Sunday, December 5, 2010


December 5, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about race and privilege these last few weeks. Which begs the question: when am I not thinking a lot about race and privilege? Hopefully never, but that is sort of beside the point. Actually, no, that kind of is the point. This is an excellent start to a coherent and well organized blog post, don’t you think?

The other week, Avital showed us a short film called “Strangers” by Erez Tadmor. You can watch it here (it’s only seven minutes long.) What happens is this: an Arab (as evidenced by his Arabic newspaper) and a Jew (as evidenced by his Star of David necklace) are sitting across the aisle from each other on a train. The Jew, noticing the newspaper, takes his star out of his shirt and starts staring aggressively at the Arab. They exchange heated glances, and you wonder if it’s going to come to blows. Before it can, however, a group of four neo-nazis (as evidenced by the swastikas shaved into their heads) come onto the train and start harassing the Arab. They spray-paint a swastika on his newspaper, and seem about to beat him up. The Jew does nothing. Then, right when he seems to be in the clear, his cell phone starts to ring. It’s “Hava Negila.” He can’t find the phone, it won’t stop “Hava Neglia”-ing, and the skinheads are, as you might imagine, suddenly very interested in him. The train is pulling into a stop; the Jew and the Arab exchange a look, and both bolt off the train, using their backpacks and shields and the confusion of both of them running to confuse the skinheads. They safely escape the train, exchange backpacks with each other (they had ended up with each other’s), exchange a “thanks bro” look, and then leave their separate ways.

What was interesting about this film for me, aside from the idea that a common enemy will unite humanity (are you listening, aliens/cylons?), is the performance of white privilege. The Jew chooses to disclose his identity as a Jew to the Arab (whose religion we don’t know, so we can’t call this a Jewish/Muslim issue, but a Jewish/Arab one) seemingly in order to make the Arab feel threatened and uncomfortable. The Arab’s identity is known from the outset; even if he weren’t reading the Arabic newspaper, his skin color would be a big indictor. He has no choice in the disclosure of his identity. The Jew, however, can pass as a Christian, but chooses not to in that moment. Jews are dominant over Arabs in most places (we don’t know where this takes place – it could be any city with an underground train system) so he is asserting an agent (dominant) identity that is in direct oppressive aggression to the Arab’s target (oppressed) identity.

When the skinheads come into play, however, he tucks his star into his shirt, essentially erasing his Jewishness, an identity that has instantly changed from agent to target. While the skinheads are threatening the Arab, and preparing to do him serious bodily harm, the Jew does nothing. He cloaks himself in his privilege and masks his fear with indifference. He does not make eye contact with anyone and seems to be trying to wait it out. When his phone rings, it outs him as a potential target (get it, target identity!) and his privilege is immediately stripped away. He is now an even better target than the Arab for the skinheads, and it is only when he personally is threatened by danger that he connects with the Arab man on a mutual level, and they fight their way out together.

While the maker of the movie seems to imply that the skinheads, and possibly initial prejudice, are the enemies in this film, I also see the inaction of the Jew as an enemy. He does not stand up for the Arab, even when he is still considered to have white Christian privilege. While he is passing, he does nothing. He only finds common humanity with the Arab when it is his own safety on the line. I know that facing down a pack of violent skinheads is not high on anyone’s to-do list, but, for me at least, neither is doing nothing while neo-nazis brutalize someone for being Arab.

This putting on white Christian privilege is an issue constantly facing American Jews, especially Ashkenazi Jews, whether we like it or not. So many Jews hide behind their Judaism when confronted with the white privilege they carry (“I can’t be racist, my grandmother survived the Holocaust.”) They need to see that they have white privilege, and many can pass for Christian. This is a privilege we carry and we wear and we perform, to greater or lesser extents. This man has the choice to disclose; he even chose to set his ringtone to “Hava Negila,” and while I’m sure he wasn’t anticipating it getting him into so much trouble, it was certainly an act of disclosure. We must stop hiding behind the target identity of Judaism, which, as we see in the film, is not always a target identity, and claim and use our white privilege to fight to end oppression, racism, and privilege for all people.

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