Jewish humor: When punchlines create punching bags... or worse

Self-deprecating humor not only keeps people humble, it helps people out of difficult situations or keeps them alive.

A FLOAT with an effigy of a Jew is seen during the carnival at Aalst, Belgium, on February 23. (photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
A FLOAT with an effigy of a Jew is seen during the carnival at Aalst, Belgium, on February 23.
(photo credit: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS)
It is well-established that minority groups, particularly Jews, have a lengthy history of using humor to deflect the arrows of personal misery and tragedy. Equally well-researched is how humor serves as coping mechanism against persecution. Mel Brooks once dug into his vault of comedic psychology to explain, “If they’re laughing, how can they bludgeon you to death?”
Self-deprecating humor not only keeps people humble, it helps people out of difficult situations or keeps them alive. When minorities poke fun at themselves, it carries a far different message than if someone else delivers the same message, whether it’s a reference to money or racial or ethnic name-calling.
When these references are used by others, however, the punchlines become viciously threatening punches to the gut. In recent weeks, B’nai B’rith International has been vocal and vigilant regarding two pieces of news in which attempts at someone’s idea of humor clearly crossed the line into the vile world of antisemitism. The perpetrators of these incidents don’t quite see it that way, although they knew exactly what they were doing and why.
The first instance involved two editorial cartoons by Vasco Gargalo of Portugal in the newsmagazine Sabado. One cartoon showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushing a coffin draped in a Palestinian Authority flag into an oven. The image is palpable, if not horrifying. The German phrase Arbeit macht frei, which translates to “Work sets you free,” is infamously inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz and accents the illustration.
Gargalo’s other cartoon showed a black politician being crucified on a Star of David. The cartoons demonized Israel by comparing the Jewish State to Nazi Germany and invoking Nazi imagery to characterize Israelis, both of which fall under the internationally accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
The second instance shows appalling, hate-filled mockery at the recent Aalst Carnival in Belgium, portraying Orthodox Jews in the most disrespectful and offensive ways, and that’s putting it mildly. While this is a parade event that apparently spares no one in its application of insults and satire, it features the most stereotypical of imagery: characterizations of Jews as vermin (rats and insects), traditional antisemitic tropes that emanate from blood libels of past millennia. A similar parade recently concluded in Ciudad Real, Spain, where parts of the procession with Nazi SS guards followed a drill team of Israel-flag waving women dressed in striped concentration-camp garb. And now in Brazil. These festival entries are simply not funny.
Aalst leaders reject any notion that these vile references are antisemitic, despite the fact that UNESCO took away its seal of approval. Even Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès said the carnival “damage[s] our values and the reputation of our country,” and the regional political party DeFI has equated the event to an “incitement to hatred.”
What may have been hilarious in Aalst in the Middle Ages, when Jews were routine targets of hatred, doesn’t play so well in the 21st century, nor should it. Trust me, this is not a matter of simply being thin-skinned or a bad joke, one that simply falls flat. These expressions and displays are full throttle hateful and inciteful.
At what point does this purported humor cross the line?
Nothing is funny when inflammatory words fuel heinous, evil actions, whether the wording is political rhetoric or delivered in a comedic context. With antisemitism, under anyone’s definition, when words result in or are followed by synagogue shootings, attacks and abusive attacks on city sidewalks, toppled headstones in Jewish cemeteries, swastikas painted on synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, perhaps it’s time to find a cleaner brand of humor.
In doing so, the world can deliver humor that prompts belly-aching laughter without the consequence of hate.

The writer is president of B’nai B’rith International.