Olivia Flasch

How Lena Dunham’s and Trevor Noah’s jokes differ and why it is important to know the difference

When I heard that the Internet was erupting in fury after Lena Dunham posted her allegedly “anti-Semitic” article on the New Yorker, I actually couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t possibly be accused of being an anti-Semite; that is insane, I thought. Then I read her article, and still couldn’t believe the raging comments. As a Jew, I could not bring myself to feel even mildly offended at the article Dunham had published.

A few days later, another frenzy erupted. This time, as a response to Trevor Noah’s provocative Twitter posts regarding Jews. In contrast to Dunham’s post, Noah’s Twitter rant signals anti-Semitism in a much more obvious fashion. Here is the difference between the two comedians’ posts.

First, let’s discuss the nature of the posts. While Dunham’s post did compare a Jew to a dog, it did so in a positive light. It’s not as if she wrote “Jews are like dogs, filthy and disgusting”. No. Dunham’s article included sentences complimenting how the “first thing she noticed” in both her boyfriend and her dog was their eyes, and how she loves to spend her Sundays with both her dog and her boyfriend. She also mentioned completely neutral characteristics of her dog and her boyfriend, that couldn’t offend a fly, including their mutual love for cream cheese. The absolutely most offensive sentence in that article was about her dog/her boyfriend not tipping at restaurants and never opening their wallets, which, as everyone knows, is the oldest Jew joke in the book. Shows such as Seinfeld, Family Guy, and South Park thrive off of jokes like these! The fact of the matter is; there were no ‘low blows’.

Trevor Noah’s posts, on the other hand were blatantly distasteful. They related to hitting Jews with cars, touched on classic Jewish conspiracy theories of “running the world with their money”, and were clearly meant to cause anger, hatred, and provocation, by bringing up the sensitive topic of Israel. They were made to offend Jews, which causes them to be more ill sinned.

This brings me to the second topic: the targets of the posts. Lena Dunham’s article was specifically targeted at her dog and her boyfriend. She did not compare dogs to Jewish men in general. Yes, her article played on stereotypes. But as a member of the general public, one must realize that stereotypes form the essence of popular comedy. Larry David, Russell Peters, Chris Rock, Carlos Mencia; they all base their comedic performances on cultural stereotypes. And people love it! It makes us laugh to recognize our hilarious differences, and to feel part of a group that has its own quirky aspects.

In contrast, Trevor Noah’s jokes were directed at the general Jewish public, and were not related to any particular Jewish person that he knows, or clearly cares about. He referred to Jewish children, Jewish women, and Jewish “billionaires”. These are general groups of people, which make it more likely that he was intending to offend the groups as a whole. Furthermore, the fact that he was not referring to Jewish stereotypes raises even more concern as to his general views on Jews. If he had said something along the lines of “I met a Jew today at a restaurant who didn’t pick up his wallet once during the whole night”, I would have actually felt more convinced that he was simply trying to make a funny, mildly provocative joke, and that his intentions were good.

Finally, Lena Dunham is Jewish while Trevor Noah is not. This point should not be ignored. Dunham has grown up with Jews all her life, and apparently has a Jewish boyfriend. This in itself should cause all the remaining people who find themselves offended by her post despite the above-mentioned clarifications, to calm down. But it seems as though this aspect of Dunham’s heritage has gone completely unnoticed throughout the discourse following her publication. And let me clarify; it is not that being Jewish gives someone an automatic green light to offend all Jews, and being non-Jewish causes that person’s jokes to be more offensive. No. But it raises suspicions as to the intentions behind the jokes about Jews if he or she is non-Jewish. It becomes a supremacy issue targeted against a minority population, and turns into a clear racial matter, as opposed to being someone simply commenting on funny (be they positive or negative) characteristics of his/her own culture. In this regard, Trevor Noah’s negative remarks about Jews give rise to the want to question whether he is actually expressing his honest opinion.

It is important to remain observant and to speak out against anti-Semitism. And it is equally important not to brush everything off as “jokes”. But understanding the difference between innocent comedy and ill intentions makes all the difference. We must choose wisely on which to spend our energy; otherwise we risk signaling to others that anti-Semitism is a non-issue.

About the Author
Olivia Flasch is an international lawyer who currently lives in London. She studied Public International Law in The Hague, and has a Master's in Law from the University of Oxford. Born into a Jewish family in Sweden, she writes about all things Jewish, as well as about Israel and the world from an international law perspective.