Monday, November 06, 2006

"In my country there is problem"

I spent much of this past weekend studying anti-Semitism. I took a meta-interdisciplinary approach: Yesterday I attended a conference at the University of Pennsylvania entitled "Jews in France: Crisis and Continuity"--an interdisciplinary look at all things "Juif," -- and on Friday I saw the new Borat movie. What's remarkable is how easy it was to come away from both events with roughly the same interpretation of where Jews fit in the world today. Or, if not the same take, at least equally complex ones.

Borat midaber a whole lot of ivrit. Kazakhs and Israelis must understand one another with ease, considering that nearly all of Borat's subtitled mumblings in the new movie are in fact Hebrew, intelligible even to those as Hebrew-inept as yours truly.

The fact that Borat speaks Hebrew adds a whole new dimension of mockery and ridiculousness to the film. Not only is "Borat" a British Jew successfully able to convince Americans to reveal their most embarassing bigotries through his own (fictitious) ones, but he is one-upping them on another, particularly Jewish level as well. Modern, spoken Hebrew is perhaps the biggest symbol of Jewish continuity and triumph against all odds in the world today. By having Borat speak that language, Cohen reveals, to those Jews with any sort of national self-awareness, whose side he's on, making any and all charges of anti-Semitism against him seem far off. It may well be that Cohen just happens to know Hebrew, and that Hebrew mumbling comes to him more naturally than would, say, actual Kazakh mumbling, but it hardly matters. The effect is the same.

Now, the conference. In France, since the Middle Ages, there has been problem. The matter at hand was this: if France was the first country in Europe to emancipate its Jews, if France, now and a good part of then, is one of the most Jew-friendly places in the world, then why the Dreyfus Affair, why Vichy, and why the cutting remarks from fellow pro-Israel's-existence, unashamedly-Jewish types whenever I mention that I study French? In other words, why does France get such a bad rap, and is it deserved?

I'll spare the WWPD audience (if there still is such an audience) my thoughts on the discussion of fin-de-siecle French anti-Semitism, since I find this subject fascinating but have yet to come upon a way of making others feel the same. But as for the problem of anti-Semitism today, and leaving France-specific issues (sometimes busmen do take holidays) the conference got me thinking. While anti-Semitism isn't the fault of Jews any more than rape is the fault of women, there are equivalents of teaching boys not to be sociopaths and not walking alone at night.

The David Mamet- Ariel Beery, anti-new-Jew stance (not that Beery and Mamet have the exact same stance) is one I've also espoused for a while now. Hipster Judaism, ironic Jewishness, an embrace of Jewish identity as something embarassing and pathetic, or just a sincere belief that it is embarassing to be Jewish and that any knowledge or interest one has in things Jewish ought not to be mentioned in mixed company. However, it's not helpful to construct an opposition between, on the one hand, hipster Jews, unironically-embarassed Jews, the non-observant, those with no particular interest in their Jewish background, and those with strong interests outside of the specifically Jewish world (say, scientists, artists, gay activists); and on the other hand, the good, observant, proud Zionist Jews. Or, to put this less clumsily, there's a lot of space between being an articulate supporter of the Jewish nation and going out of your way to point out what unathletic nerds Jews are whenever you have a chance. Some people just don't care that they're Jewish, not out of shame, but because it's just not a big deal to their identity. That Hitler would have counted these people is not reason enough for them to care that they are Jewish. An optimal world situation for Jews is one in which we are all free to decide how much we care about that aspect of our identity. And, while the world today is not quite at optimal, things are peaceful enough that the apathetic need not be mobilized.

However, standing quite apart from the apathetic are the ashamed, those who buy into Jewish stereotypes and see only the nebbishes and the neurotics when looking at the Jewish people. The ashamed are those who think of themselves as undeniably Jewish, but would have trouble telling someone, if asked what they are, "I'm Jewish."

Shame is bad news, because it's both caused by and a cause of further anti-Semitism. It's understandable why, in a world that's less than friendly to Jews, embarassment comes naturally. Also, any indication of Jewish interest leads one to be considered a "big Jew" or "very Jewish" and thus by definition unattractive, over-the-top, and obsessed with things Jewish (either victimhood or Zionism) to the exclusion of all else. I hate to say it, but I've been in innumerable situations when it would be much easier to tell someone that I'm in graduate school to study French than to give the full (though brief) explanation of my academic interest, i.e. French Jews. I try not to fall into that trap. If Jews see Jewishness as a big joke, while no other nationality sees things quite like this, we're essentially screwed.


Paul said...

Borat makes me laugh and feel good regardless of what language he mumbles in whereas anti-semitism in France sickens me !

Barri said...

FYI, Phoebe: From all accounts, Baron Cohen is fluent in Hebrew. He has an Israeli mom and he spent at least a solid year in Israel on a kibbutz.

Hanna said...

liked this entry a lot. still have to see Borat (happening soon; tried this week but queue was endless). also live in a country that has a problem (Austria-guess I don't need to say much more). currently working on renewing my French skills by trying to read short and easy stuff, hoping to get to the point this year where I can read newspapers again. will certainly have a look on your blog again.