Progressively Speaking: Should we ever joke about the Holocaust?
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Progressively Speaking: Should we ever joke about the Holocaust?

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers reflects on a controversial modern topic with a progressive angle

David Baddiel speaking on the radio show with Ricky Gervais
David Baddiel speaking on the radio show with Ricky Gervais

Context is everything. Making people laugh is a tricky business, and performing stand-up at JW3 in 2016 was possibly the scariest thing I’ve done. Walking through the world as a woman rabbi, you get some pretty funny responses, so I focused on those.

Some are funny, because they are just awful. Sexism and racism aren’t really funny, but we can make a joke out of them, and at them, and Jews have always laughed at themselves. Yet while I can merrily make a joke about my mum, if you did the same I may well take it the wrong way!

Mark Meechan was recently convicted of making a grossly offensive video of his girlfriend’s pug performing a Hitler salute at the command “Sieg Heil” and responding with excited movement when Meechan said “Gas the Jews”.

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The comedian David Baddiel defended Meechan, arguing for freedom of speech and saying  that a tiny-legged pug saluting looks hilarious. Baddiel also pointed out that Meechan makes clear at the start of the video he wants to turn this adored pet into the “least cute thing I could think of, which is a Nazi”. Read about that here.

In context, it makes some sense to me, so I thought I’d better see it. Meechan contextualises the video as wanting to make the cute pug un-cute, but sitting listening to him repeatedly say through his giggles “Gas the Jews” does get uncomfortable. I was offended by the video, but that isn’t enough reason to ban it – the right to be offended and the right to offend others is the nature of free speech.

Where it became more important to continue the context was in following the trail of Meechan’s videos: rants about oppressed white Britons, transphobic hatred, none of it in the name of comedy.

Freedom of speech is a hugely important principle. I don’t think we can always get it right, but as Jews we must always balance freedom with responsibility, just as the freedom of Pesach is balanced with the responsibility given at Shavuot through Torah.

Challenging jokes might be possible in context, but this one definitely didn’t make me laugh.

  •  Debbie Young-Somers is community educator at the Movement for Reform Judaism
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