The Terms on Which Jews and Muslims Join Western Civilization


Faced with hostility in eighteenth-century Germany, Jews won some acceptance by poking fun at themselves. Might the Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie do the same for Muslims today? Here, protagonists Amaar Rashid (a liberal imam) and Rayyan Hamoudi (a feminist doctor) chuckle at their hen. Credit: CBC Television.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you.” Everyone knows that you have to be able to laugh at yourself. It is a hallmark of being a “good sport” and a member of the team.

But what happens if you are not exactly accepted as a member of “the team”? What happens if you are part of an ethnic or religious group that is demonized, discriminated against, incarcerated without justification, and subject to hate crimes and violence in the society in which you live? And what if those with the most power in your society—the lawmakers, judges, police, corporate leaders, media, and so on—often laugh at you in ways that are cruel and dehumanizing? Such a situation certainly shifts the stakes and the effects of laughing at yourself.

When caricatures of Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper back in September 2005, the rationale was that if Muslims were going to be part of Danish society, they had to learn to laugh at themselves. The culture editor of the Danish Jyllands-Posten (Flemming Rose) presented this stance in the same September 30 issue that contained the caricatures:

The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.

He made this point more explicitly in the Washington Post on February 19, 2006, after the furor had blown up, months after the original cartoons appeared:

The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

Today this seems a truism to many Christians and Jews. Don’t all religions accept that they must be able to be the butt of the joke? Indeed, isn’t embracing that ability exactly what makes Jews funny? We laugh at ourselves and can take it when we are laughed at. But this was no natural inclination—Jews learned to laugh at themselves as part of their acculturation into Enlightenment society in the course of the eighteenth century when the meaning and social structure of jokes were laid out in self-help books for the burgeoning middle classes.


German Anti-Semitism and the Origins of Jewish Humor

Germany’s eighteenth-century self-help handbooks were aimed at teaching Germans how to become good middle-class citizens, but they applied, it seemed, even more to Jews. German Christians (especially in Prussia) moving into the middle class had only to learn rules of a class game that had evolved in the nobility over centuries; Jews had to learn how to be “proper” Germans first.

The Mr. Manners of his day—whose handbook of correct behavior became (and remains) the bestseller on social etiquette—was Adolf Freiherr von Knigge. For Knigge, having a good sense of humor was a sign of civilized behavior. But he warned his readers about the Jews: “It is necessary we should look very sharp in all our dealings with Hebrews of the common class. It is natural that a Christian should not rely upon their conscientiousness and solemn protestations.” But Knigge notes that he is not speaking about those Jews “who have (perhaps not for their own happiness) transformed themselves to follow the morals of Christians.” That is to say, those who have unhappily acquired a sense of humor.

For Germans of the time, humor was a national quality rather than an individual one. Immanuel Kant noted that it is the “witty-humorous that is the well-spring of a clear and spontaneous sensibility.” Kant further stated that “French wit is superficial.”

And what about the Jews? Well, Kant’s contemporary, the philosopher-reformer Moses Mendelssohn, made it very clear that for him Jews only “acquire” a sense of humor in the Enlightenment when they are civilly emancipated. He condemned “ordinary, caviling wit” and argued for the “sublime and admirable.” He was against “an empty glitter that is more blinding than illuminating.” And the Jews becoming Germans seemed to agree.

Giving Jews rights as Germans meant quite simply insisting that they, in turn, assume a particularly German sense of humor, neither French humor nor caviling wit but the humor that defines the German as cultured and social. While these distinctions seem hairsplitting in the extreme, they provided Jews with one means of joining a newly evolving German civil society.

Immediately a new genre of literature appeared: the Jewish joke book written for Jews and containing jokes about Jews. The first we have is L. M. Büschenthal’s Collection of Comic Thoughts about Jews, as a Contribution to the Characteristic of the Jewish Nation (1812). In his preface he wrote that for some Jews (as for women) humor was a weapon: “Necessity and weakness—this the female sex teaches us—give rise to deception and deception is the mother of humor. Therefore one finds this much more frequently among persecuted and poor rural Jews than among rich ones.” But middle-class German Jews aimed their weapons at themselves. As the Jews became good Germans, they learned to laugh at themselves, joining the non-Jews who already did so. It was a guidebook but also proof to show the Germans—look, we know how to laugh at ourselves.

But a century after the Jews began to acquire a sense of humor, the Jews’ problem quickly became that their seemingly German sense of humor turned out never to be quite respectable enough. It wound up being seen as too caviling, too corrosive, too destructive—in other words, too Jewish. In 1904, the epitome of Jewish self-hatred, Otto Weininger, wrote that Jews and women, for example, have no “true humor,” for true humor must be transcendent. He added that Jews “are witty only at [their] own expense and on sexual things.” Jews like women are “devoid of humor and addicted to mockery.”

Even those who applauded Jewish difference at the time noted the singularity of Jewish humor. Rabbi Solomon Schindler of Boston’s Temple Israel wrote in 1887 that “it remains a fact that we spring from a different branch of humanity, that different blood flows in our veins, that our temperament, our tastes, our humor is different from yours; that, in a word, we differ in our views and in our mode of thinking in many cases as much as we differ in our features.”

Are Jews funny? Never appropriately funny enough for some, for good or for ill. Being funny remains, however, a touchstone of what defines belonging or not belonging to a group—Germans or Jews.

Sigmund Freud’s Analysis of Jewish Jokes

Certainly someone who believed that Jews were funny and that Jewish jokes, told by Jews about Jews, were revealing of more than Jewish acculturation, was Sigmund Freud. In his study “Jokes and the Unconscious” (1905) he wrote:

We make no enquiries about [the] origin [of our jokes] but only about their efficiency—whether they are capable of making us laugh and whether they deserve our theoretical interest. And both these two requirements are best fulfilled precisely by Jewish jokes.

To define humor’s broader importance for everyone—Jews and Germans alike—Freud returns to the Enlightenment, not to Knigge but to the philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, to claim that while earlier human beings would attack people physically, now,

brutal hostility, forbidden by law, has been replaced by verbal invective…. Since we have been obliged to renounce the expression of hostility by deeds—held back by the passionless third person, in whose interest it is that personal security shall be preserved—we have developed a new technique of invective, which aims at enlisting this third person against our enemy. By making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him—to which the third person, who has made no efforts, bears witness by his laughter.

But do Jews tell jokes about Jews to make them small, inferior, despicable, or comic? Or to show that as “civilized” people they can take having jokes told about them?

Freud tells jokes about the Eastern Jews whom he and his urban contemporaries found infinitely amusing:

Two Jews meet near a bathhouse:
“Have you taken a bath?” asked one of them.
“What?” asked the other in return, “is one missing?”

So Jews laughed at Jews, but it made it easier if they could split themselves from the people at whom they were laughing. Non-Jews simply laughed at all Jews; Jews were much more selective about those Jews they found funny. At least in Freud’s Vienna and perhaps even Jerry Seinfeld’s or Woody Allen’s New York. Do you really learn to laugh at yourself as part of the “civilizing” process or rather, do you learn who you are not, so that you can laugh at “them”?

A Bid for Acceptance in a Hostile Society

Becoming “civilized” is simply learning the rules of a world that has grudgingly allowed you to enter and is still suspicious of you because of your perceived difference. Learning these rules turns you from a “greenhorn” into an accepted member of that society. Much is gained and lost by groups that decide to make this bargain. Some of the worst violence in human history—including imperial wars, colonization, the enslavement of millions, the imposition of gross economic inequalities and inhumane living conditions on workers, and the destruction of our natural environment—has been committed by those who have considered themselves the most “civilized” among us. The decision to assimilate into the status quo of a Western society is an ambivalent one at best. It can be destructive but also benign. It is a difficult choice.

Like Jews in eighteenth-century Germany, some Muslims in Canada have, since September 11, embraced self-deprecating humor, perhaps in a similar bid for acceptance in a society where they face discrimination. The result is a sitcom on the Canadian channel CBC entitled Little Mosque on the Prairie, about Muslim integration into the multiculturalism of America’s northern neighbor. The show was created by Zarqa Nawaz, a Muslim journalist and filmmaker who was born in Liverpool, England, and raised in Toronto. The show’s head writer, Al Rae, explained the show’s intent in a January 23, 2007, article in the Toronto Star:

The attention is driven by the uniqueness of the premise but also the inaccurate feeling a lot of people have that Muslims have no sense of humour. It’s based on two incidents: the Danish cartoon fiasco and Salman Rushdie’s satirical version of the story of Muhammad. The difference between those incidents and the intent of our show is that, in both [the Danish and Rushdie] cases, the intention was to provoke in a negative fashion.

The Israeli Jewish response to anti-Semitic cartoons was not all that different. When the Iranians decided to have a competition for the nastiest anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic cartoons in 2006, an Israeli illustrator Amitai Sandy announced an anti-Semitic cartoon contest open to Jews only: “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

While Little Mosque on the Prairie does not embrace quite the same degree of edgy self-deprecation as Sandy’s anti-Semitic cartoon contest, it does seem that its creators and viewers are tapping into the same strategy of self-deprecating laughter that Jews in the eighteenth century found so useful in gaining acceptance in a hostile society. Two centuries from now, will a new generation of Muslim comics have swept in to compete with the legacies of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld?

(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)

Sander L. Gilman teaches humanities and medicine at Emory University in Atlanta. Having taught earlier at Cornell and Chicago, he is one of the creators of Jewish cultural studies as an academic discipline.

Source Citation

Gilman, Sander L. 2012. The Terms On Which Jews and Muslims Join Western Civilization. Tikkun 27(1): 13.

tags: Culture, Politics & Society, Rethinking Religion   
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