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Telling the dopes from the anti-Semites
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Telling the dopes from the anti-Semites

What kind of a dope makes a Jewish joke to a New York real estate agent?

Notice I said “dope,” not anti-Semite. Last week’s little brouhaha involving Irish tenor Ronan Tynan reminded me that we sometimes have a hard time telling the difference.

But let me backtrack.

Tynan, the jug-eared singer best known for belting “God Bless America” at Yankees games, happened to run into a real estate agent and a client viewing an apartment in his East Side building. Somewhere in their brief conversation, Tynan joked that he hoped the prospective buyers weren’t Jewish, because he found Jewish ladies “scary.”

Unfortunately for him, the client was Jewish, and took offense. When she told the story to the media, the Yankees quickly relieved Tynan of his playoff duties. And Tynan, for his part, was extremely apologetic.

“It was stupid of me to be so callous, and I would never want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” Tynan told NBC New York. The client accepted his apology.

Would you? I think Jews have a tendency to overreact to these kinds of comments by celebrities. And if we don’t overreact, the media tend to do it for us.

The danger, however, is that the anti-Semitism charge loses its potency if tossed at first offenders like Tynan. We look hysterical. The celebrity looks brow-beaten. Nobody wins. (Except Mel Gibson, who looks for his next movie project.)

So I want to suggest a formula for dealing with these incidents. It looks like this:

T + S ÷ P + A = R

Let T be the offender’s track record and S stand for the severity of the remark as determined by its classic anti-Semitic content or the hurt perceived by its target. Divide that by P (private or public nature of offense) plus quickness and seeming sincerity of the Apology, and you arrive at the appropriate Rebuke.

Now let’s apply the TSPAR formula to Tynan: If the singer has no record of anti-Semitism or intolerance (check), if the remark was made in a private setting (check), and if the offender was quick to apologize without waffling (check, check), everyone involved should let it go.

As for the content of the remark, is it possible (stay with me here) that Tynan was joking about a certain New York “type” — think Mike Myers’ “Coffee Tawk” character? Stereotypes always have the potential to offend, but we need to distinguish between a racist slur that traffics in classic hate themes and a stab at humor that deals in the kinds of stereotypes we all notice on a daily basis.

It’s not as if, say, Tynan had asserted that Jews were penny-pinching. No, that was left to two Republican Party county chairmen from South Carolina. In an op-ed in the Times and Democrat newspaper on Sunday, Edwin O. Merwin and James S. Ulmer were defending Sen. Jim DeMint’s disdain for earmarks. “There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves,” they wrote.

Wow. Where does that “saying” appear — in the Henry Ford Reader?

The weird thing here is that Merwin and Ulmer apparently thought they were complimenting the Jews. After all, just like the Jews, “DeMint is watching our nation’s pennies and trying to preserve our country’s wealth and our economy’s viability to give all an opportunity to succeed.”

So let’s go back to our formula:

I can’t judge the writers’ track record, but the two lose big time in terms of severity: You’d have to live a pretty sheltered life not to realize how offensive the notion of “penny-pinching” is to Jews. The fact that theirs was not an off-the-cuff or private statement, but a published op-ed that two people actually wrote, is going to make their TSPAR soar.

And I realize my formula doesn’t account for another factor: the relative Influence of the accused. An entertainer like Tynan might be given a bye for an isolated Jew joke. Merwin and Ulmer are in positions of political power, albeit at the county level. We should hold politicians to a higher standard than we do singers or comedians.

The two did issue apologies Tuesday. Ulmer said the remark was “truly in admiration for a method of bettering one’s lot in life” and he meant nothing derogatory. Added Merwin, “I have always abhorred in the past, and shall continue to do so in the future, anti-Semitism in any form whatsoever. I…beg that any and all who were offended will accept my deep-felt apology.”

That was pretty good, and I actually believe they thought they were saying something nice about us. Which is why I like the Anti-Defamation League’s tack, which is to suggest that the two “learn more about the root causes of anti-Semitism.”

There are real anti-Semites in the world, and we know from experience what happens when you ignore hate. But we need wisdom to tell real threats from nuisances and react accordingly.

And here’s a tip to celebrities: Until I work the kinks out of my TSPAR formula, don’t joke about the Jews, and definitely don’t try to compliment us.

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