Some spoilers for BlacKkKlansman below.
Through the eyeholes of the Klansman’s hood, it looks like there is no tighter bond than that between the black person and the Jew. Both are loathsome to him in their own unique ways — the black one as a monster and the Jewish one as a parasite — but, as he sees it, the latter is the patron of the former. Such is the philosophy expressed by a white-power enthusiast played by Alec Baldwin in an educational filmstrip a few minutes into Spike Lee’s latest barn burner, BlacKkKlansman. The bespectacled and besuited bigot rants to the camera about “blood-sucking” Jews and their sponsorship of the “commie” civil-rights movement, positioning himself and those who think like him as the last remaining bulwark against the alliance of those two mongrel groups. They are, as far as he can tell, a united front.
Of course, as any reasonably well-informed black or Jewish individual can tell you, the Baldwin character’s formulation is preposterously simplistic. Relations between African-Americans and white Jews have been maddeningly complex for centuries. Beloved antebellum American rabbis like Morris J. Raphall were explicit apologists for slavery, and a Jew, Judah P. Benjamin, served as the Confederacy’s secretary of state. W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of Jewish businessmen as the post-Emancipation inheritors of black subjugation, and James Baldwin wrote eloquently about his childhood hatred of Jewish landlords. Some black radicals have vigorously debated with Jewish Zionists over issues relating to Israel and the Palestinians, and gallons of ink and bile have been spilled on the matter of Louis Farrakhan. And that’s not even getting into the questions about where black Jews fit into both communities. Though Jewish Americans and African-Americans have often marched hand in hand, their viewpoints haven’t always walked in parallel.
Lee is a part of this tortured history. His 1990 film Mo’ Better Blues featured two non-Jews, John and Nicholas Turturro, playing caricatures of rapacious and untrustworthy Jewish capitalists in the music industry. So fevered was the ensuing criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and other members of the Jewish Establishment that Lee saw fit to publish an editorial in the New York Times with the blunt title “I Am Not an Anti-Semite.” His subsequent films have stepped more lightly in their depictions of Jews, but certain sectors of the Jewish community will always place an asterisk next to his name. It will, then, come as a surprise to some that BlacKkKlansman is one of the most profound and moving meditations on Jewish identity, responsibility, and survival in recent cinema.
That’s not to say it isn’t primarily a film about blackness and anti-blackness. The struggles of its lead, a black cop named Ron (John David Washington), are firmly placed at the center of the narrative. But just off to his side, still very much in the spotlight, stands a Jewish detective named Flip (Adam Driver, a non-Jew). Their partnership reads like the setup to a Catskills gag: a black guy and a Yid join the Ku Klux Klan. Ron inaugurates and leads the campaign, speaking with Klan members — including Grand Wizard David Duke, played by a perfectly cast Topher Grace — in an imitation of a white man over the phone, while Flip pretends to be that same fictional individual in physical Klan meetings. Initially upon hearing the movie’s premise and seeing the trailers, one might assume Flip’s status as a Member of the Tribe will be milked for a couple of jokes and maybe a smidge of pathos, but that his Jewishness will largely fade into white noise.
Thankfully, that’s not the case. From Flip’s earliest scenes, we learn that he has a complicated relationship with Judaism and Jewishness — two concepts that, as any Jewish Studies student can tell you, are interrelated but quite different. Without getting into the never-to-be-firmly-answered question of what makes a Jew a Jew, it’s safe(-ish) to say that Judaism is a religion that one can choose to embrace or wholly reject, while Jewishness is a thing you’re saddled with as soon as you’re born to a Jewish parent — and is significantly harder to shake.
Flip is one of those postmodern American Jews who has been doing much to shake it. When he volunteers for the mission, someone says, “Flip, you’re Jewish” — not exactly a group the KKK is fond of — and Flip grumpily replies, “I dunno, am I?” We soon learn that he’s at least a little aware of the trappings of Jewish iconography when a co-worker tells him not to wear a “Jewish necklace” during his infiltration and Flip testily replies that it’s not a Jewish necklace, it’s a Star of David, a traditional identifier of Jewish identity even outside of religious circles. It’s left unclear in the scene whether he actually does typically wear a chain with a Star of David, but we soon assume that, if he does, it’s a purely vestigial appendage.
His ambivalence bordering on outright antipathy becomes clear in a scene much later in the film, the pivotal scene for our understanding of Flip’s relationship to Jewishness. Ron and Flip are bickering over difficulties in the undercover operation and Ron tries to point out that Flip, as a Jew, has “skin in the game” in the crusade against the Klan. Flip, in a rare moment of vulnerability, begins to talk about his life as an American Jew in the latter half of the 20th century. “I’m Jewish, yes, but I wasn’t raised to be,” he says. No Jewish rituals, no deep education about Jewish history, not even a bar mitzvah ceremony — “I was just another white kid.” But something is changing, something primal and genetic. “I never thought much about it,” he says of being Jewish. “Now I think about it all the time.”
To what do we owe this awakening? Well, Flip started talking to Klansmen, and if that won’t accelerate your awareness of being a member of a minority group, nothing will. From the moment he enters the KKK’s meeting house, a suspicious member of the group, Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen), for some reason suspects Flip might be Jewish. This, we start to see, is a threat just as dire in Felix’s eyes as being an undercover cop. “Course I’m no fucking kike,” Flip tells the assemblage, with a barely perceptible facial twitch before he utters the words. Confronted again, he later repeats himself: “I’m no fucking Jew.” These lines are of supreme importance because they are, in a way, the logical extension of the attitude he had before the infiltration began. One suspects that he’s thought I’m no fucking Jew to himself on more than one occasion, perhaps even with a glint of pride.
But saying it out loud in the presence of those who would kill him for his chromosomes, well, that’s a kosher hot dog of a different color. As is true of all undercover cops in movies, Flip gets in too deep, but here in a very specific way: He gets too good at playing the part of the anti-Semite. Frighteningly good, even. At one point, Felix tells Flip he thinks the Holocaust never happened; that it’s a Jew-invented myth. Flip then makes the anti-Semitism of Holocaust denial seem positively delicate when he counters with its stomach-churning cousin, Holocaust praise. He launches into a terrifyingly elegant soliloquy about how the murder of 6 million Jews was one of the most “beautiful” things to ever happen to humanity and that those “leeches” needed to be exterminated. For any audience member, it should be one of the most alarming moments in an already alarming film; for a Jew, it is enough to put one’s body into shock.
That moment gets at the fundamental dilemma of Flip’s character, one that has recently become au courant in Jewish online communities: whether Jews are white, and what the implications are if the answer is “yes.” Of course, there are plenty of Jews of color around the world. But the fact remains that the Jews of North America are predominantly white-skinned. Although not so long ago, Jews weren’t considered white by the powers that were, those days are over (at least for now) and light-skinned Jews surely benefit from the cancer that is structural white supremacy. They may be intensely proud of their Jewish blood and consider themselves Jews more than as white people, but one inarguable fact remains: They could pass as WASPs.
Therein lies the terror of Flip’s journey. If you’re a white Jew, it’s possible you’re able to see yourself doing what he does. It’s a version of the game young Jews often play when they first learn about the Holocaust: What would you do if the Nazis returned? (It’s no longer as much of a hypothetical question as it was when I was a kid, but we’re not quite there yet, Baruch Hashem.) There’s usually at least one kid in the discussion who hypothesizes that they’d just pretend to not be Jewish in order to survive. (It’s not a totally heretical plan: Jews have converted in a pinch for centuries, be it in the face of the Inquisition or a wave of pogroms, and as long as it’s a matter of pikuach nefesh — life and death — and you eventually renounce the odious oath, it’s arguably permissible.)
Many of us have been passing, and I mean that in a very specific way. Ever since European Jews were allowed to emerge from the ghetto in the 19th century, they’ve increasingly discarded any external signifiers of their bloodlines. It long ago stopped being de rigeur to wear a skullcap or the hip-dangling fringes of outward identification. With the exception of the tiny (though growing) Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox population, there isn’t a Jewish equivalent of African-American Vernacular English to code-switch from. Even if we white Jews are proud of being Jewish in one way or another, we can sail through life without it ever coming up at a dinner party if we so choose. Like Flip or Ryan Gosling in The Believer, we could enter a Klan or neo-Nazi meetup and talk about the glory of Auschwitz, if we wanted.
In other words, a white Jew can pass insofar as they can feel like they’re only part of a marginalized minority in theory. Given that, it can be all too easy to eschew solidarity with other minority populations. Resistance against white supremacy may not always feel like a distinctly personal concern if you’re a white Jew, because you don’t have the same casual hatred breathing down your neck every single day that a person of color does. That’s what makes Flip’s path so compelling. He is reminded that he is under threat, even if it’s a less obvious or enormous threat than those faced by more marginalized groups. He experiences hate head-on and learns that he does, indeed, have skin in the game.
Along those lines, the film acts as an argument for a positive version of what the Baldwin character is describing: a more perfect union between the black and Jewish populations. There’s one more scene that sticks out for a Jewish viewer, one that, at first, seems to have no Jewish presence. At a rally, black radical Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins), the man formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, surprisingly utters a few sentences familiar to most Hebrew school graduates: the three questions of first-century Jewish sage Hillel the Elder. As Ture puts them, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Then he caps it off with a fourth question, one that sums up Lee and his writers’ message: “And if not you, who?”