Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

America Decides 2004 Not Your Average ‘bubbie’: Web Ad for Jews Seen As Crossing the Line

October 13, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Just how persuasive is a Jewish grandmother armed with a lethal handbag? And does “Bubbie,” a cartoon Jewish Democrat who knocks Republicans into oblivion, cross a line in a campaign season that already has seen pitched advertisement battles in the Jewish community?

“I’m saddened, disappointed and offended,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It pits Christians against Jews, it uses stereotypes we should know better about projecting.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council, whose Victory Fund produced the ad, hopes Bubbie will get young Jewish voters into polling booths.

“It’s aimed at an under-30 crowd,” said Ira Forman, the NJDC’s executive director. “Both campaigns have had a hard time reaching that crowd. This is a communication that works for them.”

The NJDC hopes to spread word of the cartoon, launched Monday on its Web site, by e-mail. After the animation is finished, viewers are counseled to “give your friends a smile” and forward it on.

Republicans, hardly smiling, say the broadly satirical cartoon could backfire.

“I find this to be absolutely vile, offensive and repugnant,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “The only positive thing that can come out of this effort is that it will now turn off far more people to their work and to their efforts than it would attract people.”

The cartoon marks new fierceness in the battle for the Jewish vote just weeks before the presidential election, and culminates a flood of negative advertisements from both sides.

In the ad, Bubbie breaks into GOP headquarters and confronts a pantheon of Bush administration officials, including top political adviser Karl Rove, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, with questions about rising Medicare costs, the Iraq war and alleged coddling of the Saudi royal family.

When they equivocate, out comes Bubbie’s lethal handbag.

Rove is seen delivering orders to the faithful from a pulpit marked with a crucifix. All the Republicans are clad in red cassocks except for President Bush, who is wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt and reading “My Pet Goat.”

Two Jewish Republicans, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and top neo-conservative Richard Perle, tell Bubbie, “Hey we’re one of you” and break into what resembles a hora.

“I’m so ashamed,” Bubbie replies in a strong Yiddish accent, before pounding them with the handbag.

Ken Goldstein, an academic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who monitors the Jewish vote, said the ad shocked him.

“This ad is disgusting — and you will never ever see me say that about a campaign,” Goldstein said. Especially offensive, he said, is Cheney’s decapitated head rolling into a bucket marked “Miami-Dade votes” and pleading, “I want a deferment.”

Goldstein said that was inappropriate given recent beheadings in Iraq, though Forman countered that the point of the act is to reveal Cheney as a robot.

It’s unclear in the animation whether Bubbie actually kills her enemies or just knocks them senseless.

Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of using negative, out-of-context images and statements, Goldstein said, citing NJDC ads this year featuring Bush shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, and Republican use of a photo of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) embracing the wife of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

“But this is beyond the pale,” Goldstein said.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign withheld comment. It had no advance knowledge of the animation, in keeping with campaign laws setting up strict walls between campaigns and nonprofits like the NJDC.

The NJDC cleared the ad with a range of Democrats unaffiliated with the campaign before putting it on the Web, and pulled some scenes that some felt went over the line.

Foxman said the Christian imagery — the crucifix, the pulpit and the cassocks — upset him.

“It’s unacceptable,” he said.

Forman said the crucifix referred to a cross-like figure that appeared on the podium during the Republican convention, and to what he said was Republican pandering to a conservative Christian base. In the cartoon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stands before a poster of Jesus, emblazoned, “Visit Israel after the rapture!”

The ADL director also said the use of a Yiddish-accented grandmother reinforced unfortunate stereotypes.

“For us to use Jewish stereotypes — a Jewish grandma with an accent — to make the point on behalf of Jewish Democrats, is flabbergasting,” he said.

Forman said the Jewish grandmother was an iconic representation, not an offensive stereotype. In any case, he said, Foxman and Goldstein were missing the point.

“Cartoons and political satire and humor are very different than statements and press releases,” he said.

They’re also much more effective, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a political campaign expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

“Humor is the way to disarm an audience to make a point that is otherwise seen as illegitimate,” Jamieson said.

Additionally, while there are clear lines in print and television ads about what is acceptable or not, Web animation is new and uncharted territory, she said.

“We don’t have the standards for an animated cartoon, although they will evolve,” she said.

Michael Lebovitz, the Jewish outreach official for the Bush-Cheney campaign, suggested that such standards already exist in the affectionate pokings at both candidates in the “Jib-Jab” Web cartoons. Those independent, nonpartisan cartoons feature Bush and Kerry singing parodies of folk songs like “This Land is Your Land” and “Dixie.”

By contrast, in the NJDC cartoon, “almost everything about it is inappropriate and divisive,” Lebovitz said.

Not that the viciousness is a surprise. Both sides have raised the stakes in their ads in recent weeks.

The NJDC ad featuring Bush shaking Abdullah’s hand neglects to mention the administration’s successful efforts to get the Saudis to curtail terrorist funding.

A RJC ad says, “Read what John Kerry had to say about Israel in his acceptance speech: Absolutely Nothing.” But mentioning Israel has never been a standard in nomination acceptance speeches, and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), the Massachusetts senator’s running mate, praised Israel in his own acceptance speech.

Additionally, Bush’s own single mention of Israel in his acceptance speech was made in a throwaway remark praising the potential benefits of a peaceful Palestinian state.

Another ad run by a mysterious group, “concernedjewishcitizens4bush,” tells Jews that “our lives depend” on a Bush victory.

Jamieson said she was not surprised by the vehemence of the outreach in the Jewish press, and how it has gone in recent weeks from positive reinforcement of a party’s own candidates to negative shots at the other side.

Part of it is timing, she said: In any campaign, “as you get close to an election you see the misuse of evocative visuals, you see quotes taken out of context.”

“Since the Republicans think they can increase their share of the Jewish vote, it’s not surprising you’re seeing a lot of it this year,” she said.

“This is an election in which every vote is going to count, there’s a lot of money out there, and both factors mean the level of distortion is going up,” she said.

That may be true, said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant who works with Jewish and Democratic groups including the NJDC, but all the noise has its benefits.

“It means the candidates care what the Jews think, it means the issues we care most about get addressed perhaps more than they would be,” Rabinowitz said. “And that we get more access, in the campaign and after the election.”

Recommended from JTA