Medium, but not well done

Medium, but not well done

There’s a great old Seinfeld featuring Bryan Cranston (lately of Breaking Bad) as a dentist and recent convert to Judaism who won’t stop telling Jewish jokes. This bugs Jerry to no end, so he decides to complain to a priest.

“I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley,” Jerry tells Father Curtis, while sitting in a confessional. “I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism just for the jokes.”

“And this offends you as a Jewish person,” says the priest.

“No,” says Jerry, “it offends me as a comedian.”

I felt a little like that after reading a particularly nasty item in The Medium, the satirical newspaper at Rutgers University. Appearing in the April Fools’ edition, the article purports to have been written by a real-life campus pro-Israel activist named Aaron Marcus. Titled “What About the Good Things Hitler Did?,” the fake op-ed argues that as bad as he was, Hitler deserves credit for the Volkswagen, rocket technology, and inspiring Jews to “move to Palestine and establish the homeland of the Jewish people.”

It goes on like that for a few hundred words.

The Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League were outraged, and for good reason. “The piece mocked and trivialized the Holocaust,” wrote the ZOA. “The Medium published not only the Jewish student’s name, falsely claiming that he authored the opinion piece, but also published his photo.” The fake op-ed “contributes to an atmosphere where anti-Semitism can easily become an accepted part of campus life,” said the ADL. University president Richard McCormick called the item “vicious, provocative, and hurtful” and said the university is launching an investigation.

The Medium has been down this road before. In 2004 it published a pointless cartoon about a carnival-style game called “Knock a Jew in the oven.” The pointlessness was part of the problem: As I wrote at the time, you can write a parody that invokes Nazis or the Holocaust (ask Larry David or Mel Brooks) but you better have a point, and you better be good at what you do.

The problem is that college students often don’t and aren’t. College humor is hit or miss — the same issue of The Medium, for example, has a pointed piece about the perils of tenure, and another ridiculing Gov. Christie’s controversial plan to merge Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden. Neither is particularly funny, but at least their targets are plain.

As for the Marcus parody, I can’t tell what the joke is. Marcus is a well-known advocate for Israel, and writes frequently in defense of Israel for the campus newspaper, The Daily Targum. He is also the main complainant in a federal probe, initiated by ZOA, claiming the university hasn’t done enough to protect pro-Israel students like him.

The authors of the parody may be saying that anyone able to defend Israel must be able to defend Nazi Germany. Or that Marcus is so blinkered in his support of Israel that he’d be willing to give the Nazis credit for its creation. Either gambit is grotesque.

Or maybe the idea for the piece began with “Wouldn’t it be funny if…” According to The Medium’s editor-in-chief, Amy DiMaria, “The writer also intended the use of provoking subject matter to parody Marcus’ continued use of subjects many University students do not find popular.” If so, the joke was doomed from the moment it combined Zionism and Nazism. Comparisons to Nazis and Hitler are the third rail of comedy, and the last refuge of outgunned opponents.

The editor denies that the article “was meant to be anti-Semitic.” Maybe, but as Lawrence Summers once said about anti-Semitism, there’s intent, and there’s effect. Whether they intended it to be or not, the effect of the Medium piece was toxic.

DiMaria argued in her statement that Marcus, as a “public figure,” was fair game. The law probably agrees with her. But there’s also a sense of fair play that goes beyond the law, and The Medium violated it. Nothing Marcus has written or said deserved an attack as lazy, heavy-handed, and culturally tone-deaf as this.

The question then becomes, what do you do about it? The ZOA wants The Medium and the university to apologize to Marcus (although it’s not clear why the university should apologize for something it didn’t approve) and that the Medium staff be held “accountable” under the university’s Student Code of Conduct. In his statement, McCormick notes that federal courts have extended “broad protection” to student media, setting up another free speech vs. hate speech battle of the kind that ZOA has been waging for months.

Still, as I wrote eight years ago, I will defend the editors of The Medium in this: their right to be college students. In fact, I think the “adult” Jewish groups should keep their distance from most campus controversies like this. Colleges should be places of learning, and learning means making mistakes. Let editors fumble, and let other students, faculty, and administrators craft the appropriate indignant responses. And I am guessing the most effective thing they can say to a Medium editor right now is also the most truthful: You may be offensive, you may be provocative, but you’re not very funny.

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