Thursday, June 14, 2007

Jewish Identity Formation & Performance of the 'Other'

In Judaism's Culture of Death and my two responses to M. (#1 & #2), I touched upon the manner in which Jewish holidays are used to instill in Jews a sense of specious, triumphalist victimhood. Last Sunday, while listening to This American Life's "Notes on Camp" episode, I was treated to two audio vignettes that provided further insight into Jewish identity formation and how the performance of the 'other' figures into that.

In the first clip (starts at 21:20), Adeena tells the story of her first experience at summer camp. She was ten-years-old and her parents were "committed left-wingers" who wouldn't let her go to Girl Scout camp because, according to her mother, they were "a bunch of little brown shirts." She couldn't go to a "fashionable" camp because her parents "didn't believe in fashion." So, Adeena was sent to a "left-wing Zionist camp" in Wisconsin recommended by a family friend.

One night, however, the camp was raided by the KKK who, clad in white sheets and hoods, burned a wooden cross on camp property. The Klansmen, including one on horseback, rounded up the counselors and children, told them they wanted the "lousy Jews out of Wisconsin" and began to take the counselors off one-by-one, leaving the children "petrified" and "shaking in our boots." As it turns out, however, these terrified children were not victims of the Klan but of the "left-wing Zionist" counselors who appropriated the identity of Klansmen in order to instill or reinforce an identity as victims or potential victims in the children. (The producers chose to pair Adeena's story with the story of a similiarly staged camp takeover at a Christian fundamentalist summer camp; I thought the comparison was revealing.)

The second clip (starts at 30:44) is arguably less about Jewish identity, in particular, but I think the context, among other things, makes it interesting and it, perhaps, fits a certain pattern. NPR's Adam Davidson describes his experience as a fifteen-year-old at Israeli army summer camp. Unable to excel at the "macho" warrior identity (killers of the 'other'), Davidson is, in his own words, "a nobody" until the camp talent show.

Davidson, who was an experienced young actor from New York, creates and/or takes the lead role in "Steve White and the Seven Dwarves." Steve White is a "fabulous gay man" whom Davidson portrays with "the most awful gay mincing voice." In the skit, Steve White is saved by and 'kisses' Rambo, instead of Prince Charming. The crowd loves Davidson's performance and from then on he is the "star" of the camp and constantly asked to reprise his gay 'kiss' by the most macho Israeli soldiers. During the course of Davidson's interview, he performs bits of his Steve White role. The character sounds very little like the real Davidson.

In thinking about these two episodes I was reminded of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat character. In Borat, Cohen appropriates the identity of a Kazakh journalist. Borat is a violent misogynist and a Jew-hater from a very backward society. In one of his HBO specials, Cohen as Borat sings "Throw the Jew Down the Well" in the Country West bar in Tucson, AZ. The video clip is edited to leave viewers with the impression that the bar's patrons (including at least one Jew although viewers would not know that) are enthusiastically joining in Borat's anti-Jewish ditty. In the 2006 Hollywood film based on the Borat character, Cohen strings along a number of scenes on the theme of Jew-hatred.

However, Cohen--who has a religious Jewish background, spent a year in an Israeli kibbutz, and was recently dubbed a "Shining Star of Habonim" for his involvement in the Labor Zionist movement--has a purpose in making his character anti-Jewish: It's "anti-anti-Semitism." "Borat essentially works as a tool," Baron Cohen told Rolling Stone. "By himself being anti-Semitic, he lets people lower their guard and expose their own prejudice, whether it's anti-Semitism or an acceptance of anti-Semitism."

Cohen's choice of Kazakhstan as the home of Borat is interesting. The majority Kazakh population is overwhelmingly Muslim but 15,000 to 20,000 Jews also live there and they enjoy a good relationship with the corrupt, repressive regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev. One billionaire Jew who has really enjoyed a good relationship with Nazarbayev is Alexander Mashkevich, an Israeli citizen, who by 2004 was "believed to control as much as one-fourth of Kazakhstan's economy. "

A minor figure compared to Cohen/Borat is the Swami Beyondananda, a character performed by another Jew, Steve Bhaerman, who is also a tikkun olam peddler. No matter that a Swami is a revered figure in Hinduism and Ananda was actually a disciple of the Buddha, cuz the name Swami Beyondananda is just so gosh darn funny and who can resist a twofer, right?

In closing, Jackie Salloum has documented how Arab identity is performed in the Jewish "Empire of Their Own"--Hollywood. Sometimes, Arab characters have been literally performed by Jews, as in the case of the Israeli-born Gene Simmons (born Chaim Witz), who portrayed a "terrorist," Malak Al Rahim in Wanted: Dead or Alive. Salloum's video, "Planet of the Arabs," appears below.

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