld

February 18, 2014

It’s not easy being the head of an organization like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), where you’re faced daily with this paradox: The more anti-Semitism and examples of bigotry you uncover, the more money and support you raise. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it just means you often become the bearer of bad news.

In America, this can create a somewhat distorted picture, since this is probably the least anti-Semitic country in history, not to mention the country most obsessed with human rights.

To balance out the bad news, the ADL promotes the good news of its myriad initiatives, which include, among many others, human rights, Israel and law-enforcement training. One of these initiatives is called “Global Anti-Semitism: The New Threat — 90 Ways You Can Respond,” which is chock-full of useful tidbits on how to fight the scourge that has haunted the Jews ever since some lousy Romans crucified a rebellious Jew.

Of the 90 ways, my favorite is the last one: Be creative!

So, in that spirit, let’s be creative!

How about we replace outgoing ADL head macher Abe Foxman, who just announced his retirement, with comedian Jerry Seinfeld?

No, seriously.

It’s not just because I have a personal weakness for comedians, or that I consider them as indispensable to a healthy society as heart surgeons.

It’s also that I believe that comedians, and especially Jewish comedians, have been the most effective warriors against anti-Semitism and bigotry of any kind.

Just on a basic human level, humor is the gift that keeps on giving. 

First, few pleasures are greater than a good laugh. After you work your butt off and feed your family and pay your taxes and help the homeless and answer your e-mails, it’s not a good pillow you want. It’s a good laugh.

Second, humor creates a human connection. This is a very simple idea — funny people are usually more likeable. Every time I see Mark Schiff or Elon Gold, I want to hug them. There’s nothing like a funny friend.

Third, humor disarms people. I might disagree with some of Jon Stewart’s political views, but I love the guy. He’s smart, and he’s hysterical. He’s so funny, in fact, that after watching his biting commentary on the news, I often find myself challenging my own views.

That’s the thing — humor makes serious stuff go down better. Why is that important? Because so many of us today are sick and tired of serious stuff. When we think of serious, we don’t think of Abe Lincoln, we think of those cardboard characters in Congress who are deadly serious but never get anything done.

Few things, of course, are more serious than anti-Semitism, which may be precisely why it might be good to lighten things up a little.

An organization that ferrets out stuff such as anti-Semitism, racism and hatred and delivers this glum news with a kvetching, scolding finger, well, you get the picture — it’s serious on top of serious.

Yet another press release from the ADL announcing that incidents of anti-Semitism and bigotry are up this year might be good for fundraising, but it feels like “been there, done that.” It’s more likely to get a roll of the eyes.

In a society obsessed with entertainment, you never want people to roll their eyes.

In other words, it’s no longer enough to expose diseases such as anti-Semitism and fight them with predictable means. To make a real impact today, you have to do it the Jon Stewart way — expose it and ridicule it. You have to make fun of the bigots. You have to make anti-Semitism and bigotry the very opposite of cool.

And who better to do that than the coolest humans on the planet — the comedians?

For the better part of a century, Jewish comedians haven’t just fought anti-Semitism, they’ve created pro-Semitism. By making America laugh so hard for so long, they’ve shown that it’s not just wrong to hate Jews, it’s actually cool to love Jews.

I’m not sure Seinfeld would take the ADL gig, but here’s how I’d pitch it: Be the new face of our cause. Make some funny films against bigotry. Represent us at the White House, at official functions and at the occasional dinner with donors. And remember: It’s not a job, it’s a mitzvah.

If Seinfeld or other comedians are not available, at the very least, the search committee should put “sense of humor” on the job description. While continuing the amazing work it’s doing, the ADL ought to add some cutting humor to its body language.

In fact, in searching for future Jewish leaders, maybe every Jewish organization that “sells” Judaism ought to add “sense of humor” to their requirements.

That’s assuming they’re serious about reaching the next generation, for whom entertainment is not just dessert — it’s the main course. 

The legendary Foxman was right for his time, but the Jewish leaders of tomorrow will need to appreciate that they won’t win over too many hearts and minds by being overly solemn and serious.

The ADL’s slogan, “Imagine a world without hate,” will go further in a world with more biting humor.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

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