Menu JTA Search

Jackson’s Jewish Question: Hullabaloo Flares, then Flickers

For the record, here is how the great hullabaloo surrounding “Michael Jackson and the Jewish Question” flared up, engaged diplomatic skills on both sides and flickered out as quickly as it had started.

The evening of June 14: The super pop star and his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, grant an hourlong interview to Diane Sawyer on ABC’s “Prime Time Live,” an encounter watched by 60 million rapt Americans as well as viewers in 115 other countries.

After dispensing with the really major questions, such as whether the couple engaged in marital relations and shared the same bed (affirmative on both counts), Sawyer hones in on the lyrics of the song “They Don’t Care About Us,” featured on Jackson’s new album, “HIStory Past, Present and Future, Book I.”

The staccato hip-hop song, in which the multimillionaire entertainer casts himself as the voice of universal victimhood, contains the words “Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me.”

Later in the song, Jackson reprises the theme with “Kick me, kike me/Don’t you wrong or right me.”

Sawyer asks whether these lyrics may be considered anti-Semitic. Jackson is shocked at the suggestion, saying the song symbolized all victims of prejudice.

“It’s not anti-Semitic, because I’m not a racist,” pronounces the Gloved One. “I could never be a racist. I love all races from Arabs to Jewish people.”

To prove this assertion beyond all doubt, Jackson notes, “My accountants and lawyers are Jewish.”

“My three best friends are Jewish — David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg,” he adds, naming three of Hollywood’s most influential players, who recently joined forces in DreamWorks SKG.

The next day: “Prime Time Live” was aired too late for coverage in the June 15 edition of most newspapers, except for The New York Times, which finagled a copy of the album before its release date.

However, the top guns at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League are warming up the fax machines and staffing the phones for the inevitable media onslaught.

Both organizations are critical of the lyrics, but strike a moderate tone.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says, “It’s the ambiguity [of the words] that I’m afraid of, when they reach 20 million buyers around the world.”

He points out that Jackson had been among the first visitors to the Los Angeles-based center’s Museum of Tolerance and its Holocaust exhibit two years ago, and was visibly shaken by the experience.

Hier’s colleague, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, refers to the lyrics’ “loaded terminology, aimed at an unsophisticated audience.”

David Lehrer, ADL’s Western regional director, comments that “the words are hateful and harmful, and hate is too serious a subject for subtleties. Why single out Jews?”

The three spokesmen say they believe that Jackson is not an anti-Semite, but wonder why no one in his entourage, which includes a fair number of Jews, had flagged the offensive words along the way.

One veteran Hollywood insider observes that Jackson writes his own lyrics and “when you reach the superstar status of a Michael Jackson or Barbra Streisand, no one round them would dare criticize them.”

Later in the day, two of Jackson’s “best friends” weigh in.

Music mogul Geffen testifies that “there’s not one iota of anti-Semitism in Michael. He’s not a hater of any kind. At worst, sometimes he’s naive.”

Spielberg is rather less enthusiastic and clearly unsettled that a booklet accompanying each album, known as liner notes, quotes the mega director- producer as lauding Jackson as “a phenomenon” and “one of the world’s most precious resources.”

Spielberg releases a formal statement declaring that his words of praise were written in August 1993 for what he was told would be a retrospective “Best of Michael Jackson” album.

Those liner notes of almost two years ago, protests Spielberg, “are by no means an endorsement of any new songs that appear on what has now been released as Michael Jackson’s `HIStory’ album.”

Sony Music executives, who are investing about $30 million to promote Jackson’s album, and hope to sell 20 million copies, are reported to be nervous.

June 16: Jackson calls Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center and, in an emotional 10- minute conversation, the singer insists that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”

“My intention was to write an anti-racist song,” he tells Cooper.

A short time later, Jackson faxes letters of apology to the ADL’s Lehrer and to Hier and Cooper at the Wiesenthal Center.

He promises that the following paragraph will accompany all his albums, except for the 2 million copies already shipped out.

“There has been a lot of controversy about my song, `They Don’t Care About Us.’ My intention was for this song to say `no’ to racism, anti-Semitism and stereotyping. Unfortunately, my choice of words have unintentionally hurt the very people I want to stand in solidarity with. I just want you all to know how strongly I am committed to tolerance, peace and love, and I apologize to anyone who might have been hurt.”

The ADL and Wiesenthal Center declare themselves satisfied with the apology, though Hier vows to monitor the follow-through by Sony’s Epic Records, which is distributing the album.

Saturday, June 17: On the Sabbath day, they all rested from their labors.

NEXT STORY