“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
“Jewish? I dunno, am I?”
You probably recognize the former quote, even if you don’t know its origin. It’s a saying by Jewish Talmudic thinker Hillel, one of the most significant figures in Jewish history. It’s echoed early in Spike Lee’s new film BlacKkKlansman by the famous black activist and organizer Kwame Ture, who history classes taught me was named Stokely Carmichael. He’s speaking to members of a black student union in 1979, unaware that he’s being secretly recorded by police detective Ron Stallworth. Ture doesn’t cite Hillel by name, the saying having long since outlived its speaker. Yet still we have an icon of the struggle for black liberation stirring his audience with the words of an icon of Jewish cultural values. BlacKkKlansman is a film as much about one as it is the other, and we see this with the speaker of the second quote.
Flip Zimmerman is a white cop. He’s teamed up with Ron in an undercover investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron makes contact over the phone, and Flip plays Ron in the in-person meetings. Before his first contact with the Klan, Ron advises Flip to take off his “Jewish necklace.” “It’s not a Jewish necklace,” he insists, “it’s a Star of David.” “I didn’t even know you were Jewish,” Ron says.
“I dunno, am I?” he replies.
Jewishness in America wasn’t always a subclass of whiteness. Jews were a step lower on the racial hierarchy, an “off-white” if you will. It wasn’t until the horrors of the Holocaust became public knowledge that anti-Semitic prejudice became more or less taboo and Jews were assimilated into American whiteness. It’s a privilege we’ve enjoyed for decades, but with the knowledge that it’s a tenuous one. We take for granted that a white person who is Jewish isn’t a non-white person. But a member of the KKK would disagree, because whiteness is a construct meant to empower itself. These questions of identity and belonging are key to the modern Jewish experience, and Lee draws a direct line between this and the modern black experience. BlacKkKlansman is a movie about a black cop and a white cop. But to the KKK, it’s a movie about two non-white cops. It’s this lesson that Flip has to learn over the course of the film. “To you it’s a crusade, to me it’s a job,” he tells Ron. Ron retorts, “All that hatred, doesn’t it piss you off. Why are you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game?” At this point, Flip doesn’t realize that Ron’s crusade is a shared one. He’s a part of this fight whether he likes it or not.
“If I am not for myself, who is for me?”
Critics of BlacKkKlansman (most notably director Boots Riley) point out that the real Ron Stallworth never partnered with a Jewish officer, and that this invention is part of the film’s campaign to propagandize the police to marginalized people. But this misunderstands Lee’s entire project. He takes two people who are refused entry to “whiteness” by its violent gatekeepers, and shows how they cooperatively create an identity to infiltrate it. The film’s use of Judaism — and its invention of Flip—is a brilliant approach to an examination of whiteness as a construct.
Flip and Ron at one point discuss the idea of “passing,” that a non-white person could pass as white to gain access to its privileges. Prior to this, Flip hadn’t considered himself as a Jewish person at all, or indeed as anything but plain old white. When confronted with the anti-Semitism of the KKK, he’s forced to take stock of his identity and think about what whiteness means to him. In the act of adopting whiteness to fool the KKK, he becomes aware for the first time of the extent to which whiteness belonged to him in the first place. I don’t mean that Flip considers himself non-white, or that he has any right to do so. I mean that Flip must reckon what it means that his whiteness can be so quickly and violently revoked. “Maybe I have been passing,” he says.
It made me think of the times in my childhood when I was suddenly made aware of my difference from my friends and classmates. I grew up in a town so clueless about Judaism that I was once asked if I was allowed to celebrate Halloween. When my sisters and I were in elementary school, my mother would come into class and educate the other students about Hanukkah traditions. A few days after one of these lessons, I came into class to find a small manger on my desk, a message from another parent. Growing up Jewish in America means being the same as “everyone else,” until you aren’t. I wouldn’t dare compare this to the racist violence which black people are subjected to in this country; it’s not remotely on the same level. It’s Lee who draws a line between these struggles.
“And being for my own self, what am ‘I’?”
It’s this section of the Hillel quote that’s most significant to the film. BlacKkKlansman is all about the struggle to reconcile your personal identity with the box in which race and whiteness as a monolith tries to contain you. Who is Ron Stallworth? Who is Flip Zimmerman? Lee gives us so little information about either of them outside of their relationship to this case. They exist only in relation to whiteness, and their non-membership in it; they exist only as constructions in a white supremacist medium.
BlacKkKlansman is equally obsessed with the history of American cinema and its use as a tool of racial oppression. He opens with a scene from Gone with the Wind, he has his two main black characters debate the value of films about black cops, and he goes on to show the KKK laughing and shouting approvingly at The Birth of a Nation. Ron and Flip are not real people, any more than their combined “Ron Stallworth” is a real person. They are constructs by Lee, designed with the goal of examining the loss of identity that comes with being the victim of racist violence. The contradictions of a black man working in a white supremacist system, or a Jewish man being anointed a member of the KKK by David Duke himself, are contradictions brought on by the existence of whiteness itself. Are Ron and Flip ever “for their own selves”? And if so, who are they? It’s a uniquely Jewish question, respectfully adapted by Lee for his own purposes.
“If not now, when?”
The urgency of activism is one of the most important elements of Jewish faith. We are compelled to act, with our whole selves, and to act not sometime but now. BlacKkKlansman asks us to consider the nature of “action,” and the significance of acting within a system to change it. Ron argues with his girlfriend Patrice about the value of changing a system from within. She (not knowing at the time that Ron himself is a cop) insists that white supremacist organizations like the police can only be changed from the outside. Whether or not the film ultimately sides with Patrice or Ron is up to your interpretation, but it makes it very clear that Ron accomplishes very little in his investigation.
(Here we get into spoilers for the ending, so be warned).
After the KKK fail to bomb Patrice’s house and end up blowing themselves up, Ron and Flip’s chief call off the investigation, citing “budget cuts.” Some time later, Ron and Patrice find the KKK burning a cross outside Ron’s apartment building. Lee then cuts to footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA in 2017, and footage of the murder of Heather Heyer at the event. It’s a harrowing conclusion, and the message is clear: Ron ultimately accomplished very little by working within the system. In showing footage of Trump letting the neo-Nazi marchers off the hook, he also questions the efficacy of Obama’s time in office. BlacKkKlansman demands that its audience account for its lack of action by depicting Ron’s project as ultimately a failure. It implores you to not try and make change by playing by the rules, because the rules are designed to thwart you. Ron couldn’t finish the job then. What will you do now? Lee deliberately invokes the Jewish activist spirit here.
Though Flip’s arc doesn’t have a clear conclusion (one of my main issues with the film), BlacKkKlansman is still primarily a work about the ties that bind Jewish people and black people together in a shared struggle against white supremacy. Our enemy sees us as one and the same, Lee says, so why should we divide ourselves? We must confront our enemy together, or not at all. BlacKkKlansman is a rallying cry of solidarity to all oppressed people. I found myself thinking of another Hillel quote, perhaps even more famous than the one Kwame Ture recites, and one I heard again and again growing up: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.”