The knee jerk’s jerk

The knee jerk’s jerk

Column for Jewish News March 5 2021

It has long been my belief that, all too often, people – particularly on social media — get aerated about paltry issues, raising them to the level of screaming hysteria. Sometimes, I think, ignoring the perpetrators is a better proposition, or even laughing at them. We know from experience that the thing racist haters dislike the most is being laughed at.

And so, let us consider the near-preposterous case of the American network NBC, which fell foul of the Jewish community in the US in the past couple of weeks over two issues — a ‘joke’ on Saturday Night Live (SNL), and a TV drama, bought in from Canada, called Nurses. The ‘joke’ was the claim that Israel only vaccinated Jews against Covid. Neither funny, nor, as it happens, true. But did such asininity deserve the shovels of opprobrium heaped on the network?

Not in my opinion, though it is perfectly true I don’t live in the US and therefore don’t have to deal with the fall-out from such a pronouncement from an influential show such as SNL. But those who frothed with fury over SNL may have felt inklings of spontaneous combustion when it came to Nurses.

Episode eight of the series featured two of the most unlikely Chasidic Jews portrayed on any TV screen. They were, supposedly, father and son; the son, helpfully named Israel in case viewers didn’t get the point, has had an accident to his leg while playing basketball.

The doctor informs the pair, who are fully flourishing the fakest peyot I have ever seen, that the only way to deal with the injury is for a bone graft from a dead person. “You wanna put a dead leg inside of me?” splutters the teenage patient. No, says the father, it could be “a dead goyim leg, [from] an Arab, a woman!”

Now, my reaction to this – bearing in mind that I am neither a member of the American Jewish community nor, for that matter, a member of the Chasidic community – was to check the calendar and remember that Purim was then still approaching. NBC, I thought, must be having a laugh. Nobody, surely, could take this nonsense seriously. Besides, even though the show was made in Canada rather than Hollywood, surely there was one Jewish TV executive at NBC capable of pointing out how foolish this was? What, for the love of heaven, is “a dead goyim leg” supposed to be?

A website called Jew in the City, which takes these matters seriously, dissected every single incorrect manifestation in the portrayal and script and ripped it to shreds. The story went viral and NBC has now pulled the notorious Episode eight from the series. Presumably, however, it played last year in Canada, where Chasidic and other Jews also live, without much protest from the local community.

The whole farrago set me wondering about what are the limits of comedy and free speech, and how we Jews are shown to the wider public. It is true, I think, that the Nurses episode grew from stupidity and ignorance rather than wilful antisemitism; and the show did not offer Israel and his dopey father as humour. But perhaps there are times when knee-jerk fury is better applied to real, vicious antisemitism – examples with which we are all too familiar, at present.

We need to reserve our street cred for issues that really matter, and not foam at the mouth for every perceived infraction.

  • 4 March, 2021