A Jewish organisation has demanded an apology from Labour MP Harriet Harman after she repeated on live television an antisemitic joke as an example of offensive humour she objected to.
Harman was speaking on BBC One’s This Week in a debate about the limits of acceptable humour. She said: “I’ve long been accused of being a humourless feminist and I’ll give you two examples that I protested about because they were offensive and hurtful.”
Before repeating a joke about the Holocaust, she suggested that the programme’s presenter, Andrew Neil, would “say these things are perfectly alright”. At the end of the 19-word joke, she said: “That’s not funny.”
Before she could give the second example of offensive humour, Neil cut her short, saying: “We’ll stop at that one example”. He told Harman she should not presume what he would think about the joke “because you have no knowledge of that at all”.
As the MP attempted to explain why she had repeated the joke, Neil told her: “Be quiet.”
The broadcaster later tweeted: “I was appalled and even a little bit upset by what she said.” And then:
Harman tweeted: “Anti-Semitic ‘jokes/banter’ perpetuate discrimination & hatred. No laughing matter.”
Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, demanded Harman apologise and called her repetition of the joke “a staggering error of judgment”.
He told the Guardian: “I’m a great fan of Harriet Harman as a champion of equality in general and of women’s rights in particular. I have nothing but admiration for her. But it doesn’t matter what the context, she should not have repeated this joke.
“If she’d thought about repeating a joke about a black person using the N-word, something would have kicked in in the back of her head. You don’t need to tell the joke to say how offensive it is. That’s the error of judgment. My reaction is genuine disappointment because she is someone who I admire, not condemnation. An apology will suffice.”
But Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Liberal Judaism’s director of strategy and partnerships, said that although the joke was clearly antisemitic, “it’s also clear that Harriet Harman was using it to make a point, and that point was to name antisemitism and give a clear example of what is being said.
“There has been so much nuance in the news recently – around antisemitism, racism and most recently sexual harassment and assault – where things are alluded to, said under one’s breath and not outed.
“Harriet was brave in naming a form of antisemitism and doing so in such a dramatic way. This Holocaust joke – both in formula and content – is a ‘classic’, one many Jews will have heard in playgrounds or pubs or online and have been expected to find funny and laugh along. Instead, in this moment, Harriet called out the use of humour to disguise blatant antisemitic sentiment.”
However, Baginsky said that Harman owed Neil an apology over her suggestion he might find the joke acceptable. “Accusing someone groundlessly sadly weakens her point dramatically,” she said.
Harman was offered support by Labour frontbencher Chi Onwurah, who said: “I remember those kind of jokes in 1980s Imperial College rag mag. Very isolating for minority/female students like me. Good on you, Harriet.”
Harman did not respond to a request for comment.
This article was written by Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 3rd November 2017 14.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010