On Jews and Whiteness

Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.

I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.

Warning: Spoilers follow.

It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:

from BlacKKKlansman (2018)

The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:

Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”

Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”

One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.

Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.

Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:

“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”

The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.

But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.

I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?

Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?

We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.

We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.

On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.

Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.

Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the daily service

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