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Roseanne Barr tested us and we failed — again

A comedian makes a lame Holocaust reference, and Twitter explodes

It was a bad joke, what Roseanne Barr said, a dumb, bad joke. Naturally, we took it seriously.

And that’s a serious problem — for us, not Barr.

She will survive the latest game of antisemitic whack-a-mole, during which Jewish groups, leaders and self-appointed defenders of the faith raced to condemn the latest high-profile, suspect utterance.

And the American Jewish community will of course survive what Barr said on a podcast.

What weakens us is not the words, but our reactionary, performative outrage to them. There is an opportunity cost to spending our time ginning up headlines and demanding apologies. It’s almost as if we’ve lost the ability to discern real threats from perceived ones, or even allies from enemies. Here we are again, taking the frivolous seriously. Collectively, we failed the Barr exam.

Antisemitism, or just plain unfunny? 

What Barr said was a weak attempt at humor, not a clear and present danger. During a June 14 appearance on a podcast hosted by the comedian Theo Von, she went on a long rant about censorship on social media platforms. 

It’s a convoluted, unenlightening conversation, but, well, here goes: Barr evidently believes the 2020 election was fraudulent, something no court overseen by either a Republican- or Democrat-appointed judge has found to be the case

She also believes “the media” won’t let people like her offer the truth. So to drive home her point, Barr compared what she considers the Big Lie that Joe Biden won the election to the Big Lie that the Holocaust never happened.   

“That is the truth, and nobody died in the Holocaust either,” Barr said. “That’s the truth. It should happen, 6 million Jews should die right now because they cause all the problems in the world but it never happened.”

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It sounds bad out of context, which is how it appeared when Jewish organizations re-tweeted it. But in context, the meaning was clear to me: What if Holocaust denial were the Big Lie the media was propagating, and truth-tellers like her were prevented from challenging it?

Some Jewish leaders and commentators took added offense to comments she made later about the myth that Jews control Hollywood. 

“People should be glad that it’s Jewish, too,” she said, “because if Jews were not controlling Hollywood all you’d have was f—ing fishing shows.”

That may not be your sense of humor. But why would Jewish leaders throw away political capital and credibility attacking such a throwaway bit? 

When the Anti-Defamation League, the most important and effective defender of civil rights in the American Jewish community, stoops to calling Barr’s shtick, “reprehensible and irresponsible,” it begs the question of what, exactly, the ADL is defending us from — sarcasm?

Shmuley Boteach, who described himself as a longtime friend of Barr’s, demanded she clarify her remarks. Stopantisemitism.org put Barr’s comment on its “Hot Map of Antisemitic Incidents,” along with the arrest of a neo-Nazi in Britain for building a submachine gun and the stabbing of a 77-year-old Jewish man in Brooklyn.

A convenient distraction

There is real antisemitism in the world. It is increasing and increasingly violent on the political right. It surfaces in ugly though far less dangerous ways on the left. But social media, which thrives by triggering emotional reactions, helps create a sense that it is always and forever 1939 and the Gestapo are at the doorstep. When you live in fear, the bogeyman is everywhere. 

Another reason for the extraordinary attention Barr’s comments received is that it’s easier to be outraged at a comedian than at more challenging issues.

How many Jewish tweets were devoted to the attacks carried out by settlers against Palestinian towns and villages following the Palestinian terror attack that killed four Israelis in the West Bank?

I counted hundreds of accounts that retweeted criticism of Barr or piled on with their own. Then I came across a Times of Israel article about the rabbi of a prominent yeshiva in the West Bank who called the settler attacks “a moral stain that taints us all.”

It is time, said Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion religious seminary, for “serious soul-searching.”

That article had six retweets and zero comments.

Antisemitism is the low-hanging fruit of Jewish engagement. It certainly guarantees more “likes” and “retweets” than the hard and painful truths about Jews committing pogroms. Antisemitism will even draw more eyeballs than the positive and joyful aspects of Jewish life, examples of which are all around us.

But instead, we prefer to talk about Roseanne Barr. It’s time for soul-searching, indeed.

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