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A comedian’s guide to handling Nazi death threats

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Steve Hofstetter

I was interviewed by the FBI for an ongoing investigation. How was your week?

I’m a Jewish-American stand-up comedian, and in late March, I did a weekend of shows at Yuk Yuk’s in Vancouver. Three of the four shows were sold out and wonderful.

The other show was not.

I was doing a bit about Nazis (no, I’m not misusing that word as so many people often do: “I’m such a grammar Nazi!” Really? You are so into correcting grammar that you want to systematically murder everyone who is grammatically different than you?) Discussing the “Jews will not replace us!” chant from the infamous khaki pants Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, part of the joke was “What job do you have that you’re worried the Jews are coming for you?”

In response, a heckler yelled “TV.”

Despite usually staying calm in a situation like that, I got angry. Why? Because hate crimes against Jews are on the rise around the world. There were two mass shootings at synagogues this year in major American cities!

But it’s not like someone cracking a joke about a group of people is the same thing as killing them, right? True. And yet the root of violent prejudice of any kind is casual prejudice. The easiest way to get someone to hate a group for being different is to start small. I’m not over-reacting. The idea that “the Jews control television” has a direct lineage to the original Nazis. Nazis 1.0. Nazi classic. Nazis: The Phantom Menace.

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis made over 1,000 propaganda films, many of which spread this trope of Jews controlling American entertainment. Partially because Hitler was trying to kill all the Jews. But I am guessing also a little bit because he was jealous of superior movies. A thousand movies in 12 years – what are you, porn?

Almost all stereotypes are based in some truth. That doesn’t make them any less hateful. The comments I received on my YouTube video were proof. So much hate. I received more than 3,000 comments about “The Jew,” as if everyone born into Judaism is somehow one person with one agenda.

I often hear that Jewish people are over-represented in the American entertainment industry. Yes, they are. Jews make up approximately 1.4 per cent of the United States population, but they certainly account for a much larger percentage within the industry. As one YouTube commenter pointed out in 27 separate, totally not-insane comments, there is a Jewish person near the top of most major networks in America.

That is called “confirmation bias.” These are enormous companies, and while you can find a few Jewish CEOs, some presidents, even an owner or two, there’s also a ton of non-Jews in the industry, too. As of 2018, of the 30 largest media companies in America, 25 had non-Jewish CEOs. (Sinclair, a Christian, right wing company that operates 193 TV stations, isn’t even on that list.)

There’s lots of Jewish people in the American entertainment industry. Just like there’s lots of people named “Johnson” in the NFL. That doesn’t mean the NFL is run by people named “Johnson.” Indeed, anyone who wants to argue this point is being a total Johnson. (And even if Jewish people ran 100 per cent of the media in America, which they do not, America is not the whole world. It’s almost like Canada is a different country.)

How did this clip generate so much hate? Some right-wing supporters and straight-up Nazi paraphernalia-wearing hatemongers blogged about it, and in flooded the trolls. I guess it was a slow news day – no synagogue shootings to cheer on (yes, one of the sites literally did that).

I received 252 death threats, both direct and indirect. Why did I count? Because that’s what happens when you talk to the FBI about an investigation into hate crime. After one email threat in particular seemed credible, a federal prosecutor friend encouraged me to call the FBI. (I was in Oregon at the time, so I called the number to the Portland bureau. They were interested, but suggested I speak to the bureau closest to me, which was in Salem. Turns out being an FBI agent in Salem, Ore., isn’t as exciting as in, say, Washington. Or even Portland. When I called, it was like their whole office said, “Ooooh, crime!”)

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I had a long talk with one of the agents, who let me know that some of the folks that were threatening me were career criminals. Going through the messages, I realized he was right – one guy I Googled turned out to be a child rapist. Seriously, if I made it public that he was a Nazi, that would be an upgrade on his reputation. The FBI has all the information they need now. Turns out you really can get arrested and prosecuted for making death threats on the Internet.

I want to be clear about something. When it comes to Nazis, there aren’t good people on both sides. Let’s say you’re just some confused, angry guy who is looking for some reason, any reason, to explain why your life isn’t going the way you want it to. We’ve all been there, and it sucks. But the second someone on your side says something like “Jews will not replace us” and you don’t immediately disassociate with that person, you’re the bad guy.

And you’re being a total Johnson.

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