Donate to RNS

Does NBC have a Jewish problem?

Anti-Semitism. On your television screen.

The character Israel, center, in a scene from “Nurses” Episode 108. (Photo by Ken Woroner/eOne/NBC)

(RNS) — You know that anti-Semitic canard about how the Jews control the media and the entertainment business?

Well, over the last few weeks, it seems that my people has been asleep at the proverbial switch.

Or, at the very least, the sector of the Jews that had responsibility for what is going on at NBC.

I am referring, of course, to two recent gaffes (gaffes? too weak?) that have occurred on that network, each one regarding the Jews.

The most infamous is the one from last week’s “Saturday Night Live.” During the show’s Weekend Update sketch, Michael Che reported that Israel had successfully vaccinated half of its population — “the Jewish half,” he quipped.

The response was rapid and brutal. While some observers took the opportunity to re-scrutinize Israel’s vaccination policies, most hit back on Che and “SNL” — reminding the world that Israel has done a stellar job in vaccination. As in: The USA should do as well.

Moreover, critics have pointed out that the “joke” served to reinforce anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish misanthropy, even dating back to the medieval libels that Jews spread disease. Jewish defense organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee strongly condemned the bit, with the AJC calling on NBC to apologize.

Will Che, or even and especially Lorne Michaels, apologize this Saturday night? I guess that I will just have to stay up late enough to find out.

I bet you a pound of hamantaschen that they don’t.

Then, to make matters worse, there was “Nurses,” a medical drama whose Episode 8 depicted a Hasidic patient (whose name is Israel) who needs a bone graft — a bone from a dead person surgically inserted into the leg. To make matters worse, why does Israel need the bone graft in the first place? Because of the sin of playing basketball, rather than being in the yeshiva.

Israel and his father go full “oy!” What if the bone comes from a “goyim”? Or — double oy! — from an Arab, or from a lady?

Of course, Jewish law knows no such prohibitions on transplants. More than that — are you ready? Fifteen percent of all kidney donors to strangers are Orthodox Jews!

But a television show about that level of tzedakah in a community that is so totally Other would never make it onto the screen.

Now, you might be willing to give “SNL” a pass. After all, what use is comedy if it doesn’t push the envelope just a little bit?

But “Nurses” going all full throttle Jew-hatey — promoting the vilest of stereotypes and trafficking in utter ignorance of Judaism? This is a drama, and by definition, people tend to take what they see in dramas more seriously than a long-running weekly exercise in satire and parody.

I am not one of those Jewish leaders who sits around all day, getting my jollies looking for the latest accusation of anti-Semitism. Yes, I have a radar, but my daily life is more about the rudder — keeping my community moving forward.

But we really need to think about this series of insults.

Because you would be excused if you thought that NBC has a Jewish problem.

A little background.

Let us remember how “Jewish” network television once was.

I refer to the men who ran it. The founders of the three major networks (remember those days?) were all Jews: William S. Paley (CBS), Leonard Goldenson (ABC) and David Sarnoff (NBC). All three of them were assimilated Jews. They determined what Americans would see in their living rooms — and that was to be an un-ethnic, WASPified America.

In the case of NBC, Sarnoff’s successor, the late Brandon Tartikoff, was no better. In 1989, he sat down with two fellow NBC executives to watch a pilot for a new sitcom, then called “The Seinfeld Chronicles.”

“Too Jewish,” he assessed.

Well, yadayadayada, as they say.

So much for Jewish control of the entertainment business. Yes, in its formative years, several Jewish men had inordinate influence over the television industry. But, their Jewishness was accidental, a mere footnote in their lives. They created the America that they wanted Americans to see: white bread.

So, if Jews are angry and frustrated over what they, and others, have been seeing on television of late, they have every right to be. You simply cannot separate these media moments from what has been going on in America right now — the growth of anti-Semitism, both on the right and on the left.

Now, perhaps when it comes to the Jews, the scriptwriters think that they are simply “punching up,” aiming their venom against a group that they imagine has power and privilege.

As my late father, and every Jewish father of his generation, would have said (and this week is his second yahrzeit): “Sure, it’s fun, until somebody gets hurt.”

But it goes beyond that. You would be hard-pressed to come up with any comparable media slurs aimed against any other group. (I always wondered: Were Italian Americans upset by the weekly portrayal of their landsmen, so to speak, on HBO’s classic “The Sopranos”?)

Imagine a script line that brings in classic black stereotypes. Or LGBTQ stereotypes.

Those groups would not take those offenses lying down. And neither should the Jews.

This week is Purim, that zany holiday that recalls how Mordecai and Esther stood up for their people in ancient Persia. They chose not to remain silent.

Because we have been here before. We know how this unfolds.

Every single anti-Semitic narrative in history ultimately unfolded into violence. Jews allegedly starting the Black Plague; blood libels; Jewish conspiracy theories. Every single one produced violence.

And those were before the internet.

I keep coming back to the fact that the Hasidic patient on “Nurses” was named Israel.

Israel. Not Yisroel, in the Yiddish pronunciation that would have been more authentic.

But, Israel. As in the state.

Then again, the villain of the Passion story was named Judas.

As we will say exactly one month from now: Dayeinu.

Enough.