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Did You Hear the One About the Jews, the Fleas and Lice?

An almighty row has broken out in Norway following a monologue by comedian Otto Jespersen – and broadcast on national TV – which resulted in a man who lost nine relatives during the Holocaust phoning the police.

Here’s the joke:

”I would also like to take the opportunity to remember all the billions of fleas and lice that lost their lives in German gas chambers, without having done anything wrong other than settling on persons of Jewish background.”

That’s about as sophisticated as the interminable joke popular among American white supremacists about black people (”if we’d known they were gonna be this much trouble, we’d have picked the goddam cotton ourselves.”)

Jespersen isn’t the first European comedian to deploy antisemitism in his act – in France, there’s the notorious Dieudonne. And just as Dieudonne ran into trouble with the law, so has Jespersen.

Aftonbladet, a leading Norwegian newspaper, reports that Kurt Valner, the man who lost nine relatives to the Nazi murderers, reported Jespersen to the police on what appear to be incitement grounds. Jespersen himself has remained silent, but other comedians have jumped to his defense, along with his boss, Alf Hildtrum, who said, “The claims that Jespersen has anti-Semitic sympathies is completely false. I don’t believe it. Otto Jespersen is trying to make a point in these monologues, and the text should be judged in context. It shouldn’t be taken in isolation.”

I’m not quite sure of either the point or the context. But I am mindful of another context: the claim, documented by the scholar Manfred Gerstenfeld and others, that antisemitism, frequently blended with anti-Zionist tropes, is alarmingly prominent in Norway and the other Nordic countries.

Ha’aretz reported that a former Norwegian Prime Minister, Kåre Willoch, responded that these claims amounted to “a traditional deflection tactic aimed at diverting attention from the real problem, which is Israel’s well-documented and incontestable abuse of Palestinians” – a Norwegian version of what David Hirsh calls “The Livingstone Formulation.”

Willoch did not respond to the specific examples raised by Gerstenfeld which, interestingly, included a number of newspaper cartoons designed to raise the same dismissive, morally superior sniggering as Jespersen’s mangled joke. One cartoon showed an ultra-Orthodox Jew engraving “thou shall murder” into an alternative Decalogue. Another cartoon showed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dressed up as a guard at a death camp, smiling and holding a rifle.

All of this is illustrative of a wider point. These days, racist jokes about blacks and other minorities are largely – and correctly – regarded as an embarrassment, the preserve of failed comedians performing to inebriated audiences in seedy clubs. But transfer these same themes to Jews and all of a sudden, they acquire a delicious sense of toying with the forbidden. What is reactionary becomes radical, what is stupid and insulting becomes pathbreaking. Thus does the gutter enter the lofty heights of the salon.