Keep outrage in proportion

At primary school I would occasionally fake some life-threatening illness or other to encourage my teachers to send me to the nurse. Usually, this was an attempt to avoid the dreaded weekly choir sessions where, as a tone-deaf eight-year-old, I would invariably be told to mime anyway.

After a while, my parents and teachers wised up. The nurse would give me a Strepsil and I'd be dispatched to choir like clockwork, even on days when I genuinely felt unwell.

Why mention this? First, because of an iPhone app that the French can no longer use. Secondly, because of a student who wasn't listening.

In the former case, an app developer - Jewish, incidentally - decided to put his technical skills to good use and give the age-old game of "Jew or not Jew" a modern makeover.

She heard her professor utter an unspeakable sentence

No longer would people have to judge an actor or politician's Jewishness by surname, accent or nose size. Instead, they could confirm kosher status with a couple of taps on their smartphone. As a top-level player in the real-life "identify the unlikely Jew" game - score improved immeasurably since starting work at the JC - I though this sounded like a brilliant idea. Too bad I have a Blackberry.

My enthusiasm was not matched by Jewish groups in France or the anti-racism group SOS Racism, who claimed it violated France's strict laws against identifying people based on religion. The head of CRIF also described it as "shocking" and within days Apple had pulled it from its French store.

A continent apart, another storm was brewing, this time at Canada's York University where Jewish student Sarah Grunfeld heard her professor utter an unspeakable sentence: "All Jews should be sterilised".

Disgusted, she walked out of the lecture and alerted B'nai Brith Canada.

She should have stayed another five minutes. As it turned out, the professor was using shock tactics to provoke a debate on whether all opinion should be valued.

Yet despite becoming what can only be described as an internet laughing stock, Ms Grunfeld refused to admit error. His remark was offensive, she maintained.

Was she right? There is certainly something unsavoury about the use of this statement, even for overtly provocative reasons.

But offensive? Or, in context, simply a poor choice of words? Last time I checked, insensitivity was not the same as the deliberate intent to hurt or abuse.

There are many genuine cases of antisemitic or religiously motivated hate.There are people for whom the word "Jew" is an insult, who find it acceptable to perform grotesque acts with Israeli flags, or to scrawl obscene slogans on posters of Jews.

There are people who continue to borrow from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and blame Jews for masterminding the global financial meltdown. And the Facebook makeover (actually, that was us).

There are people who insist on using the terminology of the Holocaust as a modern day come-back for the supposed transgressions of the Jews and Israel. Then there are those who are, for want of a better word, a bit foolish.

Sarah Grunfeld's campaign made her, and others like her who stand up on campuses supporting Israel and challenging antisemitism, seem like a toddler stamping her feet because she was denied a cookie.

Likewise, the campaign against "Jew or Not Jew" - whether it was motivated by French secularism or Jewish sensitivity - smacked of a community not being able to take a joke.

When we get upset about every little thing, every off-side about Jews made by a half-witted celebrity on Twitter, every careless remark, we come across as I did when I went to the nurse week after week.

If we don't make more effort to distinguish between the two we will shoot ourselves in the foot for when we truly have something to fight about.

Jennifer Lipman is deputy comment editor of the JC.

    Last updated: 10:13am, September 28 2011