Anti-Semitism is no joke: why stereotypes are so harmful

As I detailed in a previous blog (11 April 2019) about Boris Johnson’s portrayal of Muslims: some jokes just aren’t funny – at least, not if you are a truly inclusive, tolerant citizen.

I have no doubt that many chuckled along with Johnson’s ‘letterbox’ analogy but I know that I’d be unlikely to invite them to dinner. That said, I would be open to chatting about why that person thought it funny. It begs the question: why do some people find jokes about ‘others’ so funny?

Is it because they feel they are being appealed to by ‘someone like them’? That such rhetoric reaffirms your place in the pack because you think the same things, laugh at the same things, and don’t identify with those you perceive to be (so often from a distance) not like you?

A joke’s just a joke, right?

Growing up in the 1970s, I know all too well how stereotype ‘jokes’ were imbedded into everyday chit-chat. ‘An Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…’ came with multiple variations, was shared inter-generationally, and – I remember – had you quickly deemed ‘an outsider’, ‘freak’ or ‘weirdo’ if you said it wasn’t funny, since not all Englishmen/Irishmen/Scotsmen were the same.

I remember, sadly, all sorts of jokes about people who didn’t look like me or go to church on Sunday, who were ‘foreign’ – I’m not even going to write the words bandied around throughout my childhood and teenage years – not by my family but frequently within earshot – including at school.

I remember holding hands in the playground with the first boy from India to join our primary school, since the bullies wouldn’t go for him and call him names if I was with him. Similar situations arose at secondary school, with the first Pakistani girl I befriended. I never saw my two friends laugh at these ‘jokes’ but I was there when the tears came.

Children are not instinctively prejudicial unless they are taught the categorisations of so-called good and bad, and taught to distinguish between ‘them’ and ‘us’. We have come on leaps and bounds in many ways but those stereotypes of nations, creeds and races persist – encouraged and normalised by some – and we have a long way to go to eradicate them. As a society, we must do more to remove the myths, engage with others, and use education and communication to stop stereotyping in its tracks.

It is no surprise that, under austerity in particular, so many stereotypes have come to the fore: who shall we blame? “Them.”

If the media and politicians use rhetoric to reaffirm this blame game, words can lead to tension, accusation, hatred, and violence.

For generations who now have social media at their fingertips, the ability to perpetuate stereotypes has increased exponentially. As uncertainties and societal challenges arise – housing, jobs, economy, access to healthcare, school places – social media is an inevitable place to which many turn to perpetuate the ‘them and us’ myths. The technology may change but human nature – it’s just a joke, lighten up / they are the enemy – does not.

A Theory of Prejudice’: what stereotyping does

Amy Cuddy, Susan Fiske, Peter Glick recently developed a theory of prejudice, which assesses the ways in which stereotypes are used to incite and reaffirm prejudice of certain groups. They note how assessment of groups falls into two categories of perception: warmth and competence. Those who match our own, perceived characteristics, or those to which we aspire, can be perceived as ‘warm’ and/or competent but those who are not like our ‘group’ are seen as different, and not necessarily in a good way.

Yet even these categorisations of warmth and competency are more nuanced: “Most groups we have studied, however, garner ambivalent stereotypes: either warm but incompetent, or competent but cold. They are not stereotyped as simply good or bad. And this leads to more subtle or complex patterns of discrimination.” (New York Times SUNDAY REVIEW|The Psychology of Anti-Semitism, 3 November 2018 (see link above)

These stereotypes, needless to say, don’t seem to result from careful observation of the groups in question. On the contrary, they appear to be inferences drawn from a group’s position in society. People assume that socioeconomically successful groups must be competent and that disadvantaged groups must be incompetent. Likewise, groups that are viewed as competitors — for status, for resources — get stereotyped as cold, whereas groups that are viewed as allies get stereotyped as warm.

SUNDAY REVIEW|The Psychology of Anti-Semitism, 3 November 2018 (see link above)

Stereotyping Jewish People

Their research also includes analysis of the stereotyping of Jewish people, describing the frequent placing of Jews into a ‘competent-but-cold quadrant’ (essentially, they know what they’re doing but we can’t relate to them or feel akin to them, and we resent their success). They call this “envious prejudice.” The most common stereotyping of Jewish people is the association of ‘Jews’ with ‘wealth’.

And this is key: the prevalence of such prejudice relates to how stable an area, state or country feels.

If all appears well and people feel secure, these competent-but-cold groups are seen as having the required competences to ensure the status quo or to enable things to get even better for ‘us’.

“Relax… it’s just a joke…”

But when situations arise leading to insecurity, envious prejudices can ignite and spread rapidly. That coldness lens now facilitates the perception of this group as a threat, which leads to anger, which can lead to intentional harm, or worse.

A perpetuated ‘joke’ in ‘good times’ keeps a stereotype alive for more pernicious usage during ‘bad times’.

So a joke perpetuated in good times may seem innocuous to some but it perpetuates that ability to distance the stereotype from the stereotypers. Keeping the stereotype alive keeps the tinder dry, ready for any spark of resentment, which can spread like wildfire.

So in a hostile environment provoked by austerity, ‘jokes’ about those stereotypes seen as both cold and financially secure are no laughing matter. They are a very real threat to societal cohesion and to communities.

This is why there is no place for anti-semitic – or any other form of stereotyping – ‘jokes’ in a civilised society. If you share them, you are perpetuating myths that can lead to hurt, violence, and much, much worse.

So be part of the solution, not the problem. And if you’ve made the mistake of perpetuating stereotypes – well, humans do make mistakes. But to continue with such rhetoric, you are not just joking, you’re not just ‘messing’ with someone: you are actively participating in ensuring that the bedrock for unrest remains firm.

Anti-semitism – like all forms of stereotyping – is never, ever ‘just funny’.

Jewish Small Communities Network: Combatting Anti-Semitism Online

Jews Money Myth

A new exhibition has opened in London, at the Jewish Museum London, which explores the ideas and stereotypes that link Jews and money. This superb exhibition conveys many of the sources but also the impact of the persistent stereotyping of Jewish people. Please do visit, if you are able.

19 March – 7 July 2019 / @jewishmuseumLDN

Jews, Money, Myth, a major new exhibition at Jewish Museum London, explores the role of money in Jewish life and its often vexed place in relations between Jews and non-Jews, from the time of Jesus to the 21st century. It examines the origins of some of the longest running and deeply entrenched antisemitic stereotypes: the theological roots of the association of Jews with money; the myths and reality of the medieval Jewish moneylender; and the place of Jews – real and imagined – in commerce, capitalism and finance up to the present day.

Exhibition website:

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