Zohan messes with (and reinforces) stereotypes


You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Directed by Dennis Dugan
Screenplay by Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow and Robert Smigel
Starring Adam Sandler, John Turturro, Emmanuelle Chriqui
113 minutes

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is a comedy film which opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestine will both love and hate at the same time. The film is about superhuman Israeli commando Zohan Dvir (played by Adam Sandler) who fakes his own death in order to achieve his life-long ambition of moving to the United States to become a hairdresser. Having successfully smuggled himself to the US, Zohan finds work at a salon run by the movie’s love interest, Palestinian Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). The Palestinians have their shops on one side of the street and the Israeli immigrants on the other.

In many respects this film is an extension of the plot in Ari Sandel’s short film West Bank Story (not so subtly borrowed from West Side Story), a musical about an Israeli soldier who falls in love with a Palestinian and the rivalry between their families’ competing falafel stands.

Zohan, like West Bank Story, presents the Israeli-Paslestinian conflict – the consequence of the Zionist colonisation and occupation of the Palestinians’ national homeland – as a conflict between two groups of extremists who just hate each other for no reason. The “hate” is presented as an obstacle that prevents Israelis and Palestinians from fulfilling their respective aspirations, such as Zohan’s dream of cutting hair. The racist hatred of the Zionist colonisers toward Arabs is thus put on the same moral plane as the hatred felt by Palestinians toward their oppressors, with the message that if only both sides put aside their differences can the characters achieve a happy ending.

In many ways Zohan manages to cram in all the myths surrounding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip that are prevalent in the West. After Zohan tells his parents that he is sick of the army, his mother responds by telling him that “they have been fighting for 2000 years; it can’t be much longer”. Every time the Palestinian resistance fighters are referred to, it is as “terrorists”. Even Lebanon’s Hezbollah party, which holds 14 of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament and had ministers in the Lebanese government in 2005-06, are referred to as “terrorists” (they even have their own “terrorist supplies hotline”).

Yet the film also displays the anti-occupation argument: In pursuing a “terrorist” leader called Phantom, Zohan is confronted by a Palestinian who asks him where the Jews have been for the previous hundreds of years, if it is “their land”. Zohan can only respond by kicking the “terrorist” in the head, promising that he will “keep that in mind”. And in a hilarious response to Zohan desiring to leave the Israeli army, his father (Shelley Berman) responds by accusing him of being a “whiner”.

Zohan’s father served in the June 1967 war when, he claims, the Israelis were “surrounded on all sides”. This repeats the myth of Israel as an almost defenceless victim of Arab “aggression”. In the film though, this myth is called into question through Berman’s delivery, which sounds like an old man exaggerating. An unimpressed Zohan responds sarcastically with the line, “I’m sorry I wasn’t involved in a war which lasted six days!”, to which his father only further perpetuates the absurdity, saying: “Six days and five hours – everyone always forgets the five hours.”

However, while the “laughs” almost balance each other out in terms of a pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian perspectives, the film is ultimately more sympathetic to Zohan, as a sympathetic Rambo-like figure, than his Arab antagonist Phantom (John Turturro) who, unlike Zohan, has to grapple with learning how not to hate the other side.

Zohan is a one-person powerhouse who can fight all the “terrorists” on his own through amazing fighting skills (mostly hand to hand, although the occasional grenade and ping-pong racket is used) when the reality is that Israel has won its wars against neighbouring Arab states through massive use of superior firepower provided by the US government.

When Zohan’s pursuit of Phantom results in the destruction of an Arab’s store, Zohan is able to set it right by flinging a business card made by the Israeli army with details of how to receive compensation. The softening of this blow is quite obvious, particularly as it dilutes the darker humour, as compared to Team America whose elite commandos wipe out Paris in the pursuit of terrorists without regard for people’s lives. However, Zohan’s action only serves to reinforce the idea that the Israeli army means well. This image couldn’t be further from the truth.

When I was in the West Bank’s Balata refugee camp at the time of an Israeli army “incursion” in 2006, the Israeli soldiers thought nothing of terrorising the camp’s residents, destroying their property and even killing unarmed civilians in order to reach the 16 Palestinian resistance fighters who were the soldiers’ supposed target. Not once did any of us in the camp think discussion of compensation to the families who were victims of the army’s destructive actions would ever lead anywhere, let alone having such services advertised by commandos like Zohan. Rather, as is the case with Israeli attacks on Gaza, leaflets are sometimes dropped out of planes telling the Palestinians that the Israeli military “can’t be held responsible” if it doesn’t evacuate areas that are about to be subject to Israel air strikes and artillery shelling.

Nevertheless, the film’s ultimate bad guys are neither Palestinians nor Israelis, who are all ultimately good people who just need to leave the dispute behind them when they move to the “home of the free”, the United States. In the film, the ultimate enemy of both Israeli and Palestinian immigrants to the US is big business and its fascistic thugs. The conflict between Palestinian and Israeli shopkeepers in the poor part of New York City where Zohan cuts hair is, in part, a result of a plot by rich property developers to kick the shopkeepers out and build a new shopping mall. In this sense, Zohan borrows heavily from other comedies like the Dodge Ball or The Castle, in which the corporate developer is the bad guy and the “little man” who overcomes them is the hero. Zohan’s primary plot is therefore based on the idea that racist divisions between working people are used by corporate capitalists to serve their greedy interests, with the corollary that only by uniting together can working people overcome such an enemy.

The hiring by the corporate developer of neo-Nazis to carry out the corporation’s dirty work is rather interesting, particularly as collaboration between US corporations and Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime in the 1930s and early ’40s facilitated the Holocaust and provided the impetus for the imperialist-Zionist collaboration in creating the Israel state.

However, just as in Iron Man (see the review in last month’s Direct Action), corporate power manages to be criticised, while US patriotism remains unscathed. Although there wouldn’t still be an Israeli-Palestinian conflict without Washington’s 60-year backing for the Zionist colonisation of Palestine, Zohan’s US-born characters are all convinced that the conflict is just something “over there”.

The United States is presented as a nation that unites these warring people, both commonly fixated on Mariah Carey’s breasts, while she sings the national anthem at an Israel vs Lebanon hacky sack match. The contradiction in American, like Australian, capitalism is that while they are based on capitalist control of the mass media (including mass entertainment), the reactionary myths they peddle, particular via cinema, are deviations from rather than at the core of the “battler” traditions of their societies.

Zohan is a contradictory film that makes it almost impossible to come up with a blanket view of its social and political message. Certainly it’s humour is often witty and anyone familiar with Israeli and Palestinian culture will relate to the stereotypes and the outrageous use of humus.