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Talking about the A-word

No, not adultery. We're talking about anti-Semitism and the media's lack of nuance in reporting on it (or allegations of it). Why? Because it's a worthy point of discussion in the wake of Rick Sanchez's anti-Semitic implosion, just as it is whenever there much ado about whether a high-profile outburst was anti-Semitic. Think Helen Thomas or John Hagee or Jesse Jackson or, for you God Blog readers, the Rev. Eric Lee.

The comments to my Rick Sanchez post left me wondering just how the media should deal with perceived, even clear, anti-Semitism. Here's one from Norman responding to questions about whether Sanchez's rant that Jon Stewart and Jews like him run CNN and other major media outlets:

Jews may not be presently oppressed, but the idea that Jews covertly control the country/world through media dominance is an anti-Semitic sentiment, and a legitimate cause for concern when it crops up.

Did Sanchez say this? I think so. You could parse words and say that Fr. Coughlan never explicitly engaged in anti-Semitism, but we all know better. Read between the lines here. We all know better.

I wish we did. But that says nothing of how reporters should deal with incendiary issues like this, especially when they deal with intersection of religious and ethnic identity.

And what about when the criticism is of Israel, as in the photo shown here, which I shot during Palestinian Awareness Week at UC Irvine? I'd say it's anti-Semitic, but others would say it is a criticism of a political entity. Nothing about that image says the Jewish state should be wiped off the map, though there are students at UCI who have said that, which makes the bloody flag more troubling.

Anti-Semitism is a difficult subject for anyone to cleanly define. It's particularly so for me because, while I've been subjected to anti-Semitism, I haven't lived as a Jew. The closest I may have gotten was interviewing an anti-Semitic academic without explaining that it's complicated.

So I'm going to defer to my old colleague Danielle Berrin, who writes the Hollywood Jew blog for The Jewish Journal. Last week, she wrote a wonderful blog post titled "The Jews who cried 'anti-Semite.'" She pegged the post to a lecture by Stuart Schoffman, a visiting fellow from The Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. In it, Danielle offers some helpful insights for people writing about anti-Semitism.

"One aspect of Jewish (over)sensitivity is the question of whether anti-Israel equals anti-Semitic," Schoffman wrote. "Which immediately raises the question of what one means by 'anti-Israel.' A great many Jewish and Israeli Zionists are opposed to many policies of the Israeli government regarding the Palestinians. This obviously does not make them anti-Israel."

The impulse to label any criticism of Jews 'anti-Semitic' becomes even more obvious when confronting Hollywood stereotypes. A writer for The Daily Beast recently charged a Jewish character on "Glee" with being anti-Semitic. Why, because he's obnoxious? Masturbates in public? Tried buying a girlfriend? If this is the 21st century criteria for anti-Semitism than no wonder we Jews think everything is anti-Semitic.

"We have become, as a people, extremely sensitive to [anti-Semitism]," Schoffman said. "We Jews have historical hypochondria; we throw around this terminology in a free and easy way."

But just because something is tasteless and stupid doesn’t mean it's anti-Semitic. For example, last week Rick Sanchez called Jon Stewart a 'bigot'. That was crass, rude and unsophisticated -- but anti-Semitic? Sanchez further asserted that Jews have a lot of power and influence in the media. If we're honest, that's probably true (I haven't run the numbers) -- but is it anti-Semitic to say so?

Danielle goes on to answer yes, but it's not so much because of what Sanchez said as it is how he said it. (I can hear my wife saying that, and I finally understand what it means.) That was part of my point when I responded to comments by saying that there is nothing wrong -- in fact, it's healthy -- to discuss the role of Jews in the media ... if it is done sincerely and without malice.

What makes anti-Semitism such a challenging thing for journalists to address is just how amorphous its characteristics can be.

The point is, there's a difference between being anti-Semitic and being offensive or insulting. For what it's worth, Rick Sanchez seems to be as confused as to what constitutes a 'bigot' as Jews are about what constitutes anti-Semitism.

One Jew, two opinions. One anti-Semitic act, no consensus.

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