I saw a post on my Facebook feed yesterday that confused me. The post was from a friend who happens to be a Jewish educator, and this is what she shared:
“Dear JC Penney, I am sorry the rest of the world is so bananas! I think your new kettle looks lovely and it NEVER crossed my mind that it looked like Hitler!!! Seriously people!!!!!”
Clearly, I hadn’t spent enough time on social media this week, since I had no idea what she was talking about. So I Googled “JC Penney Hitler kettle.” I found lots of articles, and the image in question – and I have to say, I agree with my educator friend.
The billboard has been taken down, but Twitter and Reddit and Facebook are all still full of people boiling over, whistling about how offensive this is; Jeffry Cooper, the Mayor of Culver City, CA, where the billboard appeared, issued the following statement: “As a Jew, I am offended, [and] as an elected official, I am mad that the city I represent is linked to this.”
Really? As a Jew, I’m not offended, and as someone who used to work in advertising, I’m picturing the poor creative director out there somewhere who signed off on the billboard. She’s surely shaking her head and saying “Oy! I never saw Hitler when I looked at it.”
I’m sure she (or he) didn’t – because quite obviously, there was no malice intended here. I seriously doubt there was some subliminal pro-Nazi message embedded in this ad. If anything, for a big ol’ corporation, JC Penney has taken lots of surprisingly inclusive stances. So why are they being put through the ringer for this?
Growing up in the rural Midwest, and living for more than a decade now in the Deep South, I’ve been someone’s “first Jewish friend” on more than one occasion. I’ve come to appreciate but also be wary of over-sensitivity. When people go out of their way to make sure that I’m not offended or excluded, it’s incredibly sweet. What I worry about is when we (in this case, Jews and our protective friends) swing that pendulum a little too far, and get up in arms over something that’s actually harmless. While it is everyone’s job to be as kind and sensitive as possible, it’s also our job to sometimes say “No, no – in this case, it’s really okay! I get it – no offense intended, and no offense taken!!”
Don’t get me wrong; cultural sensitivity is incredibly important. But if we make a mountain out of every mole hill, how will we be taken seriously when we’re trying to fight for what really matters?
What is seen can’t be “un-seen,” as they say, so at this point it’s best that JC Penney took the billboard down. What else could they do? Once the dictator was pointed out and a furor over the alleged resemblance to the Führer went viral, JCP wisely responded by saying buh-bye to the kettle – but you never know when something might backfire: the billboard is down, the item is no longer selling on JC Penney’s website… but the now-infamous “Hitler Kettle” is currently going for $199 on ebay. Oops, y’all.
Do you agree, or disagree? Was this billboard culturally insensitive – or a silly mistake? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
You’d think that Michaelson’s voice would be one of many, as he is speaking out against systems of fear, oppression and injustice in our Jewish backyard. He calls attention to a reality that we must all face and address head-on: corruption masquerading as “religious Judaism.”
This is an issue of social justice, and it is my belief that any and every Jewish group that engages in social justice work has a duty to investigate and learn about injustices that exist in our own community. But we’re not. Not as much as we should be.
Here is one excerpt from Michaelson’s piece:
Imagine you’re an 18-year-old woman in a Hasidic enclave. You’re married, with two or three kids already, and you’ve been told that “outside” everyone is evil, depraved and miserable. You barely read English. And you know that when your cousin left, she was destitute, disowned and disgraced. There is no one to help you if you leave. You’re on your own. So of course you stay. We are abandoning thousands of our fellow Jews to this hierarchy of power and abuse.
I encourage you to read the rest of the article, and make a commitment to fight the good fight. As someone who has experienced the challenges of leaving the ultra-orthodox world, this is an issue I care about deeply.
I have seen this struggle firsthand. Additionally, as the founder and former Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Footsteps, I met many brave men and women who, like the hypothetical Haredi woman Jay describes, were prepared to start anew as native-born immigrants in a foreign world.
Footsteps remains the only organization in North America that helps people seeking to leave the ultra-orthodox community. Though I am no longer on the staff of Footsteps, and have been pursuing community engagement efforts in Mississippi for the past few years with the ISJL, this mission remains important to me. I urge you to learn more, and to support both the work of Footsteps and those individuals who choose to leave their communities.
Do not stand idly by.
To learn more about Footsteps, visit www.footstepsorg.org
On this Memorial Day, we recall all those who have given their lives defending our freedom.
Throughout American history, Jews have served alongside their fellow American citizens, in every war, and in many countries. We mourn the loss and salute the sacrifice of all soldiers – Jewish and non-Jewish, from the South and throughout the nation.
Image of D-Day soldier Robert M. Pierson’s headstone courtesy of Pedroserafin through Creative Commons license.