What’s the best way for Orthodox Jews to protest a bunch of gay drag queens? By transforming a bunch of Mexican laborers into ethnic drag queens — for a fee.
That, apparently, is the belief of the Jewish Political Action Committee, supposedly a fringe group (see update below) of Brooklyn-based Hasids whose unusual protest strategy at this weekend’s New York City Pride parade made headlines in the New York Times.
The Jewish group hired Mexican laborers to stand in a protest pen holding up anti-gay signs like “Judaism prohibits homosexuality” — all while wearing the tzizit (prayer garment), payos (sidelocks), and black hats typically worn by Orthodox members of the fold.
Wondering why JPAC outsourced its prejudice by getting Mexicans instead of young Jews to protest on behalf of its cause? Heshie Freed, a member of JPAC, explained: “The rabbis said that the yeshiva boys shouldn’t come out for this because of what they would see at the parade.”
So, rather than expose young impressionable Jews to the sinful sight of men in heels — because, what, young Moishele might be tempted to don a pair of stilettos and dump the Talmud in favor of drag? — JPAC actually paid other people to dress up like Jews. Well, guess what? There’s a word for that: It’s called, um, drag. Ethnic drag.
In 2009, Katrin Sieg wrote a whole book about the phenomenon of people trying to perform other people’s ethnicity, titled “Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, and Sexuality in West Germany.” She discusses the Kulturbund, an institution created by out-of-work Jewish performers with the approval of the Nazis, ostensibly to edify German Jews, but really to serve as counterpropaganda by convincing the world that the Nazis weren’t really oppressing anyone. In this context, Jewish actors had to render characters recognizable as Jews. To do that, they were forced to draw on anti-Semitic signifiers of Jewishness — some of which came from recent caricatures of Jews ripped straight from Nazi propaganda.
There’s a long and problematic history, then, of Jewish ethnic drag. Sometimes, as in the case of the Kulturbund, it manifests as Jews dressing up as hyper-stereotypical Jews. Other times, as in the case of rapper Macklemore’s 2014 performance, it manifests as non-Jews choosing to dress up like Jews. And still other times, as in the case of the Pride parade, we see Jews paying non-Jews to perform Jewish drag on their behalf — for a political cause.
The Pride parade isn’t the first time Orthodox Jews have done this, by the way. At last year’s Celebrate Israel Parade in New York, JPAC hired Hispanic folks to protest the Jewish LGBT contingent. And at this year’s parade, Jane Eisner discovered an African-American woman holding up a sign that said “Jewish mothers with short skirts shorten child’s life — 4 inches below knee is Torah law.” The protestor herself was wearing a short dress that did not extend below her knees — an apparent contradiction that her Jewish “employer” dissolved with this simple explanation: She’s a non-Jew.
All of which raises a thorny question: Is it ethical to pay someone to embody — very literally, in these cases — a political belief that is not their own?
When you consider the racial, ethnic and class dimensions in these scenarios, the question gets even more uncomfortable. The paid protestors — Mexicans, African-Americans — are presumably taking these jobs because they need the money. And hey, a gig’s a gig.
But by treating these people as blank slates with no personal beliefs of their own — by assuming that the protestors are floating signifiers upon which you can project your own religious and political affiliation — you’re treating them as if they are less than people. You’re treating them like chattel.
After all, how else would you explain the fact that JPAC is apparently totally unconcerned — even just on the practical level — with the optics of dressing up Mexicans to look like Jews? If the group is not worried that its paid protestors will confuse passersby, it’s only because it’s relying on these protestors to be seen by society as transparent — that is, to not really be seen at all, except as screens for someone else’s convictions.
More than these extremist Jews’ blatant homophobia, more than their ignorance of the history of Jewish ethnic drag, and more than the fistfight they provoked at the scene of an otherwise-joyful parade, it’s this implicit racism that should disturb us all.
UPDATE: A July 1 report in The Daily Beast indicates that JPAC may well be a “one-man homophobia machine” rather than a group.
Sigal Samuel is the Opinion Editor at the Forward. When she’s not tackling race or identity politics, she’s hunting down her Indian Jewish family’s Kabbalistic secret society. Her novel THE MYSTICS OF MILE END tells the story of a dysfunctional family with a dangerous mystical obsession. Her writing has also appeared in The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and BuzzFeed. Contact Sigal at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out her author website, like her page on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter.