Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the extremely online pastime of getting angry about phantom antisemitism

Was that really a secret swastika in the crossword puzzle of the New York Times?

Imagine someone tells you that you’re the first Jew they’ve met. I don’t mean like a stranger cornering you on the street to tell you this. I mean in conversation, you mention being Jewish, and they let you know that you’re their first. Is this an antisemitic remark? Or is it a statement of fact?

If I met someone from Mongolia, I’d like to think I’d be socially adept enough not to tell them they were the first person I’d met from Mongolia, but if I slipped up and said this, would I be betraying a deep-seated hatred of people from that part of the world? (I once knew a family with a poodle almost identical to my own, from nearby Ulan-Ude, but Mongolia itself, to my knowledge, never met anyone from there.) Or would it be a case of gratuitously remarking upon (subjective) novelty?

Exoticness is, after all, subjective. One can be politically correct (or just, polite) and not use the word “exotic” in reference to specific groups let alone individuals, but there’s nothing inherently bigoted about having only met so many people in your life thus far.

Antisemitism is a lot of things, but it is not, I’d argue, the mundane fact that Jews are a minority group in our various diasporic locales. When corporations’ holiday merch and food miss the mark—when jelly doughnuts are suggested for Passover, menorahs for Yom Kippur—this is not a sinister plot on behalf of Jew-haters, but a simple demographic reality expressing itself.

Nor is antisemitism the fact that ours is a world in which geometric shapes exist. There was the hubbub over a New York Times crossword puzzle supposedly resembling a swastika, and during Hanukkah at that. It seemed a stretch and a half that a liberal New York newspaper was subliminally disseminating fascist propaganda, and maliciously picking the Festival of Lights on which to do so, but a lot of people went for that interpretation—and this wasn’t even the first time it happened.

But everything coalesced for me when, in a (private) online Jewish forum I’m in, someone declared that Festivus—the grievance-airing holiday from Seinfeld—epitomized antisemitism. On the show, Festivus is so clearly a comment from the Jewish voice of the show, regardless of the playfully undefined heritage of Jerry Stiller’s character Frank Costanza, on the non-celebration of Christmas.

I cannot wrap my head around interpreting such a classic of Jewish comedy, something Jews (and no not only Jews!) find delightful, as anti-Jewish. The only possible explanation was a complete lack of context, such that whoever posted this had not heard of Seinfeld or put two and two together and somehow imagined Festivus to be the invention of Mel Gibson or Jeremy Corbyn or I have no idea.

What I’m describing is not hypersensitivity. This is not about rounding anti-Jewish microaggressions up to overt hate. It’s not about anti-Zionism versus antisemitism and can they be separated let’s discuss for 10,000 words and get nowhere. It’s not about the wiggle room for necessary (not to mention inevitable) discussions of what crosses which lines. Those are conversations I will gladly (maybe gladly overstates it) participate in. No, it’s about miscategorizing things that are not remotely anti-Jewish, subtly or otherwise, as somehow, mysteriously, the real antisemitism.

I say “mysteriously” because the real antisemitism is hardly obscure. There’s Kanye West holding forth about how much he hates Jews, only to go on to dine with a full-on neo-Nazi and oh right the previous United States president, the one running again in 2024. There are violent antisemitic attacks. So why, when I log onto Facebook, do I see vent after vent about the supposed problematic-ness of seasonally inappropriate latkes, word puzzles, or Jewish sitcoms from the 1990s?  

I do have a couple theories.

One is that call-outs have become the default mode of criticism of all kinds. The expected rhetorical register. So instead of a huh there will be an insistence that whatever it is is bigotry against whichever group, and anyone who fails to see it is a bigot or bare minimum an apologist. It becomes a habit, responding to the world in this way, and is encouraged in whichever online-especially environments.

The other is that real bigotry is too daunting to address, too upsetting and too profound, so it’s easier to focus on the possibility—however remote—that Jerry Stiller will return from the dead and announce that he is not only an enemy of the Jews but also the figure behind subtly offensive crossword puzzles and mass-market Passover gear that Gets It Wrong.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz