Open Zion

02.13.13

Abe Foxman's Misguided War On Satire

The funniest joke from the unaired Saturday Night Live sketch about Chuck Hagel's hearing before a Senate committee turns out to not have been in the sketch at all, but a salvo fired off the day after the six-minute bit was posted to the internet. Guess who's mad that reverence for Israel among Members of Congress would be sent-up by a comedy program? You got it: Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman explained to the Daily Beast why he thinks the bit feeds anti-Semitic tropes: "It focuses on the issue of Israel to such a ridiculous extreme that we do become concerned because there is a claim out there that America’s a tool of the Israelis." But what Foxman ignored entirely was that SNL didn't pull the focus on Israel from thin air: rather, the "ridiculous extreme" to which Israel featured in the bit reflected the ridiculous extreme to which Israel featured in the actual hearing on Capitol Hill. Yet Foxman didn't bash the Senate Armed Services Committee for furthering the canard about Israeli control of the American government.

This isn't the first time Foxman's tangled with SNL: he complained about a bit on Hanukkah in 1996 where the guest host sang that Christians had forgiven Jews for "having killed our Lord," and the sketch was slated for removal from re-broadcasts of the episode until NBC decided to leave it in, drawing Foxman's ire once again. And this too is only one data point in a pattern of Foxman's criticisms of comedy shows for jokes he considers inappropriate. 

In an interview with an Israeli journalist in 2010, Foxman berated the hit 1990s sit-com Seinfeld for its recurring "Soup Nazi" character, so named by the show's protagonists because he decides which soup customers can buy. “So if in New York we have a restaurant where a guy calls himself a Soup Nazi because he decides what kind of soup you’re going to eat, or buy, that’s a trivialization, you’ve learned nothing from history, and yeah, we do care, and we’ll speak out against it, Foxman said. As early as 2004, Foxman was going after British Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for making anti-Semitic jokes in keeping with some of his characters' anti-Semitism, repeating his objections in 2006. Last year, Foxman worried that audiences would not understand that Baron Cohen was satirizing Arab anti-Semitism in his send-up of an Arab dictator: "We have developed all kinds of programs to educate and sensitize [about and to anti-Semitism], and we haven’t eradicated it," Foxman said. "You’re not going to eradicate it by making fun of it." The ADL chief went on to lament the classic television character Archie Bunker of All In The Family: "The argument then was that people are laughing at Archie Bunker. We said: No, they’re not laughing at him, they’re laughing with him." 

Returning to the Hagel sketch, the bit mocked the Armed Services Committee's overwhelming focus on Israel during hearings to confirm Hagel as Defense Secretary. In it's most shocking moment, the actor playing John McCain goes very, very blue, posing a hypothetical to Hagel: "You get an urgent call from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who truly is one of the greatest men of this or any age, and he says to you, 'It is vital to Israel's security that you go on national television that night, and perform oral sex on a donkey.' ...Now remember, the survival of israel is at stake. Would you fellate that donkey?" Needless to say, SNL's Hagel demurs and, as such, McCain regrets that he can't support the nomination. Pre-empting criticism, Foxman noted to the Beast: “We have a sense of humor and we understand that classic satire is where you poke fun.” But does he? 

Foxman blamed SNL's Hagel sketch for its apparent "insensitivity and their playing on stereotypes and selling stereotypes and forcing stereotypes." I, for one, had no idea that fellating a donkey was an anti-Semitic stereotype. But a stereotype of who? Of American Jews? Of Israelis? No, it's a stereotype of Congress, that Members bend over backwards to declare their devotion and deference to the Jewish State. But here's where Foxman's accusations run afoul of good satire and the way it draws on and (only slightly, in this case) exaggerates reality: Members of Congress do bend over backwards to announce their support for Israel, and they did focus more heavily on Israel than any other subject during Hagel's hearing. Foxman even predicted the obvious response that most viewers who follow politics will have: "[T]here inevitably will be those who say, ‘Yeah, it’s funny, but there’s some truth to all of this,’” he wrote in a letter to SNL's producers. He's right, and the numbers don't lie: Jim Lobe counted up 178 mentions of Israel at the hearing, more than any other country. Only Iran came even close, with 171 mentions, many of which were in reference to the threat Iran poses to Israel. It's rather incredible that Foxman ignores this real life basis for the sketch—which, again, as in much comedy, was exaggerated—in his berating of SNL.

The different instances of humor that Foxman attacks are just that: different. Some may indeed deserve his scorn. But by omitting the context of the actual Chuck Hagel hearing, Foxman does himself no favors. Instead, he comes off as opposing any comedy whatsoever on topics he holds dear, whether real anti-Semitic canards (Jews killing Jesus), obvious send-ups of anti-Semitim (Baron Cohen), or criticisms of Israel's outsized role in Congress that begged for satire (Hagel Hearings). In 1996, NBC ignored Foxman. If he continues his blanket objections to things like the Hagel skit, who can blame them for continuing down this path?