Why Saturday Night Live Is Not Anti-Semitic

Is anti-Semitism always anti-Semitic, or can it be something else? Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League thinks it’s always anti-Semitic, but Culturebox disagrees. The case in point: A little more than a week ago, Foxman wrote a letter to NBC asking it never to rebroadcast portions of a Dec. 4 Saturday Night Live skit he said were offensive to Jews. NBC first agreed not to. But after SNL’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels, objected, the network put the matter “under review.” The sketch in question parodies a recent CBS Christmas special And So This Is Christmas. The idea is to do a promotional spot for the forthcoming CBS special “And So This Is Hanukkah.” For those who didn’t tune in on Dec. 4, it went like this:

Strains of bad klezmer music and a portentous voice-over give way to clips of pop stars (played by SNL cast members) singing Hanukkah songs. The female performers wear scanty clothing and make crude sexual gestures. The men wear yarmulkes and rap exaggeratedly or dry-hump their backup singers. The songs range from the mildly amusing to the unfunny. “Lou Bega” replaces “Monica” with “Hanukkah” in his famous refrain, “A little bit of Monica in my life.” “Ricky Martin” does the same with “La Vida Loca.” “Tori Amos” sings a torchy holiday ballad while nearly having sex with a piano leg. And divas “Britney Spears” (played by guest host Christina Ricci), “Mariah Carey,” and “Celine Dion” share their feelings about the Jewish holiday. “Spears” thinks it’s OK because the Christians have forgiven the Jews for killing Christ. “Dion” recalls that when she asked her mother what Hanukkah was, her mother said it was a holiday celebrated by the people who own the movie studios and the banks.

It’s those last two bits Foxman wants pulled from circulation. Out of context, this isn’t crazy, since the Christ-killer epithet has justified pogroms for centuries and the international Jewish banking and media conspiracy theory is alive and being propagated. But Foxman is wrong to think he needs to defend his people from the producers of SNL, however tasteless they may be. The people being made fun of in this sketch are not Jews. They’re pop stars.

Culturebox doesn’t mean to suggest that your average pop star is not an ignorant, self-promoting ditzbrain, of course. In the scene Foxman objects to, however, the mockery is not aimed at pop stars in general. It targets a specific kind of pop star–the one from a background so low-class she doesn’t know enough to hide her anti-Semitism. In other words, it’s white-trash pop stars who are being insulted, so it is the trailer-park pop-star anti-defamation league, not Foxman’s, that should be demanding a retraction.

If you want to understand who exactly is being skewered in “Spears” and “Dion,” it helps to think of a scene in a better television comedy in which a white-trash country singer makes a similarly anti-Semitic remark. (This insight, by the way, is not Culturebox’s. It was sent to her by a Slate reader who insists on anonymity but who seems to be possessed of an astonishing memory. Whether his memory is accurate cannot be confirmed, since Columbia Tristar Television, which owns the tapes in question, says it is unable to look the incident up.) Culturebox’s correspondent writes:

With respect to current controversy over SNL/Christina Ricci/Britney Spears, you may recall an almost identical line from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, back in its first season. Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place), Mary’s neighbor and a country singer, got her big break on a Carson-like show. She told the host that everyone had been so nice to her in L.A. and rattled off a bunch of Jewish names. Then she added, “I can’t believe they’re the same people who killed our Lord.” I’m not sure if it was controversial at the time in the real world. It did kill Loretta’s career on the show.