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Blacks, Jews and Borat

borat's little known attendance at the Selma march
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make for Benefit Glorious Thesis of Cohen.

Monday in Israel saw prominent African American evangelical pastor and the head of the Knesset’s Christian Allies Caucus, Glenn Plummer, announcing the launch of Jerusalem’s new annual MLK Jr. award aimed at emphasizing the cooperation between American Jews and blacks during the American civil rights movement in an effort to shore up black support for Israel.

“When Black Americans had no one standing with us, at a time when even our White evangelical Christian brothers were pro-segregation or silent, the Jewish people stood with us, and I want to say…that we will stand with Israel,” Plummer was quoted as saying.

Israel, apparently misunderstanding the difference, gave some security guards the day off brought out some token Ethiopians for the event, including “Ethiopian archbishop and clergy dressed in black-hooded gowns” (???), “as well as the black-hatted rabbi of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel”.

The award, which Plummer hopes will affect the “80 percent of the 35 million African Americans [who] consider themselves Christian” into becoming more sympathetic to Israel is obviously an admirable endeavor. But will it work?

As we know, despite our shared history of slavery and oppression relations between blacks and Jews has steadily disintegrated since the civil right movement, with black leaders identifying more with Islam than Judaism and increasing hostilities in mixed neighborhoods culminating with the infamous Crown Heights riots.

So will putting the spotlight back on the early 60’s do the trick?

Let’s ask Borat, whose alternative personality, Sasha Baron Cohen, once wrote his Cambridge thesis on the topic, calling it “The ‘Black-Jewish Alliance:’ A Case of Mistaking Identities.”

In it, he argues that the early 90’s Jewish obsession with black antisemitism “came out of Jews feeling betrayed by their old blood brothers from the civil-rights movement. But while it was perceived in the Jewish community that Jews were disproportionately involved in civil rights, [Cohen’s] conclusion was black Americans didn’t see Jews as being more involved than any white Americans.”

“The Jewish kids were all there in the South, but because they were there as part of church organizations like the (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), they weren’t seen as Jews but as white liberals. So there was this deep irony that the Jewish establishment took martyrs like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner” – two civil-rights workers from New York who went to Mississippi to register black voters and were killed by the Ku Klux Klan – “and used them as symbols of a Jewish-black alliance when, in fact, they didn’t really see themselves as Jews at all.” Cohen pauses, drolly adding: “The dissertation is a lot funnier than I depicted it.”

Some have suggested that it was out of this early interest in irony and race identity that the character of Ali G. was born. Others, such as CBS have noted that while Cohen may feel the Jewish involvement in Civil Rights was exaggerated, the historic affinity affects his own work; in the Borat movie, only blacks are depicted sympathetically. “Where the pseudo-Kazakh mocks stuffy, uptight whites, he learns from urban blacks. And don’t forget that Luenell, a black prostitute, is the heroine of the movie. ”

Elsewhere in his dissertation, Cohen posited that “Jews may have taken up the black struggle because it is part of the Jewish ethic to “know the stranger,” to defend those cast out.” And Indeed, it seems Cohen has built a business out of that Jewish ethic. By becoming the stranger, be it Ali G, Borat, or Bruno, Cohen is testing the public’s, particularly the white public’s, treatment of those perceived to be “strange.”

However, if the Jewish-Black alliance was once built on our mutual feelings of otherness, can an award based on an era in which country clubs had signs banning “Jews and Dogs” still inspire at a time in which Jews are no longer viewed as “the stranger” but as part of the white ruling class in America and as a majority and military power in their own land?

Probably not, I say. But I guess it’s always good to have dream…

5 Comments

  1. dede

    1/17/2007 at 8:59 am

    I just want to say that I heard Glenn Plummer speak at an Israeli rally in Detroit during the war this summer, and he was by far the highlight of the evening. He was phenomenal and his obviously very dedicated to Jews and to Israel. He’s on the board of El Al, randomly. Very cool guy, in a Barak-Obama-mixed-with-MLK kind of way.

  2. POLJ

    1/17/2007 at 10:26 am

    While I have not yet read the Cultural Learnings of an Oxford Educated Comic, I can say that Black-Jewish relations is a myth kept alive by a very few people.

    One of my best friends from college is black. Both being politicos who should have been born in the 1960s, we spent a lot of time talking about the Black-Jewish connection or the lack thereof. We based our relationship on it. And that is where real Black-Jewish relations exists; inter-personal relations. It isn’t magical or automatic.

    We believe because we have some sort of shared history that blacks and Jews MUST have a shared path to the future. The reality is that more of our history is different and the shared parts are stretched to fit our perceived dialectic. The “other” aspect is flawed because there are lots of “others” that Jews could have joined up with over the years, but they didn’t because they never got to know people from the “other” groups.

    The Cultural Learnings of an Oxford Educated Comic may have something to share here but really it isn’t anything new. All relationships are based on people getting to know each other. Otherwise it is only a good dream.

  3. Tom Morrissey

    1/18/2007 at 10:18 am

    Provocative observation by Cohen in the block quote, but I’m not sure what his authority is for it. He may be right. It may’ve been a case akin to that familiar phenomenon of the unequal friendship, with one party valuing it much more– and assuming it’s more inportant than it really is– than the other.

  4. amybz

    1/21/2007 at 1:17 am

    I just saw Plummer speak at AIPACS winter saban, and he was incredible. I spoke with him afterwards and he is such a genuine and frank guy…he was basically the highlight of that weekend.

  5. WSU

    3/12/2007 at 3:47 pm

    3/12/2007 9:24:00 AM

    NEWS: Clashing Over Israel
    Pastor Plummer sees anti-Israel group’s angry outbursts as a sign of its frustration.

    Don Cohen
    Special to the Jewish News

    A pro-Israel program at Wayne State University [in Detroit] last week went off without a hitch though the campus group Anti-Racist Action (ARA-WSU) had threatened to disrupt the program and the speaker it had branded as “racist.”

    “It was my first time being accused of being a racist. It was classic,” said a slightly bemused and completely unbowed Glenn Plummer, the African American senior pastor of Detroit’s Ambassadors For Christ Church and co-chair of the Fellowship of Israel and Black America (FIBA).

    “All I can do is totally discount it as an absolute absurdity,” Pastor Plummer said.

    ARA-WSU has made opposing Israel’s right to exist the centerpiece of its efforts. A flyer members distributed on campus prior to the Feb. 28 program called Pastor Plummer’s support of Israel a “shameful blasphemy,” condemns the “American Empire,” charges local Zionists with “white supremacist politics” and dismisses both Jewish and black supporters of the civil rights movement as “patronizing liberals.”

    Nonetheless, the program went smoothly until the question and answer period when Pastor Plummer was interrupted while responding to questions and statements and a number of ARA members mixed personal attacks with political arguments.

    Pastor Plummer chose to characterize the anger and attention given to his appearance as a positive sign. “It is very encouraging,” he said. “They are obviously very frustrated. We are making serious inroads with our message to Christian African Americans and Jews.”

    The David Project’s Erik Miller commended Pastor Plummer for how he handled the issues and the personal attacks. He said the pastor’s cool, measured and substantive response showed how deftly a pro-Israel African American undermines the campaign to paint Israel as an apartheid state.

    “The ARA was rude and aggressive, but it wasn’t out of control,” said Miller, who works with students on Midwest campuses to develop strategies for combating anti-Israel sentiment in and outside of the classroom. He said such confrontations “go with the territory.”

    Jonathan Schwartz, a third-year law student from Farmington Hills who has been active in Israel advocacy and countering the ARA, also was impressed with how Pastor Plummer handled the group. He says that following the program an African American woman was confronting an ARA member who had insulted Pastor Plummer before storming out of the room.

    “She told [the ARA member] that he had some nerve to use her people to make a political point,” Schwartz said. “I was proud that she was rejecting his attempts to divide our communities.”

    The program was sponsored by Hillel of Metro Detroit, Students for Israel, FIBA and the David Project.

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