By Sydney Levy
Growing up as a Jewish kid in Venezuela, Purim was one of the many calendar dates that separated us from the non-Jewish population. The rest of the country dressed up for Carnaval, and a few weeks later we dressed up for Jewish Carnaval, err…Purim. As a kid my parents would dress me and my sister up for Purim.
I only remember one costume. I must have been 5 or 6 years old when I appeared as an “Indian” with feathers and all. I was far too young to understand what cultural appropriation was, and campaigns such as #PurimNotPrejudice or “We’re a Culture, not a Costume” in reference to Halloween were decades away. Ironically enough, my Native-American attire had little resemblance to what indigenous Caribs or Arawaks would wear. My suit resembled more that of a North-American Native, or at least the way they were depicted in the cowboy movies we watched on TV. Those were what we thought were the real “Indians.” In school we learned nothing about the Native population of our land past 1492, perpetuating the myth that they all disappeared. My Purim costume reflected this myth.
I stopped dressing up for Jewish Carnaval by the end of Jewish primary school, and I have not dressed up again, not even for gringo Carnaval, err… Halloween.
But I have seen my share of bad costumes. Here are a few of the worst Purim costumes on record, and as bad as they are, the justifications for them are even worse.
Blackface in Purim (2013), courtesy of NY State Assemblyman Dov Hikind. When confronted, he said that he was representing a “black basketball player,” and that those who complained about his costume did not understand Purim and were displaying “political correctness to the absurd.” Paraphrasing Trump, before Trump himself, Hikind added that “there is not a prejudiced bone in my body.”
His excuses do not sound sincere, except for a telling comment: “Of course the intention was not to offend anyone. That’s the last thing that I ever imagined that would happen, to be very honest. It never crossed my mind.”
This I believe. That is the nature of racism. If it does not affect you directly, you have the privilege to ignore it so that it never crosses your mind.
The public scandal that resulted from Dov Hikind’s Black face did not stop others from doing the same.
Take a look at the effigy representing an African-American in Spring Valley, NY, last year. Yes, it is true that some communities follow the gruesome tradition of hanging an effigy of Haman, the evil character in the story of Purim. But this time around, Haman happened to be a black man being lynched. I’m sure that if asked, those who did such a heinous act would have answered like Hikind did, that it never crossed their mind that this effigy would be offensive. After the media backlash, the local Jewish community responded, offering an apology from the Jews to their African-American neighbours. In other words, they closed the Purim case by making Black Jews invisible.
If you think these examples were not insensitive enough, wait until you see what an Israeli high school did for Purim. They had 3 students in blackface, surrounded by other students disguised as the KKK, complete with a tall cross. This happened three years ago at Harel High School in Mevasseret Zion. Even after the ensuing public backlash, the school principal was unapologetic, incredulously stating that this “it is no different from a Nazi costume.” Really? The whole Israeli and Jewish establishment would have jumped at the sight of a Nazi costume. A Nazi costume is the kind of insensitivity that crossed our minds, repeatedly. But white supremacy? That’s dismissed as just sheer Purim fun.
Since we are now in Israel, there is another kind of costume that pains the eyes when you see it. That is Israeli settlers dressing up as Palestinians. Here is one such example in the occupied city of Al-Khalil (Hebron). Not content with robbing Palestinians of their land, they want to rob them of their culture too.
It is a sad irony that this picture was taken on Shuhada Street, a once bustling street in the center of the city, which is now a ghost town where real Palestinians (not Israeli settler kids disguised as Palestinians) are not allowed to walk through and where on some of the forcibly shuttered Palestinian store gates, you can still see spray painted in Hebrew, “Death to Arabs.”
The street itself was closed to Palestinians in response to a massacre committed by American-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein, who on the Jewish holiday of Purim entered the Ibrahimi Mosque in Al-Khalil and killed 29 Muslim worshippers and injured many more as they were holding Ramadan prayers. In typical Israeli army logic, a settler fatally attacked many Palestinians and as a result Palestinians–not Israeli settlers–were the target of collective punishment. To this day, Baruch Goldstein’s tomb is a site of pilgrimage for Israeli right wing fanatics.
This reverse logic is not a coincidence, but part of an Israeli system that automatically shifts blame to Palestinians and holds Israelis blameless. Last year, in the same city of Hebron an Israeli soldier–Elor Azaria– shot and killed a Palestinian who was immobilized and incapacitated on the ground after having knifed an Israeli soldier. We only know of this case because the actual murder was videotaped, and the distribution of the video showed clearly how the Palestinian–Abdel Fattah al-Sharif–no longer posed a security threat and Azaria’s actions were no more than cold blooded murder.
Because of the publicity created by the video, Azaria was tried. He was only given 18 months in jail, and Israeli politicians tripped over each other to demand that he be pardoned. Had the situation be reversed, a Palestinian killing in cool blood an Israeli would trigger no such compassion from Israeli authorities or Israeli courts, but large prison sentences and the permanent demolition of his family’s home.
This year on Purim some Israeli families will be allowing their children to dress up as Elor Azaria, and even holding an Elor Azaria costume contest. Parents who dress their children in such a way are doing so overtly as a political act: one that not only condones murder, but also serves to indoctrinate their young children into a culture of violence and impunity towards Palestinians.
However you dress up for Purim–and I hope you choose better costumes than the ones I mentioned above–it has become virtually impossible to celebrate the holiday without facing our own community’s racism, or remembering the Purim Hebron massacre and the effects it has on the Palestinians of Al-Khalil up to this very day.
Sydney Levy, member of the caucus of Jews of Color, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in solidarity with Palestine.