(May 30, 2018 / JNS) Like any embattled minority that needed positive role models, early- and mid-20th-century Jews living in the United States embraced celebrities with any sort of tie to the tribe. In that era, Jews were still largely excluded from many sectors of power and society, as well as subject to anti-Semitism. So American Jews were happy to treat any of their co-religionists who broke through to the big time—whether in entertainment, sports or any other endeavor—as heroes of a sort.
Though most were not Jewish heroes in the sense that they used their celebrity to stand up for their people or to promote Jewish values or faith, they were still lauded for somehow succeeding in a world where the odds seem stacked against them.
Happily, over the decades, the circumstances of American Jewry have changed for the better. Though the virus of anti-Semitism persists and motivates much of the hatred expressed against Israel, the barriers to Jews throughout American society have collapsed. Even as hatred continues to be a factor, it’s also true that Jews do not cower in fear at the power of enemies. We don’t need Jewish baseball legends to prove that we aren’t weak any more than we need songwriters or comedians to prove that we fit in, or Supreme Court justices and senators to establish the importance of our many contributions to society.
So why are many Jews still obsessed with Jewish celebrities and willing to treat their utterances as important when we ought to know better?
That’s the lesson some of us should have learned from the self-destruction of Roseanne Barr.
The point here is not to add to the chorus of condemnations of her disgusting and racist comment about Valerie Jarrett, a key advisor to former U.S. President Barack Obama. There’s no excuse for that kind of verbal ugliness, which was neither funny nor cogent, about a person’s background or heritage, even if, in this case, she was a public figure whose work is fair game for criticism. Nor is the decision of ABC to cancel Barr’s recently rebooted hit television sitcom a question of free speech or related to her support of President Donald Trump. No one has a right to a television show, and if the network understandably doesn’t wish to be associated with her, that is its choice.
What is worthy of discussion is the way the Jewish world, especially in the pro-Israel community, was willing to treat Barr as not merely noteworthy, but somehow possessing some insight into the world of politics or even the Middle East. As anyone who followed her Twitter account before the slur at Jarrett was published, the nicest word one would apply to Barr could be “eccentric.” (Most of the time, “unhinged” was more apt.)
The odd thing about Barr was that while she was once known as an ardent liberal with little interest in Jewish issues, in recent years she had become an open and vocal supporter of Israel and a critic of anti-Semitism. That was praiseworthy, but along with it came scads of tweets that were either unintelligible or the product of conspiracy theories. While it was nice to see a famous Jew support Israel at a time when so many Jewish celebrities are at pains to distance themselves from the Jewish state, you didn’t have to scroll down very far in her Twitter feed to realize that she was not exactly a reliable source of commentary.
Yet that didn’t stop her from being booked at the annual Jerusalem Post conference in New York and treated not merely as a star, but as someone whose voice should be heard. I don’t so much blame the Post for trying to exploit her celebrity as I do a Jewish community that still labors under the delusion that what Jewish celebrities say about politics or policy matters.
I know that to some, the original version of her eponymous sitcom was a rare tribute to the American working class. Others liked the new edition because her character, like the actress, voted for Trump, and served as a touch of American working-class realism that made many on the left unhappy. None of that made her an authority on the issues of the day, but that didn’t stop many of us from cheering when her random comments on Twitter sometimes were supportive of Israel and vented anger at anti-Semites.
That’s the thing about treating people who are famous for talents other than those rooted in knowledge and wisdom about contemporary social and political issues. Perhaps it is human nature to do so, but it seems to me that a Jewish community that should have long ago outgrown its infatuation with famous members of the tribe was particularly foolish to give someone like Barr this sort of treatment.
The object lesson to be learned is not just that we are obligated to condemn hatred wherever we encounter it, especially when it comes out of the mouths of those who identify as Jewish. It’s that in a free society where Jews need no heroes in the way we once did, we should stop obsessing over Jewish celebrities—whether it means making lists of Jewish actors or tallying up how many of those suiting up for Major League Baseball can count as Jews (halachically or not).
Difficult as it may be to do in a culture that glorifies notoriety for its own sake, it’s especially important for Jews who care about the furtherance of Jewish values to eschew the cult of celebrity.
It may be a lot these days to ask to expect American Jews to find our heroes among the ranks of our great scholars and thinkers. But when you realize what comes from godding up the likes of Roseanne Barr, perhaps it won’t be so difficult.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.