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What if Ted was Jewish?

Cut the badmouthing bear some slack, and anyway no one would take offense if he was a member of the tribe
The puppet star of "Ted" claimed he was Jewish at Sunday's Oscars, and co-presenter Mark Wahlberg called him an "idiot." (YouTube screenshot)
The puppet star of "Ted" claimed he was Jewish at Sunday's Oscars, and co-presenter Mark Wahlberg called him an "idiot." (YouTube screenshot)

Seth MacFarlane had me squirming during the Oscars ceremony on several occasions, especially his ‘losers’ song at the end of the show, just as the ‘losers’ filed out. Truth is, he knew, as do we all, that there were no losers in the Dolby Theater, even if they did not all go home clutching a heavier-than-expected golden statuette. That’s the point I guess. The only people who would have been offended by the losers song are those who felt like losers.

To be honest I do not really share MacFarlane’s sense of humor, so Oscars or not, I would probably not have been splitting my sides.  I found myself squirming watching a bunch of guys in tuxedos singing the ‘we’ve seen your boobs’, not because I am a prude, as I am not, but because so much effort had gone into adorning the women in the audience, that the thought that they were being undressed publicly through song and dance felt momentarily uncomfortable. Except the point was not lost on MacFarlane that every female who had bared her chest for Hollywood had done so with the full intention that as many people would view the scene as humanly possible – the whole point of making a movie for public release. And so despite the shock on many faces, there was no insult there either.

Then came Ted. The fact that the two foot six inch high bear was so irrepressibly out of control was to be expected. The whole point of Ted is to provide a soft decoy to expose rampant indiscretion.  While I squirmed at his jokes, I did not feel the need to call my colleagues at our Jewish defense organizations to report flagrant antisemitism. What would I say?  ‘Ted has been insulting, indiscreet and inappropriate about a very sensitive issue!’

Taking offense at jokes about Jews in public seems to depend to a large degree on who makes the jokes. The most uncomfortable jokes I have heard about Jews are almost exclusively made by Jews. To my knowledge the Jewish advocacy organizations have not condemned Jerry Seinfeld or Woody Allen for the use of sweeping stereotypes about Jews to their largely non-Jewish audiences. Self-deprecation is apparently in order no matter what the content.

But might I suggest that identifying antisemitism within humor should depend less on identity and more on intent. Jews feel comfortable about Jews making jokes about Jews, because they can assume no ill intent. I took a second look at Ted’s intent. Was he indiscreet? Yes. But then Ted is always indiscreet – about everything. Was he inappropriate? Yes. But he is inappropriate about everything. Was malice intended? Not that I could detect.

In my experience, Hollywood is a highly diverse and exciting place to be and at the same time the positive influence members of the Jewish community have played in making that the case is to be celebrated. It should not be something to be afraid of, because a cartoon bear points it out. Take is as a compliment I say. And anyway, if Ted were Jewish I am sure we would all kvelling over his fifty seconds of fame this week.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.