with ethnic irony burrowing its way into the fashion industry, how does anyone really know when they're being insulted these days? It's a dilemma starkly posed by the controversy over an Urban Outfitters T-shirt deemed offensive by Jewish organizations. The blue T carries the slogan "Everyone loves a Jewish girl," surrounded by dollar signs, shopping bags and tiny hearts. And it's being scooped up, presumably by young Jewish girls with a sense of humour.
But many Jewish leaders are astounded by the choice. Joseph Ben-Ami, a B'Nai Brith spokesperson from Montreal, says the garment "enforces the image of Jews as being obsessed with money and material possessions." It feeds into the whole "Jews are greedy, Jews are miserly image."
After B'nai Brith received complaints, the organization investigated and learned that the U.S. Anti-Defamation League in America had written to Urban Outfitters president Richard Hayne. The retail firm quickly came to an agreement with the ADL and issued a statement saying it would stop producing that version of the shirt "with all due respect to the sensitivity of the Jewish community at large." The new version would contain only the words and no pictures.
With the assumption that the original tops would be removed from American stores, B'nai Brith wrote to Hayne at the company's headquarters in Philadelphia and asked him to inform its Canadian stores to stop selling them as well.
However, B'nai Brith had a rude awakening. Ben-Ami was informed that Urban Outfitters would stop producing the first version but would not stop selling the old stock in stores.
"It doesn't make sense to me," muses Ben-Ami. "If Urban Outfitters agrees that the material is offensive enough to stop producing, then it seems only logical that it's offensive enough to stop selling."
The company refuses to answer such questions when I call its Philadelphia headquarters. Management at the Toronto Urban Outfitters outlet did likewise.
But at the Montreal Urban Outfitters store, assistant manager Bram Levinson reports that the original tops "sell out like lightning," despite the opposition.
But if Jewish leaders are aghast that anyone would sport such ethnically sensitive material on their chests, some of the target group for this product see it otherwise.
Ori Gilad, a member of the Ryerson Jewish Students' Association, first saw them in the States. "I thought they were cute," he says. "I don't think it's a stereotype. If someone wants to wear a shirt that shows they're proud of their Judaism, they're proud of their heritage, then great." He knows many women of Jewish background who would be glad to wear them, he says.
And what would a Jewish fashion designer say about the troubling T? "I would wear them," says Jodi Weisleder, founder of Jodi International. She understands why people find them offensive, but there is a generation issue at work here. "Certain demographics prioritize things in their own ways."
It's a point made by Max Valiquette, president of Youthography, a marketing consultancy firm. Though he wonders why the company would not realize they were offensive, he nevertheless feels the tops were not created out of bigotry but were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. He suggests they're part of a trend that plays with ethnic stereotypes - a case of "celebrating the stereotype so it becomes less harmful."
Urban Outfitters also sells ones with a similar slogan for Irish, Italian and German young women, decorated with shamrocks, pizza slices and beer mugs respectively. To which a Jewish leader of an older generation might respond that no Italian was ever killed because of his/her association with pizza. Not so for Jews and money.