The ubiquity of politically incorrect humor, replete with racial and gender stereotypes along with jokes about toxic male sexual bravado, would probably be shot down by any major film company in the early stages of its writing.
However, as I re-watched the movie a few weeks back, 11 years after its original release, I couldn’t help but think of perhaps the most devastating reason as to why I couldn’t envision the film having been made today. A reason which I feel cuts to the heart of many contemporary views about Israel and the conflict - along with a couple of the major pitfalls within the realm of Israel education.
The beginning of the movie sets Israelis and Arabs against each other as sworn enemies with a series of outlandish fight scenes with political jokes scattered throughout. The Zohan, we quickly learn, is a grade A terrorist fighter with every personality trait one would expect from a stereotypical Israeli machismo. That is, until we find out that his lifelong dream is to move to America, leaving behind all the chaos and bloodshed, and become a hairstylist.
It is in America that the villain slowly changes. In the heart of New York City the Israelis and Arabs, living and working in close proximity, are now seen as two sides of the same coin. Minorities trying to overcome the cultural barriers in this new country in an attempt to fulfill their version of the “American dream” while often falling short in a sad, but certainly realistic, manner.
We soon learn that a real estate mogul who has recently purchased the land has grand plans to bulldoze the street and build a strip mall, effectively destroying both the Israeli and Arab communities. Enlisting a local militia of White Nationalists to scare away the Middle Easterners, this Trumpian character will stop at nothing to fulfill his plan of extreme gentrification. To make a long (and funny) story short, the Israelis and Arabs ultimately band together to fight off the construction plans and band of racists - underlining the fact that their similarities are much more important than their differences.
But as I watched the Zohan this past time a somber feeling set in as I reflected on the plot. The idea prevalent in the movie, namely that both Israelis and Arabs are persecuted minorities in the context of larger western White Supremacy is one that is laughable within many progressive circles today.
“I don’t get it” I can almost hear many ask when watching the movie, “Israelis are the White Supremacists - this movie makes no sense!”
Today, especially within the world of college campuses, it is all too common to hear the equation of Zionism and White Supremacy. Now to be fair this is not an entirely new phenomenon. The infamous 1975 UN resolution ‘3379’
- declaring that Zionism is racism - passed by a solid majority and remained in the UN General Assembly until it was revoked in 1991. However, in the 70’s the charge was mostly lead by Soviet Leftists and Arab countries, today it is becoming an increasingly prevalent view within liberal democracies.
And this seems to be a problem that many in the Israel educational world are extremely ill prepared to deal with. Countering challenges to Israel or even claims that Zionism is White Supremacy by crying anti-semitism (a tactic I strongly argued against here)
hardly helps and instead gives off the impression that we have something to hide. Similarly, simple minded Hasbara tactics about Israel’s contributions to the world, a shallow knowledge of Israel’s history, and a “defend Israel at all cost” attitude, do equally as little to alleviate this anti-Zionist attack. And, finally, the fallacious and dangerous view, still championed by many within the pro-Israel camp, that Israel was necessay because of the holocaust simple evoke responses such as “so now the Jews go and do the same thing to Palestinians!?”
Instead, we need to reclaim the essence of Jewish identity, a civilization of people
with deep indigenous roots in the Middle East who have finally come home. This means highlighting non Euro-centirc views and stories of Israel’s birth. It means truly internalizing that Israel is over 50% Mizrachi. And, finally, it means that we need to teach about Zionism starting in 1000 BCE with King David and not with Herzl in 1880. In this context we can recognize and admit that while European colonialism certainly aided the fulfillment of Zionism, albeit in an indirect way, true Zionism has been ubiquitous throughout Jewish texts, history, and culture for thousands of years.
What it doesn’t mean is that we need to view Zionism and by extension Israel as perfect. Just as there are many things in Judaism that invite or even demand critique, Zionism - as an extension of Judaism - is in the exact same boat. Hiding the flaws, or simply ignoring them within the context of other pro-Israel activity, will only make things worse.
Rewatching The Zohan forces us to realize just how much has changed in a decade. And if we choose to ignore these sociological changes without the proper reaction, we do so at our own peril.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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