December 07, 2008

A Delicious Sense of Toying with the Forbidden

or: The Gutter in the Salon

At the blog Z-Word, associated with the American Jewish Committee, Ben Cohen informs us:
An almighty row has broken out in Norway following a monologue by comedian Otto Jespersen - and broadcast on national TV - which resulted in a man who lost nine relatives during the Holocaust phoning the police.

Here’s the joke:

”I would also like to take the opportunity to remember all the billions of fleas and lice that lost their lives in German gas chambers, without having done anything wrong other than settling on persons of Jewish background.”

That’s about as sophisticated as the interminable joke popular among American white supremacists about black people (”if we’d known they were gonna be this much trouble, we’d have picked the goddam cotton ourselves.”)
As an aside: I fail to see any qualitative connection between Jews being murdered in the gas chamber and black non-consensual cotton picking, and thus between jokes about both, but that is not the point here. Ben Cohen goes on:
Ha’aretz reported that a former Norwegian Prime Minister, Kåre Willoch, responded that these claims amounted to “a traditional deflection tactic aimed at diverting attention from the real problem, which is Israel’s well-documented and incontestable abuse of Palestinians” - a Norwegian version of what David Hirsh calls “The Livingstone Formulation.”

Willoch did not respond to the specific examples raised by Gerstenfeld which, interestingly, included a number of newspaper cartoons designed to raise the same dismissive, morally superior sniggering as Jespersen’s mangled joke. One cartoon showed an ultra-Orthodox Jew engraving “thou shall murder” into an alternative Decalogue. Another cartoon showed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dressed up as a guard at a death camp, smiling and holding a rifle.
All of this is illustrative of a wider point. These days, racist jokes about blacks and other minorities are largely - and correctly - regarded as an embarrassment, the preserve of failed comedians performing to inebriated audiences in seedy clubs. But transfer these same themes to Jews and all of a sudden, they acquire a delicious sense of toying with the forbidden. What is reactionary becomes radical, what is stupid and insulting becomes pathbreaking. Thus does the gutter enter the lofty heights of the salon.
The highlighting was added by me. I took the header, the pictures and the following explanation from the German blog Lizas Welt with Liza's permission.

The cartoon about the "New Decalogue" appeared in the leftist newspaper Dagsavisen on January 7, 2004. The caption says: "The Seven Synonyms for Death". The scroll lists things like: "To murder", "to kill", to "finish", "to expire", or "to execute". The other picture showing Olmert as a death camp guard appeared on July 10, 2006 in the newspaper Dagbladet.

So one Jew found that offensive. I don't know how things are in Norway, but in Germany, under similar circumstances, one can safely hold one's breath while waiting for the first "It isn't allowed to criticise the Jews anymore."