This coming week marks the beginning of Passover, a Jewish holiday commemorating my people’s enslavement at the hands of the ancient Egyptians.
Many millennia later, sadly, the Jews aren’t doing that much better today. Anti-Semitism is raging everywhere from U.S. college campuses to the streets of France.
And yet perhaps the greatest threat yet to confront the Jews emerged this week, and from within their own ranks: Lena Dunham.
The “Girls” creator and star drew the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League and countless Twitterati for her latest work, a humor column for the New Yorker titled “Dog or Jewish Boyfriend? A Quiz.” The piece is exactly what the title suggests: a list of statements that could easily apply to one or the other.
Among the attributes Dunham ticks off: “He doesn’t tip,” “he has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background,” and “he is openly hostile toward the Hasidic community.”
Funny? Not really. Anti-Semitic? Hardly.
It’s a sad reflection on how strong a stranglehold political correctness has on this country that this could be construed as a kind of hate speech. And, yes, that’s coming from a male Jew who resents the stereotypes (even though in my own case they’re about 90% accurate).
The ADL took Dunham to task for the very premise of her piece because “it evokes memories of the ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed’ signs from our own early history in this country, and also because in a much more sinister way, many in the Muslim world today hatefully refer to Jews as ‘dogs.'”
That argument is a little hard to take seriously considering the dog described by Dunham clearly isn’t some lowly mongrel but the man’s-best-friend variety: domesticated, loyal and, unfortunately, neutered.
Of course, that type of dog is problematic in a different way. What Dunham is doing with her comparison is invoking stereotypes that have long depicted the Jewish-American male as a penny-pinching milquetoast neurotic.
That’s not flattering, but Dunham’s critics are missing some subtlety here. She’s being misinterpreted by readers who seem to think she’s just reducing Jewish men to the same tired stereotypes they have resented since “Portnoy’s Complaint” first set them in stone back in the 1960s.
But Dunham is so relentlessly cataloguing these stereotypes in her column that she can’t possibly be seriously attributing them in actuality to her boyfriend. She’s not really addressing the Jewish male in her life; it’s the cliched societal conception of the Jewish male that she’s deconstructing.
All Dunham is really doing is taking on two different sets of stereotypes and asking readers to chuckle at how these seemingly disparate figures — dog and Jewish male — have things in common.
It’s no different than comedic performers and writers of every ethnicity, race, gender or sexual orientation do to their own people all the time. As the product of a Jewish mother, Dunham feels justifiably entitled to take on her own people with the kind of leeway not afforded to those outside the tribe.
That said, Dunham isn’t doing anything particularly genius in the New Yorker either. The dog-Jew comparison is so strained the piece barely holds together. The stereotypes she’s playing with are sorta depressing if anything given they’ve barely been updated at all since Philip Roth popularized them.
Let’s not accuse her of perpetuating these stereotypes, either. Besides the fact that her tongue is so firmly planted in cheek, a Jew poking fun at Jews in the New Yorker is hardly disseminating hate to a new generation or audience.
— Ben White (@morningmoneyben) March 27, 2015
Some of the criticism aimed Dunham’s way feels a bit disingenuous, just conservative types who will look for any excuse to knock her because of previous sins she committed in their eyes. Others have suggested that if Jews were substituted by another ethnicity in the piece, the stereotypes that would be cited would come across as far more pernicious.
While there’s a grain of truth there, the stereotypes in Dunham’s piece are different because they aren’t typically imposed by true anti-Semites; they have been bandied about far more by Jewish comics themselves. Dunham is just taking a fresh stab at the ultimate in-joke.
Surely no one believes Dunham really had any intent here to offend. Though she is a provocateur at times, this piece probably wasn’t even meant to be as polarizing as it was. Yet it’s almost as if the column is the new white-gold/blue-black dress; the blogosphere seems to be seeing it two entirely different ways, either tasteless anti-Semitism or harmless comedy.
Had Dunham strayed into horned heads or the blood libel, maybe there would be room to question her taste, but this is so innocuous. At a time when there’s plenty of real anti-Semitism in the world to worry about, let’s keep our eyes on the real thing.