Hi, I’m MaNishtana.
Imagine the following scenario with me:
It is Halloween and an African-American politician decides to dress up as Shylock, a character from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, complete with hooked nose, a bright red wig, and in “whiteface”.
When questioned on his decision of costume choice, said African-American senator’s response is that he can’t imagine why Jews would be offended. After all, he is being respectful and wearing the costume with the intent of the sympathetic 19th century interpretation of the Shylock character first introduced by Edmund Kean, not its generally assumed anti-Semitic version. At any rate, it’s all in good Halloween fun.
When pressured, he eventually offers a begrudging apology stating that he is sorry that Jews were offended—not that he realizes his actions were in fact wrong—and emphasizes the fact that it was Halloween and dressing up is what people do.
Would that be enough of an apology?
Would the cavalier dismissal of the fact that the Shylock character has been employed as THE stereotype of a Jew for centuries be seen as an adequate admission of wrongdoing? Would the lack of acknowledgment of the use of Shylock in Nazi propaganda in the face of wanting to wear something “fun” for Halloween be tolerated?
No it would not.
Yet we—African and Caribbean Americans, Jews (yes, there are Jews who are offended), and Jews of Color (that’s right, some of us Jews actually wear that skin you think is a costume every day)—are supposed to be content with Assemblyman Hikind’s tepid apology. An apology which stresses over and over again “It was Purim!”, as if it’s okay for this one day on the Jewish calendar every year, to ignore the racial history and oppression inextricably linked to the use of “blackface” in minstrel shows just because someone wants to have “fun”.
Notwithstanding the fact that one of the most famous minstrel performers was the Jewish Al Jolston.
Nice move. And during Black History Month to boot.
Is this something Dov Hikind would accept himself? After all not even a month ago, Hikind was lambasting designer John Galianno for sort of dressing in clothes that might be perceived as Chassidic garb (despite the fact that last I checked, no Chasidic Jews wear ascots).
So to unapologetically engage in literally the same kind of insensitivity so soon after rebuking another for the same offense reeks of hypocrisy to the highest level.
Lastly, as an Orthodox Jew, as a Black man, I’d like to address Hikind’s claim of the costume being in the “spirit of Purim”.
He is actually right about that. Just not in the way he intends to be.
See, the Jewish holiday of Purim, as related in the Book of Esther, chronicles how Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian empire, holds a lavish party for all inhabitants of his capital city Shushan. The Jews of his kingdom also attend and eat and drink despite the fact that the serving utensils at the party are vessels looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. Ahasuerus orders his queen Vashti to display her beauty before the guests, (a euphemism for showing herself off in the nude). She refuses. Ahasuerus thusly removes her as queen and has a royal decree sent that orders all beautiful girls be presented to him so he can choose a new queen. One of these is Esther, the niece of Mordecai, leader of the Jewish people at the time. Esther finds favor in the king’s eyes, and is made his new queen, but does not reveal that she is Jewish.
Shortly afterwards, Ahasuerus appoints Haman as his prime minister. Mordecai, who sits at the palace gates, falls into Haman’s disfavor as he refuses to bow down to him. Having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman plans to kill not just Mordecai but all the Jews in the empire. He obtains Ahasuerus’ permission to execute this plan and declares that on the 13th of the month of Adar, everyone in the empire is free to massacre the Jews and despoil their property. When Mordecai finds out about the plans he informs Esther what has happened and tells her to intercede with the King.
Esther invites Ahasuerus and Haman to a banquet, at which she reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman is planning to exterminate her people, including her. Overcome by rage, Ahasuerus orders Haman hanged and allows the Jews to defend themselves on the 13th of Adar, resulting in the deaths of over 75,000 Persian attackers. Esther sends a letter instituting an annual commemoration of the Jewish people’s redemption, in a holiday called Purim, and Ahasuerus awards Mordecai a prominent position in his court.
G-d’s name never appears once in the Book of Esther, instead His presence is hidden and events plays out like a string of coincidences. Thusly, the custom has emerged of wearing costumes to likewise “hide” ourselves, in recognition of G-d’s role in the Jews’ redemption.
So how is Hikind’s costume in the spirit of Purim, you ask?
The Jews attend a banquet using holy vessels looted from the Jewish Temple and can’t imagine why G-d might be offended.
Ahasuerus orders Vashti to appear naked before his guests and can’t imagine why she’d be offended.
According to traditional sources, Haman wore an idol around his neck, therefore anyone who bowed down to him was also bowing down to the idol. But Haman’s not sensitive to those with different religious and social experiences and can’t imagine why Mordecai won’t bow down to him because of it.
In fact, even Hikind’s apology is in the spirit of Purim, as Haman isn’t apologetic because he realizes that exterminating the Jews is morally abhorrent. He’s apologetic because he’s sorry the queen is affected and offended by it.
In short, we—Jews, non-Jews, Black, and White—deserve a real apology from Assemblyman Hikind. And if someone who has made a career out of being offended on behalf of Jewish sensitivities cannot reciprocate said sensitivity, then perhaps he has outlived his political usefulness.