There’s a back story to this post. I was asked to write it yesterday by Seattle’s alternative paper The Stranger. Specifically, they asked for some “historical perspective” to singer Macklemore’s perverse twist on wardrobe malfunction onstage last Friday night, when he decided it’d be cool to perform in what’s sold in variety stores as a “Sheik/Fagin mask,” huge hook nose and all.
When the shit hit the fan, the Seattle-born Macklemore said his get-up was merely a “witch mask” and there was nothing anti-Semitic about it. This morning, Tuesday, he finally issued an apology: “I had no idea,” he said. And later this morning, despite huge numbers of comments on its coverage, The Stranger decided that “this story is over.”
I disagree, so am posting what I wrote right here:
For years I thought of myself as a wandering Jew. I moved not just between cities but between continents — London to Jerusalem to New York to Seattle. It was as though I fit the stereotype of the “rootless cosmopolitan.” Yet while I now seem to have become rooted after all, or at least as rooted as anyone whose houseboat floats on forty feet of water can be, I still can’t help thinking of rootless cosmopolitanism – anti-Semitic code for shiftless, untrustworthy, disloyal Jewishness — as a rather attractive existential state of being. And I still romanticize the idea of the wandering Jew, even though I know it began as an anti-Semitic legend in Christian Rome.
The story goes that a Jewish cobbler wouldn’t allow Christ to rest on his stoop during the trek to Golgotha, for which Christ condemned him to wander the world for eternity, with no rest. The Crusaders brought the legend back to England in the 12th century, where it was embroidered and expanded, and where this particular wandering Jew was born several centuries later. I’d be the only Jew in a Catholic convent school whose nuns referred to me as “the Hebrew girl” — with a certain pause before the word Hebrew, as though to emphasize that they were using a delicate euphemism. At least they refrained from telling me that I’d killed Christ (or given him no rest). Instead, they told me I was going to limbo, which seemed to be a kind of mezzanine between heaven and hell. To their horror, I kind of liked the idea of limbo.
This was only a few years after the end of World War Two. No, I’m not going to bring the six million in here; I have no desire to contribute to the obscenity of invoking their memory in support of current argument. My point is that despite its anti-Nazi stance, England was still deeply anti-Semitic. Which is not surprising given that it was where the “blood libel” first burst into murderous flame.
The blood libel was a medieval urban legend about Jews ritually slaughtering Christian boys and draining their blood to mix into Passover matzos (I kid you not). It spread like wildfire. Thousands of Jews were burned alive and otherwise massacred (and several boys declared saints) until Jews were expelled completely from British shores in 1290, to be allowed back only in 1655. In the light of which, Queen Isabella of Spain’s much better-known expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, followed by that of all Spain’s Muslims thirty years later, seems pretty par for the course.
The two most infamous Jews in all of literature were created by Englishmen strong and true: Shylock in the 16th century and Fagin in the 19th. Both were portrayed as hunch-backed, lecherous-lipped, greedy-eyed, and of course, flamboyantly hook-nosed (a word that is inherently prejudicial — in Arab countries, it’s known as an eagle’s nose, and has traditionally been considered a sign of nobility). But neither Fagin nor Shylock were new creations. They were personifications of cartoon stereotypes that had become widespread with printing. The Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer didn’t invent the style, but it did help propagate it so widely that it still features on hysterically anti-Semitic websites from the USA to Poland to Yemen. It appeared in Egyptian schoolbooks and newspapers for years. And it turned up with an ironic twist in Denmark in 2006 with the publication of cartoons caricaturing Muhammad and all Muslims as terrorists, all with the “Sheik/Fagin nose” sold so amusingly as a mask at party stores. One Semite apparently looks pretty much like another.
Mild-mannered Seattle might seem a sweet respite from all this. Yet it was in Seattle that I first heard someone say “he Jewed me down” — quite blithely, with no self-consciousness, as though it were perfectly normal. Here that someone tried to make me her token Jew (“Wow, I’ve never had a Jewish friend before,” she said, and she didn’t after either). Here that a former Catholic schoolboy who didn’t realize I was Jewish (“that’s Jewish, you don’t look funny” went the old music-hall joke) assumed that I’d join him in changing the words of the carol “Joy to the world” to “Fuck all the Jews.” Here that I get a finger-pointing “you people” or “you Jews” as I’m held responsible for the actions of an Israeli government I criticize far more bitterly than those to whom the accusatory fingers belong. And it’s here, in the comments on The Stranger’s coverage of the Macklemore affair, that I find all the usual anti-Semitic code words: “touchy,” “thin-skinned,” and that old standby “pushy.”
Seattle is a young city, almost an ahistorical one compared to Jerusalem, and this ahistorical sense has allowed me to find calm writerly perspective on what happened halfway round the world in the Middle East of fifteen hundred, two thousand, even three thousand years ago. I’m immensely grateful for that. But could an absence of historical awareness just be another way of saying innocence? Or should that be ignorance?
When the subject of literary fraud came up in conversation not long ago, for instance, I mentioned the most infamous example of all – “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And was stunned to realize that nobody had heard of this screed, which first surfaced in Russia in 1903. Purportedly the record of a meeting of leading Jews plotting to take over the world, it’s a classic demonstration of the ornate convolutions performed by the paranoid-conspiratorial mind, and has thus proved remarkably resilient to all evidence that it’s a fiction. Hitler made much use of it, of course, and America’s own tainted automotive titan Henry Ford had half a million copies printed and distributed in the 1920s. You can still find the full text on anti-Semitic websites, while print versions, complete with the usual hook-nosed illustrations, continue to sell steadily in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Perhaps Seattle is a bit less innocent after Macklemore’s now infamous twist on the idea of wardrobe malfunction. Or perhaps not. I opt to believe him when he says that he had no idea of the anti-Semitic stereotype, and can understand his initial defensiveness — nobody likes to have their unconscious biases paraded in public. But as he now acknowledges, it’s precisely this no-idea-ness that’s the problem. And that may be true for Seattle as well as for him.
We pride ourselves here on being progressive and tolerant. That’s part of our civic image. But tolerance is an ambiguous ideal. You only need to tolerate what – or whom — you don’t really accept. Stereotypes are inherent in the idea of tolerance, and until we can get beyond them, our proud progressiveness runs the risk of being… well, just another mask.
Ask your nice Seattle liberals how they feel about Native Americans. Better yet, watch them walk down the sidewalk past a few guys with brown paper bags, having a great time.
Oh dear, the constant human need to define ourselves against some “other” that we feel free to denigrate and project on doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Thank you Lesley for calling us on it.
How disappointing a species we are sometimes. Gratitudes, ace
its a great article based on facts ,its also a fact that western civilization couldn’t have been possible without contribution the Muslims n Jews
Perhaps, as you refer to the Blood Libel in England, you are aware of this historical document. preserved in the Child Ballads? FYI anyway:
Hadn’t seen this one before. Thanks (I think!). The one I remember because it’s wicked short is this, from about the same time: “Repent, repent, oh England / Repent while thou hast space / And do not like the wicked Jews / Deny God’s proffered grace.”
Wow Lesley! Growing up at Izmir, Turkey with Jewish neighbors I never heard of this stories. There was a mutual respect one another and I never heard any belittling remarks or this kind of stereotyping. My parents let me visit Jewish neighbors by myself during my childhood because they did not have children and they adored me. Every morning they greet each other from windows or at the entrance of our apartment. Jews lived in my city or country as a respected citizens. We never mix the two. Israilie governments wrong actions towards Palestenians and our Jewish citizens .
Thanks, Fatma — I appreciate the positive counter-balance.
whew! Leslie…i mean this could take days and months to discuss.
i am just re-reading “Ivanhoe” and surely Sir Walter Scott also stereotyped Jews….The truth is, as Humans, we don;t seem to move on….in fact, in may ways, we are becoming more “medieval.”
But, on the up side, Leslie, glad to see you back in the fray. take care
You’re right: there’d be hardly any English lit left if were to judge by anti-Semitism alone. I choose to still adore T.S.Eliot, for instance, despite lines like “The Jew squats on the windowsill / The rats are underneath the piles” (Gerontion). Sigh.
When I suggested to my English Lit professor that T.S. Elliot was anti-Semitic, she looked at me aghast, saying it wasn’t possible! She said no one had ever broached this idea to her… I could read his works then and find instances, why was I able to, and not her or anyone else?
I enjoyed your article and hope it brings awareness to the countless who remain in the dark about racial, ethnic and religious bias.
I feel a little torn reading this. First, I think you did an amazing job of explaining the history behind this whole ordeal. I think anyone, Macklemore included, would see how offensive the costume is after reading this. But I also think to myself, do I know any better? I didn’t know most of what you wrote about. It may seem crazy, but the reality is our schools teach us white American history. Every different nationality and race are left out of the text books, or only mentioned in relation to a white American topic. It really is a shame. There should be no way a person can get into their 20s and 30s and still be ignorant about these things, but what if they are never taught?
Excellent point about the mono-cultural focus of American education (which also accounts for American helplessness with world geography). There’s a parochialism behind all this that I find very disturbing.
I guess my point with the brief historical tour was that I fell in love with the ideas of the wandering Jew and the rootless cosmopolitan before I knew their origins in anti-Semitism — i.e. biased ideas work their into our minds without us knowing it, let alone why. I should have made that clear. But I’m sure you recognized that “Sheik/Fagin” mask nevertheless for what it was.
The man at one point had a debilitating cough syrup addiction and saw no issue with a straight white dude being the spokesman for the LGBT community’s relationship to hip-hop.
“Sorry, I’m more than a little slow” is a shockingly plausible defense in his case.
Great post!! I wasn’t aware of all the history.
It’s sad that there’s still so much ignorance and prejudice in the world.
I definitely related to a lot of what you said. I feel like Macklemore had to have known and just wanted attention. It’s so insensitive t a people that have always been put on trial.
Like others I had no idea about the depth and history of these feelings. I remember asking what anti-semitism actually meant after Mel Gibson made the news – or rather where it came from. – as I struggle to comprehend that people can seem to decide to hate on an entire human ‘group’ without cause. So it seems to be a believing in old/urban stories and legends? Really? Incredible. How are practical men like Henry Ford or educated men like TS Elliot able to be drawn in by this nonsense? On the other hand I have been stabbed, axed, beaten and singled out for prejudice by members of my ‘own kind’ thanks to nothing more than an accent. So I do get it. People can be shallow, arrogant, ignorant…innocent?
Great post, thanks.
Much of the Jew hatred today comes from Islam and the Quran, but it is not the whole picture. We must admit that much hatred throughout history have come from the so-called Christians, the Catholic Church and the Lutherans. It is unfortunately the truth.
(Let me remind you all of Pope Urban II’s speech when he started the very first crusade. All Jews they found on the way to Jerusalem to be killed without mercy).
Where did the Nazis come from? Only one crazy man? If you investigate you will find that many SS officers had backgrounds in Catholicism […]
But after the Holocaust the attitude of the Jews improved a lot. I hope it lasts. If you read the Bible, you will understand that Salvation comes from the Jews. No man took the life of Jesus, He gave it as a sacrifice for ALL sin.
On the other hand (and there are many hands here), this from the Quran (Sura 2, verse 62): “Surely they that believe, and those that follow the Jewish scriptures, and Christians, and Sabians — all who believe in God and the Day of Judgment, and do right — shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall be on them; neither shall they sorrow.”
Plus of course the justly famous “To you your religion, to me mine.”
I respect your relatively unbiased opinion and the fact that you respected Macklemore’s apologies and were open to the fact that people can make mistakes.
Since my knowledge on the topic is nearly non-existent i will refrain from diving into the heart of the issue but I think we can say that there are a lot of things in the world and it is hard to keep track of all the symbolism. Also given what a commenter above (or is that below) said regarding the mono-cultural focus I guess we should consider giving a public apology by these stars as genuine for if nothing else, the relatively obscure topic became that little bit less obscure and may help in raising the issue and awareness hopefully in the right manner.
I am a Jew. I married a Jew and had three Jewish children. I try hard not to be offended but it seems there something offensive in his actions. I believe people should think first and then no apology is needed.
I’m from the suburbs of NYC so we have plenty of Jews here. But even as someone who grew up surrounded by Jews, I didn’t see the costume as anti-Semitic at first. I was just confused as to why Macklemore decided to wear a really ugly mask since it wasn’t Halloween. After seeing the reaction, I see it now in context and I understand. Though I probably would not have made the connection had a Jew not pointed it out to me. Like a commenter posted above, it is difficult to know what symbol may be offensive to others. It all depends on your personal experiences.
I remember being very surprised when I first went to Spain to see that during Holy Week, all the men carrying the religious floats were decked out in what looked like the Ku Klux Klan uniform. As it turns out, the KKK appropriated that costume for their cause and it became a negative symbol here in the US. However in Spain they’ve been using that uniform for hundreds of years during their processions and it carries no negative association and is part of Catholic tradition. It’s still jarring for me to see, but the symbolism doesn’t have KKK connotation over there. Not sure if it’s in the same vein as Macklemore’s situation since he has lived in the US his whole life and should be more aware of these things. But it’s just a thought.
Thanks, Amelie — that’s an excellent and (in this context) wonderfully ironic example of the need for awareness not only of cultural context, but also of its history.
In this case ignorance is not bliss. He went down several notches in my esteem.
Reblogged this on World of Values and commented:
A good post regarding Macklemore’s jarring appearance in a “Jewish costume”, and why the costume has a long and highly-bigoted history in Abrahamic religion. On point:
I enjoyed reading your post. You have great opinions and I agree Macklemore’s costume was a bit absurd, no matter what his goal or angle was. I think your opinion is a BIT broad, saying that Seattle is innocent/ignorant because of the people you have met. Well, I’m from Germany and people know that, and I have not once been called a Nazi whereas when I have travelled other places people aren’t afraid to make that “joke.” It depends who you surround yourself with. You will find innocent/ignorant people everywhere! Don’t let them get to you. They’re uneducated and have nothing better to do.
Thanks for posting!
I spent last 2 hours reading your articles ! And must say: awseome website ! !
That he has has been known to dress in costume, and hang outside the venues with his fans in costume, I can honestly believe his intent was none other than what he stated. As a Jewish person myself AND a as a person that respects Macklemores work, I think this has been hyped out of control. If you listen to his music, his words of support for various walks of life, you would be gretting him with an apology. This is anti-semetic paranoia.
I was horrified to recently read that the majority of younger Americans do not even know what “the Holocaust” means as a phrase. Shocking lack of history teaching…
A White guy who sings in a traditionally African-American style dressed as a Jewish man. Confused much?
Marginalising people for their religion, nationality, or cultural background is what sells copy, gets people elected and starts wars. In Britain a right wing political party is causing a feeding frenzy on immigration. This is no new event. History is full of examples of pea brained thinkers who have caused untold misery and death. Current world events, which I don’t need to list, focus on difference rather than similarity and look where that has led. So be grateful for dialogue giving the culprit an opportunity to review their act or statement which has caused offence, rather than filling the coffers of arms manufacturers and dealers.
Great Post, but lets keep ‘It Real” as we all know when a band hits the stage? No matter what they are wearing, dressed up in, or masks or not, it’s “Entertainment” not downing on some group of people…..
No matter what Macklemore does in a their show, lets remember, It’s A Show, not to be taken seriously. Give them break already. Their messages in their Music is really the point…… I still, and always will LUV them!
Author, Catherine Lyon 🙂
Interesting. As a British male 20yo I grew up with a lot of the anti-semitic nonsense without really associating it with Jewish people. I didn’t know any Jewish people but if I did, they would have just been normal friends. As I got older though I still laughed at Jewish jokes about money or whatnot. Just as I laughed at a tonne of un-pc jokes relating to race, gender, religion.
The side of me which studies this knows the world would be a whole lot better if Israel had more power. That the Jewish population was 500 million rather than what… 40? but then, this kind of silly costume is what I would laugh at… Ok not in this context, maybe on Family guy but… It doesn’t change the fact I support Jewish people far more than Christians and FAR more than Muslims.
But hey, Cerabellum, why would you “support” any one religious group as a whole, whether Jews, Christians, or Muslims? Maybe think about it a moment, and then ask if this isn’t another form of stereotyping…
Plus you seem to have fallen into the trap of confusing Israel with Judaism. The Israeli government may present itself as representing all Jews, but I’m damned if it represents me, or the majority of Jews I know, or even half of Israeli Jews.
Yes I do hear that as a consensus among Jewish people who don’t live in Israel. I am not a religious man so I don’t prefer religions based solely on their teachings. I prefer them on how they are implemented in communities – a function of social evolution.
Christians a few hundred years ago were the epitome of regression and savagery. Now they just have a few pockets of extremists, all bark and no bite. Islam to this day envelops a country in darkness. I haven’t found a majority Muslim country so far which doesn’t implement some part of Sharia.
This isn’t just about censoring opinions. It is about all kinds of horrible issues. Some extremely similar to Christianity a few hundred years ago, others a whole new species of evil. Marrying children, raping wives – treating women like property. Murdering minorities; gay people, atheists, bloggers and activists. murdering apostates despite their heritage being christian – it’s all about the men…
Who knows whether Islam will evolve to the extent Christianity has – I hope it does. But I sympathize greatly with Israel. By all accounts not the most rational, morally sounds country in the world but… To be surrounded with such hatred, often directed at exterminating Jews as well… I could never understand that feeling.
I guess Jewish people have just been the most innocuous, placid religious influence on my life. I like it that way 🙂
“Innocuous and placid”? — I wish! But…
Sometimes I fear Israel is well on the way to becoming a kind of Jewish Saudi Arabia, with fanatic believers dictating a distorted hypernationalist “death-to-Arabs” form of extreme Judaism. No religion has a monopoly on either “truth” or ugliness.
And another “but”:
Sharia is not the monolithically repressive system you seem to think it is. As Boyd Tomkin wrote in The Independent re Sadakat Kadri’s wonderful history of sharia, ‘Heaven on Earth’ (an ironic title, of course), “the kinds of sharia now trumpeted by theocrats and militants always owe more to human arrogance than to divine inspiration.”
The problem here is the confusion of militant extremist forms of a religion with the whole of that religion, whatever religion we may be talking about.
That is interesting – I don’t know much about Israel to be honest save a couple of documentaries. It would be mortifying if Israel took such a path but given Jewish history, I guess anything’s possible…
As for Islam, divine inspiration can only get you so far, I agree. Although I have read the Koran and it is a shocking book. Of course a lot of it is just repetition and the divinity of Allah but… There are teachings in there that frankly are pure evil. Now this isn’t to say the old testament – even to some extent the new – doesn’t have shocking things in it.
But it certainly plays out differently in today’s world and that is, as a non religious person, what i am interested in. What I see is that nearly all Islamic majority country has psychological and physical abuse of women built into society. That an influx of immigrant from places like Saudi and Pakistan into Sweden has directly resulted in Sweden now having the second highest rape per ca-pita in the world. Highest in Europe.
I have the same view as you on Israel turning into some rabid, foaming mouthed anti all Muslim country but… Given all the surrounding caliphates have a similar stance toward them, I don’t think I would see things any better or act better.
“Surrounding caliphates”? “A couple of documentaries”? Cerabellum, I think it’s time to do some serious reading so that you can avoid coming to weird, uninformed, and unwarranted conclusions. You might start with actually reading the Bible, since the Quran is a pussycat by comparison. And by looking at exactly where that Swedish-rape statistic comes from, since it sounds like racist urban legend to me.
I am sorry Lesley, but you are wrong! Now when somebody attack Israel, it is a disguised anti-Semitism, flat out. Some people are so ignorant about Israel, but they love to feel sorry for Palestinians. They have no idea that “Palestine” and “palestinian” the words are a modern invention, that jews bought the land in Israel with hard money, and that the Arab Lands are huge and Israel is the tiniest country possible. That sixty years later, the so called palestinians, for political reasons, still leave in refugee camps. How about all the refugees from Arab countries, were are they, my family included(from algeria, out of Spain from the time of Isabella)? I will tell you why you can’t find any jewish refugees, because they started to rebuilt their lives as soon as they were expelled!
It takes some chutzpah to talk about ignorance so ignorantly!
Palestine is a very ancient name, used by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Though you are right that Palestinians still live in the refugee camps for political reasons — because Israel has confiscated their land.
Fellow Seattleite here. I’ve noticed Seattle’s subtle racism on many occasions, first when I was living in the CD and being told several times I would get raped or stabbed for being “white” if I walked home alone often like I did, later I saw the disproportionate treatment by police toward those of color on the street when I was caught up in my active drug addiction. I’ve been told that Seattle police are more racist than those in many other urban centers, and I believe it. If the general population here were less prejudiced, the behavior of our police force would not be countenanced like it is now and in the past. I am aware that I am privileged because I look white, and I don’t take that for granted… I do my best to counter the unjust discrimination I see around me, whether for a person’s color, age, sexual identity, creed, religion, and so on. Thank you for your thoughtful post.
Let me think about this, a white guy who does rap and is looking like a jewish guy……………………..
I have entirely too much to say in response to this wonderful article and all the thoughtful comments. May I post a pingback link to your article in an upcoming post on my site?
Sure — it’s public domain. — L. (Just remember to link and/or attribute.)