The story of Icarus is he flew too close to the sun. He was arrogant and dismissive.
Laws of nature didn’t apply, he thought. Something similar happened in America over the weekend. On August 18 The Washington Post ran an article by Dana Milbank with the headline “The Trump administration’s three ‘court Jews’ disgrace themselves.” It is not entirely clear if the words “court Jews” were originally in quotes; the original headline can still be seen in the hyperlink of the piece. However, the newspaper has now changed it to “Trump administration’s more prominent Jews disgrace themselves.”
So why did the Washington Post run this headline? The article is full of anti-Semitic tropes about “court Jews,” presented as inside dope by “one of us” calling out our uncle toms. “We have seen such a character before in Jewish history,” the article claims.
“The shtadlan, or ‘court Jew,’ existed to please the king, to placate the king, to loan money to the king.”
Who are the “court Jews? I wouldn’t have known that Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser to President Donald Trump, is Jewish, unless this article told me. But this article names and shames the “Jews” it has found in the administration, like one of those far-right conspiracy websites that always names the Jews it claims are behind everything. Gary Cohn, Jared Kushner and Steven Mnuchin are targeted by Milbank.
Why does our major media feel so comfortable attacking “court Jews”? You’d think that if an op-ed writer wrote such an incendiary article that potentially stokes antisemitism, someone would say “isn’t this a bit much? Let’s tone down the ‘court Jews’ terminology and keep the rest of the argument.”
The argument is basically that when Trump didn’t speak up strongly about neo-Nazis, Jewish members of the administration should have spoken out. Maybe they should have. But were the black members of Obama’s administration subjected to such opprobrium when he didn’t speak out about Ferguson and the killing of young black men? Were they called “Uncle Toms” in the Washington Post? No. Because editors know better than to use offensive terms like that.
But when it comes to “court Jews” the term was put in a headline because many of the editors and writers who are either Jewish or have close Jewish friends feel that the term is OK because “we” know what it means. Because hanging out at a coffee shop or cocktail party people say “court Jews” and it’s not antisemitic because its an inside joke among a small, mostly upper class group of people familiar with the term who are not antisemitic but rather philosemitic or hypersemitic; overly into Yiddish terms. That’s why the same article also used the term “shanda” in its opening paragraph; we’re all part of the literary shtetl.
Julia Ioffe was one of the few on social media to condemn the headline, writing “another headline I wish had not happened.”
The newspaper apparently agreed and changed it.
The “court Jews” headline has encouraged antisemitism. One twitter user wrote “gotta keep the goyim in the dark, yeah? Can’t have them figuring out what’s happening.”
A headline at The Huffington Post, also on Friday, spread even further among antisemitic online media. “Goy, Bye,” the Huffington Post titled its article on Trump strategist Steven Bannon leaving the administration.
Huffington Post editor in chief Lydia Polygreen celebrated it with a screenshot and tweet. “This is going to stir up a few,” one man replied. “Looking forward to it,” responded Polygreen. Later in the day the editor realized that the inside joke that only made sense to a very small circle of people familiar with the term and on the Left, was in bad taste.
“We do puns and pop culture references all the time. This one was too narrow and too easy to be misinterpreted,” she wrote.
The head of the ADL Jonathan Greenblatt chimed in: “Glad you changed the headline, not sure your intent but strikes me as poor taste at best, very offensive at worst.” Polygreen claimed the headline was “intended to be a mashup tribute to Yiddish and Beyonce.” The media giant changed the headline to “white flight” after people expressed outrage.
But what were they thinking, writing “Goy, Bye”? The Huffington Post claimed in 2014 it has 115 million unique visitors to its sites. Given that less than three million people are even vaguely familiar with Yiddish, at best the “goy” term was understood by only a small number of readers. When you search “goy” on social media, almost everyone who uses the term is a right-wing antisemites. Indeed, they turned the headline into the hashtag #goybye under which you will find reams of hate against Jews.
Yet the headline was supposed to be an inside Yiddish joke, among editors and writers who apparently are either Jewish or in a Jewish cultural bubble. As with the Washington Post piece, don’t these editors realize the majority of readers don’t talk about “the goyim” and “shandas” on the weekend? 99.99% of the world doesn’t talk that way, so why do major newspapers? Because they’ve flown too close to the sun. They think that their dinner table conversation and drunken jokes about the “goy” Stephen Bannon is what readers deserve.
Ostensibly, calling Bannon a “goy” is mocking him for his antisemitism. Remember how he was accused of not wanting his kids going to a school with numerous Jews.
The headline is a bit like saying “we won.”
Except, pairing it with the “court Jews” headline, one wonders if you combined them we’d have “bye, goy, the court Jews remain.” Fail.
At The Forward, on the other hand, you’d think some inside Yiddish humor would be ok, since it was originally a Yiddish paper called Forverts, founded in 1897. Instead there was something else. When I saw a headline about right-wing white supremacist Richard Spencer saying “he’s right on Israel,” I did a double-take. “Richard Spencer might be the worst person in America, but he is right about Israel,” a headline at the Forward read.
Why would a Jewish newspaper known for its strident and decent left-wing positions praise Richard Spencer in an op-ed? Because the article claims that there is a “kernel of truth at its core,” when Spencer claims he’s a “white Zionist” and just wants a white state like Jews have a Jewish state.
The problem is Spencer is using this claim to bait Jews and to excuse his views, not because his movement parallels with Israel.
Instead of looking at that, the Forward, tragically, ran an op-ed with a headline praising Spencer. They have since changed the headline to “Richard Spencer might be the worst person in America, but he also might be right about Israel.” A slight change to equivocate about his views, the way Trump equivocated over Charlottesville.
Taken together, the “court Jews,” “Goy, Bye” and “Richard Spencer is right” headlines paint a disturbing picture of something very wrong with journalism in America and American-Jewish journalism in particular.
Editors who are Jewish should be more aware of the problem with running articles that only they and a small group around them understand. It’s wonderful that Yiddish has inserted itself into pop culture, but there should still be red lines about its use.
Calling people “court Jews” and mocking “the goy” don’t make Jews more accepted, they feed antisemitism. Giving a platform and praise to Richard Spencer doesn’t reduce white supremacism, it legitimizes it.
They say familiarity breeds contempt.
There is a bit too much familiarity now with terms like “goy” and “court Jew.”
Every time a Jewish person works for an administration we don’t like, should they be attacked as a Jew? It’s neither fair nor helpful to single out Jews all the time.
Jewish journalists and editors should be sensitive to this and think of the ramifications.
If an administration official spoke about her “Jewish values” and then does the opposite, then a critique of them is perfectly fair. But someone who happens to be Jewish, who perhaps never speaks about their Judaism, doesn’t deserve to be singled out like in some antisemitic witch hunt.
Similarly the term “goy” is almost exclusively used by antisemites to argue Jews see themselves as “chosen people” who “hate others.” Very few Jews use the term in daily life, even if their grandparents’ generation did. Their grandparents used it because they were called “kikes” by the “goyim.”
But this is 2017. Time to do away with “goy.” And stop praising white supremacism.
Jewish newspapers should know better.
White supremacists aren’t right about anything. If they like Gruyère cheese and you like Gruyère cheese, it doesn’t mean that “white supremacists are right about Gruyère,” but wrong about everything else.
In three cases on August 18 newspapers published headlines that flirt with antisemitism and fueled antisemitism. They all changed their headlines. But they should never have had them in the first place. It’s time for the journalists’ community and American-Jewish journalists to have a long, hard, think about where the red lines are in articles and why it’s important to be sensitive and careful about being offensive.Follow the author @Sfrantzman.