Media Matters: Taking satire seriously

When caustic comedy crosses a red line, the right response is to protest it with the pen, not the sword.

eretz nehederet 248.88 courtesy (photo credit: Courtesy)
eretz nehederet 248.88 courtesy
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last week, Holocaust survivors filed a formal complaint to have a YouTube film clip removed from the site. The clip, posted by two Israelis who call themselves "2debilim," is a satire on the difficulty of finding a parking space in Tel Aviv, using the character of Hitler for "laughs." And though the short film itself (which is in German) has been used by other Web wise guys as well - albeit with different subtitles - survivors found it anything but funny. In fact, they said, they couldn't believe Jews would stoop that low. The clip's creators said they had meant no offense, arguing that Hitler's character has been used in comedy since World War II, pointing to Charlie Chaplain's 1940 classic, The Great Dictator, as but one example. An even more severe reaction to a piece of satire erupted in the Christian community around the same time, following a broadcast of Channel 10's Tonight with Lior Shlein. In an act of self-proclaimed revenge against Pope Benedict XVI for revoking the excommunication of Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson, Shlein presented a "humorous" revisionist history of his own, called "Like a Virgin" (the title of Madonna's famous song). In this clip, Shlein ripped into Christianity's most sacred cows, ridiculing Jesus and Mother Mary, the former for having been "too fat to walk on water," and the latter for having been "knocked up by a classmate." An immediate public apology from Shlein, following the flak he received, did not suffice to assuage the offended sensibilities of certain Christians, at home and abroad. An additional "mea culpa" was demanded, and received, from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Almost simultaneously, the Anti-Incitement League submitted two complaints - one to the attorney-general and the other to the Second Authority for Television and Radio - following an episode of Channel 2's Eretz Nehederet that included a particularly poisonous parody of "The Settlers." This is by no means the first stab at the settlers that the popular political satire program has made. On the contrary, stereotypes of West Bank Jews feature prominently on a regular basis. But this time, the show's creators went too far. In the skit, showing an average day in the home of a family in Judea and Samaria, the mother is using a Palestinian - down on all fours - as an ironing board; the daughter, when refused permission by her mother to go a party, and denied money from her father, has a tantrum and calls her parents and her brother Nazis. Meanwhile, a trigger-happy grandfather with an American accent shoots his rifle indiscriminately, first hitting the Arab/ironing board and then a soldier who has come to the door - which has been booby-trapped with a bucket of acid. Hamas humorists couldn't have done a better job. (Except, of course, that Hamas doesn't do humor...) ON THE face of it, the three cases seem similar. Each involved satire; each seriously offended a given group; each elicited protest. The difference lies in the impetus behind the copywriters' choice of targets. Let's start with the first case. The parking situation in the greater Tel Aviv area has been bemoaned by residents and visitors alike for decades. Using satire to emphasize this problem is nothing new. During the Gulf War in 1991, the following joke was making the rounds with great success: "It takes a Scud 10 minutes to reach Tel Aviv and then another hour for it to find a place to park." Even though Ramat Gan was then being pummeled by missiles from Iraq, and in spite of the fact that we all had to don gas masks and hole up in sealed rooms, nobody considered the quip in bad taste. On the contrary, it was considered comic relief during stressful times, especially since it highlighted and magnified a common gripe. Enlisting Hitler to reiterate that gripe may have made many citizens chuckle, but Holocaust survivors - and many other people, I might add - are simply unable to smile when it comes to the merciless slaughter of millions of Jews carried out by the Nazis. They should be excused for lacking humor on this score. Still, however crass and stupid it may have been for a couple of self-anointed social critics to use the Fuhrer for effect, their intent was to bash the Tel Aviv Municipality, while reducing Hitler to no more than a spoiled and cheap dictator, who is terrorizing his staff over having gotten a ticket - the cost of which he declares must be shared among them. Which brings us to the second case. Shlein's over-the-top assertion that Christianity is based on nothing - as insulting and blasphemous as it was to a certain sector - was designed to pulverize any institution that allows for Holocaust denial. The utter crudity of Shlein's spoof was his way of saying that the means justifies the end. And the "end" was to send a clear message that nobody may mess around with Jewish history and get away with it. Ironically, whereas the first case was hurtful to survivors, the second was a defense of their honor. The third case is in a category all its own. Making fun of the settlers as a homogeneous group is as old as what the Left loves to refer to as The Occupation. (The reason I single out the Left for this reference to the '67 borders is that the Arabs on whose behalf its heart bleeds call all of Green Line Israel The Occupation.) And the settlers neither are nor can be exempt from portrayal as caricatures any more than any other sector. In free societies, we are all fair fodder for farce. In this instance, however, there is no apparent motive behind the vitriol, other than vilification for its own sake. Where comedy is concerned, this makes no sense. Pointless badmouthing is simply not funny - certainly not to anyone who has gotten past the schoolyard stage. Satire is a genre geared toward battling social or political ills. Coming from such seasoned societal critics as the writers of the show in question, the attack couldn't have been a slipup; it had to have been launched with a genuine goal in mind. Nor is it coincidental that while the local media extensively covered both the Hitler and Jesus faux pas, they have barely blinked over the Eretz Nehederet fiasco. SO, WHAT was behind the blatant brutality against the folks who live in the disputed territories - and why now? To answer, one need only review the events leading up to the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. During that period, two phenomena emerged and joined hands. The first was a dehumanization of the inhabitants of Gush Katif and northern Samaria. The second was "etrog journalism" - the suspension of professional ethics for the "greater good." The raison d'etre of both was to enable then prime minister Ariel Sharon to carry out the forceful evacuation of Jews from their homes. Well, it worked. And it worked well. By the time the moment came for the IDF and police to perform their painful task, the public was able to watch the event with a degree of dispassion - born out of a double conviction: that the move was necessary for peace and security, and that its victims were not people like you and me, but "obstacles" to these precious objectives. As the new government is being negotiated - a coalition the media keep warning is going to be an extreme right-wing entity - concern is high among the chattering class that further territorial withdrawals are not on the horizon. This, coupled with the defeat of Labor and Meretz in the election, means they might be on their own for a while. And their only hope is that Kadima will opt to lead the opposition, and that the minor-majority government will fall sooner rather than later. To this end, they have to get down to the business of "reminding" politicians and the public who the real enemy is. In the current climate, they're not likely to make much progress, since even many of those who have no tolerance for the settlers have completely turned cold toward the Palestinians. How's that for satire? WHEREVER ONE'S sensibilities lie, the above incidents illustrate the downside of freedom of expression, a right we all value - until we are wronged by it. But they also serve as a reminder of the upside of the democratic process in which we are fortunate to participate. After all, look at what happened when a Danish newspaper published cartoons making fun of Muhammad. The spontaneous combustion on the part of angry Muslims and their supporters the world over should lead us to the conclusion that it's a lot better to suffer through satire that makes us cry rather than laugh (and to use legal channels and other forms of pressure to try to keep it clean), than to live in lands where such mockery is punishable by maiming and death. That the tool at our disposal is the ability to demonstrate our displeasure via the pen, not the sword, takes the sting out of even the most sick satire.