When antisemitism came out of the closet

If you have 10 minutes to spare when you're next in New York, go to the Jewish Museum.


If you have 10 minutes to spare when you're next in New York, go to the Jewish Museum on the Museum Mile on 5th Avenue and watch a fascinating set of TV clips about antisemitism and American TV, from sitcoms like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the early 1970s to more recent shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey (a huge hit in the US on PBS).

These clips tell a fascinating story. At first glance, it seems predictable enough. There are nasty incidents of snobbery, a mix of class and antisemitism. There is a wonderful clip of Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton musing over whether a young woman will have to convert if she marries a young Jewish suitor and whether this is a sign of England going to the dogs. Fast forward 60 years and a Jewish lawyer in LA Law overhears two society women sniping at Jews and takes speedy revenge. Mary Tyler Moore finds out that a friend doesn't think their friend Rhoda is suitable to attend a local club because she's Jewish.

There are also more extreme issues. Skokie (1981) was a major docu-drama about the debate in 1977 over the rights of American Neo-Nazis to march through a mainly Jewish area. An episode of the popular series Gunsmoke (1955-75) showed a bunch of yahoos attacking two Jews while they are praying.

What is really interesting though is the larger story these clips tell. Why are shows like Gunsmoke or a show like Little House on the Prairie taking on issues like antisemitism in the first place? Why does Archie Bunker's rant against "the Hebes" in the hugely popular comedy show, All in the Family (a remake of Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part), seem so strangely old-fashioned today? And why are so many of these clips set in the past: the 1960s advertising offices of Mad Men or Downton Abbey? Finally, why are these TV shows so liberal and knowing, even cutesy in their put-downs of antisemitism? Apart from the docu-drama Skokie there is no attempt to seriously address issues of Jew hatred, past or present.

It is interesting that the shows chosen start in the early 1970s. Just as Hollywood discovered the Holocaust in the late 1950s and early '60s, after a long period of silence, so American TV discovered antisemitism and racism in the 1970s. Rather than exploring the subject through earnest documentaries, the networks took it on through the most popular genres, sitcoms and Westerns. And they took it on openly.

Remember that All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show were hugely popular in the 1970s. The Mary Tyler Moore Show won Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series three years in a row (1975–77), ran for seven seasons and four of those came in the top 11 shows on American TV. All in the Family, a sitcom about a white working-class bigot and his liberal daughter and son-in-law (played by Rob Reiner), ran at the same time and topped the ratings for five consecutive years, the first TV show to do so.

The networks could do this because of a new confidence among American Jews. Antisemitism was out of the closet. In the clip from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary announces herself as Jewish (though the actress herself was raised as a Catholic in New York) and a new generation of Jewish TV stars and characters appeared: Rob Reiner, Ed Asner (Lou Grant), and Mary's friend Rhoda Morgenstern who was so popular she was given her own show which ran for five seasons. And, of course, behind the scenes there was a new generation of Jewish producers and executives, most famously, Norman Lear, son of Hyman Lear, a Jewish travelling salesman, who created such hits as All in the Family, Maude and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Just as interesting, though, is that these clips stop in the late 1980s. Both Mad Men and Downton Abbey address antisemitism obliquely, but the point is that they are talking about the past. By the 1980s, the battle was won.

When Stuart Markowitz, one of the lawyers in LA Law, hears a wealthy society hostess make a disparaging reference to Jews he tips over a dresser full of valuable objets.

His confidence marks the end of an era. Jews are no longer victims on American TV. No longer the Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox bit-part players as in Gunsmoke, they are central characters, smart lawyers, successful figures in society, fully assimilated. That's why Archie Bunker's loud-mouthed attacks on "Hebes" seems so out of date. Within 20 years, the "Hebes" had taken over, on Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Rachel and the Geller family on Friends.

It's a shame there is one kind of show missing from the exhibition. In the mid-1960s popular kids' shows like The Munsters and The Addams Family addressed racism in a more oblique way. We were invited to love the funny, quirky monsters but also to understand that they represented an important social issue: there are monsters moving into your suburban neighbourhoods. It is no surprise that these shows were so popular at just the moment when black Americans as well as Jews were moving into previously all-white and all-gentile neighbourhoods.

Herman Munster and the Addams family were cute but they were monsters. By the 1970s, these issues could be addressed more openly. By the 1990s, they were history. And today, American TV has moved on to other issues and minorities: Indians like Raj in The Big Bang Theory, Kalinda in The Good Wife and, of course, Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation, and transsexual characters like Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black and Jeffrey Tambor's character Maura in Transparent.

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