In a recent article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Ben Sales chastised standup comic Louis C.K. for making jokes about the Holocaust, along with other controversial topics. The very title of the piece, “Louis C.K.’s leaked stand-up set has jokes about Auschwitz,” seeks to evoke in the readers moral outrage over the mere presence of jokes about the Holocaust.
To his credit, the author provides the actual joke for context, however fails to explain why the joke should be considered offensive. This omission is unfortunate, as the joke neither mocks nor denies the horror of the Jewish experience in Auschwitz. Now, Louis C.K.’s set contained other, more unfortunate, remarks about the Jews, but JTA sensationalized the piece by focusing on the Holocaust.
What is the contention then? Is it that all humor about the Holocaust should be off limits? Does JTA plan to criticize all popular culture references about the Holocaust or is this honor only reserved for those who, like Louis C.K., were caught in a #metoo scandal? Where do we stand with the Soup Nazi character from Seinfeld? What other topics should not be tolerated?
Speaking of those other topics, most of the non-Jewish media focused its gripes on Louis C.K.’s jokes about the Parkland school shooting. JTA, however, primed its article for the Jewish audience by centering it on the Holocaust, as if suggesting that the Jews deserve their own reason to be offended. What’s worse is that such articles condition readers to be offended by any future references to the Holocaust in pop culture.
Sensitivity around the topic of the Holocaust is understandable, however context and content matter. Firstly, Louis C.K. is a comedian, and as such he should have a license to address topics generally deemed sensitive or even offensive. Second, when we read Louis C.K.’s joke, it becomes clear that his invocation of the Holocaust is rather benign. To be sure, based on his joke, Louis C.K. was the opposite of the Holocaust-denying French comedian, Dieudonné. In fact, in an age when the media and the academia are often guilty of trivialization, minimization, inversion or other forms of Holocaust denial, Louis C.K. is taken to task by a Jewish media outlet for actually reinforcing the memory of the Holocaust.
A recent survey commissioned by the Claims Conference found that 41% of American Millennials believe that only two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. While there were over 40,000 camps and ghettos during the Holocaust, 49% of surveyed Millennials could not name a single one. The general population fared only slightly better than the Millennials, at 31% and 45%, respectively. This should be a wakeup call to us that ignorance about the Holocaust is a serious and growing issue.
In the aforementioned survey, 66% of Millennials and 41% of all respondents could not identify what Auschwitz was. Hence, it is reasonable to posit that Louis C.K.’s audience benefited from his Auschwitz reference and his hint that as much as he may complain about his current ordeal, what took place in Auschwitz was obviously much worse. This is also a sobering reminder at a time when people are quick to label those they disagree with politically as Nazis.
Given how many Americans know so little about the Holocaust, the American Jewish community needs to react forcefully to the various forms of Holocaust denial and to encourage proper references to the Holocaust and its symbols. The message has to be readily available and consistent, which means that the recollection of the Holocaust cannot only be evoked once a year on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
If we want to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and educate wider audiences, the Holocaust needs to be an open topic for non-Jews, and this includes pop culture figures. There is a damaging perception that the Jews have a monopoly on talking about the Holocaust. The more we deride non-Jews for talking about the Holocaust in the proper context, the more we strengthen Holocaust deniers and modern-day anti-Semites.
The Jewish community should sharpen its focus, and continue to call out Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. An important part of this work should include developing a thicker skin when it comes to sensitive topics from our past, and to recognize context when these topics are referenced by non-Jews. We all have a stake in this evolution, to ensure that “Never Again” is more than just a slogan.