Earlier this week, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added the cartoon character and internet meme Pepe the Frog to its “Hate On Display” database, saying it promoted “anti-Jewish, bigoted and offensive ideas.” The announcement gained major media coverage, from The New York Times to The Washington Post to TIME Magazine.
But the symbol was previously unknown to the vast majority of Americans, largely limited to the youthful-skewing hardcore followers of Internet message boards.
Thanks to the ADL, though, all of America’s anti-Semites have a new, cuddly mascot to use in their attacks on Jews.
Last year, the decade-old amphibian was one of the most popular symbols on the social networking site Tumblr. Pepe the Frog has been associated with bigotry for less than a year, as the “alt-right” gained strength during the presidential election. Those who present Pepe as anti-Semitic generally hide behind anonymous names like mashr445, and it can be impossible to tell if they are junior high school girls, an automatic computer program, or even disgruntled Jews. When anti-Semites use their own names, then I get nervous.
Since historically the character has only rarely represented hateful ideas, the ADL’s categorization is like calling white sheets racist. Yes, the KKK has used white sheets to terrorize blacks and when they do, it’s terrible. But white sheets themselves are hardly a hate symbol. Yet the ADL also lists (I’m not kidding) the numbers 12, 13, 14, 18, 28, 38, 43, 83, and 88 as hate symbols. (Watch out for those bigoted pianos with their 88 keys.)
What’s the upside here for the ADL? What does it think it’s achieving by disseminating information about bigoted use of a cartoon character by a fringe segment of American society? How are their press releases and databases going to save a single Jew from being harassed, fired, or assaulted for his faith?
They won’t. But they will raise money for the ADL.
The organization’s very raison d’être is fighting anti-Semitism, so they can’t continue to replicate themselves without a perception of widespread – and growing – prejudice against Jews. That’s why their 2014 survey of global anti-Semitism was designed to encourage anti-Semitic answers and even beliefs among respondents. It’s why the organization will try to squelch any dialogue or artistic expression that doesn’t meet its checklist of approved modes of discourse about Jews, Israel, race, sexual orientation, and more.
But this time they’ve gone too far. In order to get its name in the papers, the ADL is aiding and abetting America’s Jew-haters in a concrete way by handing them Joe the Camel of anti-Semitism on a silver platter. The swastika is so darned angular and abstract, whereas Pepe the Frog would make for good temporary tattoos, stuffed animals, or trading cards.
The Pepe episode is a great example of how reckless “educational efforts” by anti-tolerance organizations can be counter-productive. I remember a shocking display at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles that invited participants to match the hate slur to the group being targeted, including some fairly obscure ones. I literally added new spiteful terms for Asians and lesbians to my lexicon. Why is that a good thing?
In an almost certain parody of that exhibit, the 2002 South Park episode “The Death Camp of Tolerance” has the boys visit the Museum of Tolerance and walk through the “Tunnel of Prejudice,” in which voices shout things like “Queer” and “Chink” and “Heeb.”
Most of the fourth-graders are understandably startled by the put-downs – save crudely bigoted Cartman, who calls the exhibit “awesome,” and hops up and down: “I want to ride again! I want to ride again!”
No matter how lucrative, publicizing new ways to persecute Jews is rarely a good idea. The ADL should have plenty to do coping with the anti-Semitism that already exists in the broader society without taking a minor phenomenon and making it mainstream.
David Benkof is Senior Political Analyst for The Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.