Dov Hikind Steps in the Hamentashen
Dov Hikind wore blackface to a Purim celebration causing a storm of political outrage which seemed to first baffle him, then ultimately led to him reluctantly and lamely apologizing.
In the context of Purim, what Hikind did wasn't such a big deal. But in the context of Brooklyn politics it was intensely stupid and the fact that he was taken by surprise by the outrage is further proof of his stupidity.
Purim is the strangest of Jewish holidays. First of all, although it is supposed to represent historic events, unlike Judaism's other historical "they tried to kill us, we survived, now let's eat" holidays, there is no real evidence that the events took place. Set in the time of Xerxes I of Achaemenid Persia, the story claims a level of anti-Semitism in ancient Persia that is more appropriate for later periods of Persian history. Some try to place it during the time of Artaxerxes I or II but despite the interpretations of later Jews writing in Greek, the names Artaxerxes and Ahasuerus (the name in the Book of Esther) are distinct, so this equivalence is unlikely. The Achaemenids, including Xerxes and Artaxerxes, were famous for their religious tolerance, so the story of threatened genocide of the Jews makes no sense. The Book of Esther is considered to have been written around 3rd or 4th century BCE. Interestingly this was the period when the Greek Seleucid dynasty ruled the area, and the Greeks WERE known for religious intolerance (as the rise of the Maccabees against the Seleucids at a later time illustrates. Was the story of Purim a story of oppression during Seleucid rule projected back to Persian times? Unlike Hanukkah, there is no historical corroboration of the Purim story so I take it to be a work of fiction that is loosely based on real events that happened closer to 3rd or 4th century BCE rather than further back during the time it is set.
Regardless, Purim is an odd celebration. It is the only celebration in Judaism where drunkenness is actually encouraged...almost obligatory. Both Hanukkah and Purim celebrate the defeat of attempts to suppress Judaism (probably both by the Seleucids in different parts of their empire) yet Hanukkah focuses on the religious and military aspects of the events while Purim turns it into a sort of Carnival to celebrate the survival of Jews and blot out (by noisemakers and alcohol) the name and memory of the enemies of the Jews. They are very different celebrations of somewhat similar events. At Purim there is an overturning of convention, with dressing up in silly, often outrageous costumes, noisemaking and drunkenness. Interestingly, the closest relative of Purim at the time the Book of Esther was written was the Roman Saturnalia, a winter holiday celebrated in much the same way as Purim, with costumes and drunkenness and an overturning of convention. The modern celebration could easily have its roots among Roman Jews who adopted the story from their Persian cousins under the Seleucids and based their celebrations on Saturnalia. Interestingly, the other holiday commonly thought to be based on Saturnalia is the Christian Carnival which, like Purim, occurs around February. One flaw in all these connections is that Saturnalia was a December holiday, but the nature of the celebrations among Saturnalia, Purim and Carnival are surprisingly similar and I suspect this is not due to coincidence but to either divergent or convergent evolution of the holidays.
And it is in the context of this Saturnalia/Purim/Carnival style of celebration that Dov Hikind's blackface hijinks has to be
taken. Overturning convention and making fun of what is normally considered horrible is kind of the whole point of Purim. Purim is turning an attempted genocide into a mockery and the very person who advocated the genocide becomes a target of ridicule. Taken this way, Dov Hikind is treating the racism behind blackface the same way Purim is treating the anti-Semitism behind the genocide attempted in the Book of Esther. Was this his intention? I have no clue, but it is perfectly consistent with the spirit of Purim and how people masquerade during Purim.
However, when one enters the complex waters of Brooklyn politics, a certain degree of intelligence is required. When a Brooklyn politician dresses in blackface, they have GOT to expect a rather heated reaction and be prepared to explain it clearly in a way that isn't going to sound like they are taking lessons from a right wing Republican politician making watermelon jokes about Obama. The fact that Hikind seemed unprepared for the very predictable shitstorm of a response to his actions demonstrates an amazing stupidity on his part.
In fact, even when it seemed like Hikind WOULD take the opportunity to explain himself and maybe, JUST MAYBE, make an important political point, he decided to instead insult even MORE New Yorkers:
“If I was doing it all over again? I would look at, you know, additional alternatives,” he told Zev Brenner on WSNR, “because my real objective is — it’s not about being a black person or Indian, or maybe I would be a gay person . . . by the way, would that be okay, Zev? If I played a gay person next year?”
And even got himself condemned by the Anti-Defamation League:
Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said Hikind “showed terrible judgment.”
“There are so many myriad costumes available to Jewish kids and adults during Purim, but putting on blackface should not be one of them. . . . Public displays of racism are offensive, particularly when the perpetrators are elected officials, who should be role models and have the public trust.”
As I say, I actually DO see a context in which wearing blackface on Purim can be used to make an excellent point...but that point HAS to be articulated. Bottom line is, dressing in blackface on Purim, given the context of Purim and its celebration, is in no way a sign of racism and could easily be done as a protest to racism just as dressing as Hamen is a protest and mockery of the anti-Semitism whose defeat Purim celebrates. But Hikind failed to articulate this in any clear way. Rather than carefully explain the context and use it as an excellent political opportunity to equate the struggles of the black and Jewish communities (something that has real resonance) he instead whined like Teabagger about "political correctness," which I find to usually be the last refuge of a scoundrel who has seriously stuck his foot in his mouth after previously stepping in dog doo. Hikind could have used the event to his political advantage within both black and Jewish communities. Instead he merely shoved his own foot even deeper into his gullet. Whatever Hikind's motivation for dressing in blackface, ultimately he comes out of it looking foolish, not politically savvy.
I will give one thing for Hikind...he has managed to unite the ADL and Charles Barron in denouncing him. THAT, my friend, is an amazing accomplishment. Just not amazing in a way that makes Hikind look good.