Why Jews Shouldn’t Tell Jewish Jokes

Sacha Baron Cohen as "Borat" wasn't funny, says Foxman. Neither was Archie Bunker in "All in the Family."
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Is it okay for a Jews to tell a Jewish joke?

Abraham Foxman: In Jewish tradition words are very important.  We even Jews will pray three times a day, ask the Almighty... ask for his help or her help to keep, "God please help keep my mouth from speaking evil." 

It’s in our tradition the power of life and death is in the tongue.  And the gas chambers in Auschwitz, the crematorium in Auschwitz didn’t begin with bricks they began with words; ugly words, hateful words.  These words were met with absence.  Nobody challenged them, nobody questioned them, and then became bricks. 9-11 didn’t start with box cutters or flying planes as missiles, it started with words denigrating Americans, demeaning Americans, our values, and everything else.  The reason slavery persisted so long, the reason that there were lynching’s, was that words; words demeaned African-Americans as not persons, not human.

So if you can use words in a way to demean and undermine their humanity, then it eventually doesn’t matter what you do because they’re not human.  And it starts with jokes, it starts with separating as a group, the other.  We see it with bullying and cyber-bullying.  It all starts with a joke and it builds.  So, yeah, look I’ve had my differences with "Borat," with Sacha Cohen, I’m old enough to have my differences with All in the Family.  You’re too young to remember, but this was an approach which said let’s make fun of bigotry; let’s laugh at bigotry.  And I argued with Leonard Goldenson and this was the first show on television which poked fun at bigotry and you’d say can we laugh and make jokes?  And the producer’s claim was if you laugh at it you get it out of your system.  And the truth is that Archie Bunker became a hero.  People were laughing with him, not at him.  All the other characters were made simple and idiotic, and when Sacha Cohen did "Borat" he defended it as this is the way to expose bigotry, is to laugh at it.  But I don’t think that the people, when he did his skit about throwing the Jews down the well, and the people were applauding, I didn’t think it was funny.  I think they were reinforcing it.  My little test that I still offer that to Sacha Cohen, and he said to me, "You got to learn to take a joke."  I said you know what, I will.  Why don’t you do a public service announcement for the Anti-Defamation League which says prejudice is not funny, and then you can make your movies prejudiced.

Recorded on June 11, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman