Were the Onion's anti-Semitic slurs "fair game"?

The New Republic's Marc Tracy says the Onion's piece about Redskins owner Dan Synder had value as satire

Published October 22, 2013 9:00PM (EDT)

The Onion divided readers yesterday with a controversial story that used racial slurs to mock Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who is Jewish. The Onion described Snyder, who refuses to change the racist Washington Redskins name, as a "hook-nosed kike" and "shifty-eyed hebe":

“The Redskins represent 81 years of great history and tradition, and it’s a source of pride for our fans,” said the hook-nosed kike, stressing that the team’s insulting moniker is “absolutely not a racial slur by any means.”

While the Onion has been spot on so many times this year, the satirical news organization has also thrown out some jokes of questionable taste in the past few months. This particular story walked a fine line between promoting stereotypes and making fun of those who promote stereotypes -- so much so that journalists still don't know how to react.

Though the first reaction for many (including myself) was shock, it seemed that some self-identified Jewish journalists didn't seem to mind. In fact, they actually enjoyed it:

The New Republic's Marc Tracy, who has written extensively about Judaism and is a Washington Redskins fan (though he refuses to say their full name, because he agrees that it is racist), told Salon there are two major reasons the Onion's story is polarizing -- the first being the obvious use of stereotypes. "Obviously it's done to make a point," Tracy explained via email, "but you don't have to get into litigating the relative nastiness of 'redskin' versus 'kike' (or 'wearing feathers' versus 'shifty-eyed,' for that matter) to realize that this is a hazardous thing."

But the other and "much more interesting" reason, according to Tracy, is that "the article plays on a Jewish/philo-Semitic tension":

...Due to their own history of persecution and stereotyping, Jews ought to be much more sensitive to the persecution and stereotyping of other marginalized groups. And the thing is, by and large, Jews are much more sensitive, and are justifiably proud, for example, that they were instrumental non-black allies of black civil rights leaders (look at Rabbi Heschel in this picture!). In fact, there is an extent to which this is what we mean by "Chosen People"--there is a religious and even theological justification for Jews' own feelings for Jewish exceptionalism. So among Jews I think there's an extra sense of disappointment that Snyder would not be sensitive to the problem with the name--not only as an owner and a human being, but as a Jew.

But there is a potentially dark side to this, which is that when you start saying Jews "should" be like this or "shouldn't" be like that, it can easily slip into philo-Semitism's closely related opposite. It's a thin line. Maybe somebody smarter than I has codified this into a formal rule, but I try just to call it as I see it. I think The Onion piece stayed on the right side of this line.

Tracy also reminds readers that "Snyder is the first person who brought his Jewishness into this," when he accused the Washington City Paper "of anti-Semitism for putting doodled horns on his head (which clearly had no anti-Semitic intent) and got the right-wing Simon Wiesenthal Center to go along with the absurd allegation."

"In other words, he himself seems most interested in using his Jewishness as a cudgel, and given that it is fair game for his opponents to responsibly throw it back at him," Tracy explains.

Given all of this, Tracy feels the Onion wasn't out of line. "Satire has to be allowed to push these buttons and replicate that which it condemns -- that's literally its definition," he writes. "The Onion's missteps tend to come not when it's overly offensive but when its offensiveness doesn't serve any redeeming social value. By cleverly casting the racist name of the Washington team in a new light, it did provide a great service to its readers, who hopefully include Daniel Snyder."

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Dan Snyder Judaism Racism Satire The Onion Washington Redskins