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Anti-Semitism Plays Coy in ‘Jewish Princess’ Jokes

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In most polite settings outright expressions of anti-Semitism, including jokes that rely on anti-Semitic imagery, are frowned on. Regardless of one’s true opinion of Jews, few people would think of bursting out in the middle of a dinner party, “Did you hear the joke about the Jew who . . . ?” Now a new form of Jew hatred has become socially acceptable even to some Jews: the Jewish American Princess (JAP).

Possessed of an outsized ego, loving material comforts, parents at her beck and call, the Jewish American Princess shows no deference to anyone. She is different from her predecessor, the Jewish Mother, whose major fault was an overwhelming concern for her children and a joyful willingness to be a martyr. (Remember? How does the Jewish Mother screw in a light bulb? Thanks, I’d rather sit in the dark.) The energies that the mother heaped on her children the princess lavishes on herself.

It was a small group of talented American Jewish writers and comedians who created the Jewish American Princess and made her a popular stereotype. The markers include literary works (Herman Wouk’s “Marjorie Morningstar” and Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus”), movies (“Heartbreak Kid” and “Private Benjamin”) and comedians (Joan Rivers, David Steinberg, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen). The Jewish women whom they depicted were spoiled, whiny, selfish and opulent.

Few people recognize how deeply the image of the Jewish American Princess is rooted in traditional anti-Semitism. From early church writings to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” anti-Semites have used such themes to depict Jews. Jews had an unnatural love for money. They showed their contempt for non-Jews by trying to poison their wells or to use their blood in rituals. According to anti-Semites, Jews had heightened sexual powers to seduce non-Jews. Some of the most abhorrent Nazi anti-Semitic literature warned “Aryans” about Jews’ sexual lure.

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The stereotype is no less offensive just because the “money-grubbing, conniving, selfish, malicious and untrustworthy” Jew has been updated and put into a skirt. The Jewish American Princess uses her sexuality to get her man, but--in behavior that anti-Semites would claim typifies the Jew--once she has won her prey she withholds sexual favors so as to conserve her energies for her own pursuits.

Some who tell these jokes mistakenly see them as harmless humor. A line of greeting cards depicts a character named Bunny Bagelman as a classic Jewish American Princess. The company producing the cards defends them as a “lighthearted satire on an archetypal Jewish personality type.” But this archetypal type, created by centuries of anti-Semitism, is anything but lighthearted.

At a dinner party a prominent Jewish historian told a Jewish American Princess joke. I protested. Annoyed, this scholar proclaimed, “It’s only a joke!” But if the subject had been all Jews, not just women, would it have been told? Would Bruce Bagelman cards be tolerated?

Objections to JAP stereotypes commonly elicit the retort, “This can’t be anti-Semitic--I heard it from a Jew!” Can it be anti-Semitism when the instigators are Jews? Many ethnic groups that have known discrimination and prejudice, Jews among them, have developed their own forms of self-hatred. But when minorities denigrate themselves they license others to do likewise. And this is exactly what has happened.

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For many years a few scholars and writers have protested this imagery, but only recently has it won broader concern. In fact, Lilith magazine ran its first story on this phenomenon 12 years ago. Why the sudden interest? Because the mainstream press began to report how widespread this phenomenon was on college campuses. Jews, who had long dismissed the issue, learned that their daughters and sons were being affected. The former feel the ridicule while the latter feel justified in their reluctance to date Jewish women “because they are all JAPs.”

At some of the most prestigious universities Jewish women are subjected to attacks and ethnically hostile humor. There have been “slap a JAP” contests. At athletic events JAP chants have been led by cheerleaders. Recently when I visited Cornell University, women there told me that if they object to the jokes they are dismissed as “uptight and humorless” and that if they don’t object they feel ashamed and angry.

But in the past year Jewish women have not been the only minority group to be attacked on campus. From many universities come reports of verbal and physical attacks on blacks, Asians and members of other minority groups. When it becomes acceptable to denigrate one group, it becomes acceptable to do the same to all who are different. The campus, the supposed home of tolerance and enlightenment, has become the breeding ground for new forms of American prejudice.

Harmless humor? Hardly. All who abhor bigotry in any form must reject a phenomenon that mixes self-hatred, sexism and anti-Semitism and validates further prejudice and hatred.

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