A Very Scary Halloween

I love Halloween. I love the spooky music, the dark and mysterious atmosphere, the grinning jack-o-lanterns and the fairy lights. Most of all I love the opportunity to put on a disguise, to take on a different identity: a Viking, a witch, a vampire. To wrap myself in tulle and fake furs and gallivant around as someone other than myself for one magical night. But I saw something scary this Halloween — and not the fun kind of scary.

I saw an advertisement for an “Israeli Soldier Costume for Kids,” marketed for a brief time by Walmart for the bargain price of $27.44, and a “Sheikh Fagin Nose” for $9.52, proving once again that when our friendly neighborhood retail giant makes up its mind to be offensive, it’s going to be offensive to everybody.

But why should an IDF costume be offensive? Might it not, as the Walmart advert claims, help youngsters to “step into their Jewish heritage”? I’ll tell you why, as an Israeli-American IDF veteran, I find this costume upsetting: it reduces the identities of the parties involved to stereotypes; it trivializes what is a deeply emotional conflict for millions of people; and it perpetuates the glorification of violence among our youth.

It is easy for American citizens who have no connection to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or to the Middle East, to treat the whole thing as a distant and peripheral issue. It is easy, given the media coverage in the US that the conflict receives, to imagine Israeli soldiers as tough, scary men with big guns mowing down Palestinian citizens, or engaged in some kind of mortal combat with “the Arabs.” It is likewise easy to picture the Arab peoples (who, it must be added, differ from one another immensely and should not be lumped together under such a generic category) as hook-nosed, dark-skinned, turbaned Third-Worlders running around committing acts of terrorism. These stereotypes are founded in anti-Semitism — by which I mean prejudice against not only the Jews but all the Semitic peoples, including their neighbors the Arabs — that goes back centuries, long before the founding of the United States.

As Halloween costumes, the IDF soldier and the “Sheikh Fagin” nose honor these stereotypes and make them socially acceptable as a source of comic relief or entertainment. (It is interesting to note that “Fagin” alludes to the character from Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, in which the old miser of the same name is described as an ugly, immoral, greedy Jew, and hook noses are historically part of the European anti-Semitic representation of Jews, suggesting that the costume is both an overt insult to Arabs and a covert jab at Jews).

Halloween has a long-standing tradition of offensive and racist costumes, including the “Japanese Geisha,” the “Mexican Bandito,” the “China Doll,” and the “Indian Brave.” In this day and age, I don’t think many people (least of all those exposed to a higher education) would claim that these costumes are respecting the cultures they appropriate. And while these offensive getups may be (and hopefully are) on their way out, it doesn’t make the appearance of new racist costumes any less of an issue

We need to talk about these issues wherever they arise. The Walmart costumes are a big enough deal to merit being talked about — because they indicate a wider and disturbing trend in the way that Americans perceive the conflict and the people involved in it. Being Israeli does not mean being a gun-toting boy-soldier. Being an Arab doesn’t mean wearing a keffiyeh and having a hooked nose. To represent these peoples as caricatures, and to let children playact them, is racist and ignorant of delicate political realities.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has touched — has harmed — millions of lives. So many have died, and more die every day, in a conflict that has recently reached new heights of bloodshed and tension. Everyone living in the region has lost a family member, or knows someone who has; unlike the US, which has the privilege of fighting wars only on foreign shores, for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples (and the wider Arab population, with the rise of the Islamic State and the governmental deterioration resulting from the Arab Spring) war is perpetually on their doorstep.

It is a grim reality that Israel’s citizens, both men and women, are conscripted to serve in the military, and that a number of those conscripts die during their service, having just recently graduated high school. It is a sad truth that the Palestinians living in the Middle East have never known true peace, have never known stability and security, and that their people have also died in pursuit of these dreams. To clothe our children in soldiers’ uniforms is to treat all of the suffering and sacrifice of a soldier as a joke, as a costume to be put on and taken off, to be paraded for our friends. To put on a hook nose and call yourself a sheikh is to engage a stereotype that paints Arabs as ugly and alien. Both serve to simplify whole identities to a parody and to remind true members of those nationalities — be they Israeli or Arab — of the degree to which they are misunderstood in American culture. It reminds them of the fact that they will always be the Other.

The boy pictured modeling the Israeli soldier costume looks to be around 6 or 7 years old. His red beret is crammed onto his tiny head, and the whole ensemble looks too big on him, looks like a joke. A sick joke, because he’s also holding a toy gun the length of his entire forearm. Beyond the grotesqueness of making a Halloween costume of an ethnic identity, the fact that we as a nation still endorse having small children play with plastic replicas of killing machines is abhorrent. I was a shooting instructor in my service. I know what guns can do, and fortunately have never used one on a human being. But a combat soldier often must use his weapon to defend himself, his comrades and his country — not because it’s fun, but because it is his duty. The taking of other human lives to save yours and your loved ones’ is not a joke, and it is certainly not fit for a costume. That is not a game for children to play, even for a night.

We have to stop raising our kids to treat these weapons as recreational objects, as toys to be treated lightly. We have to stop raising them to believe that soldiers are heroes because they “kill all the bad guys,” and that the bad guy looks like a hook-nosed guy in a keffiyeh. So a seven-year-old boy doesn’t understand nuance — then don’t let him dress as a soldier! Let him be Harry Potter or Superman or a pirate or a Ninja Turtle. Let Halloween be a day of fun and make-believe, not a day of encouraging racist stereotypes and a false perception of what it means to be a soldier.

I am a very patriotic American and a very patriotic Israeli. So much so that I volunteered to serve in the IDF for two years before enrolling in college in the US. But I will never condone putting on the uniform, or any semblance thereof, as a costume — not for kids and not for adults. It’s bad enough that guns are such a big part of American culture and national identity; bad enough that in many states, kids are exposed to murder weapons even before they know how to ride a bike; bad enough that we confuse war-hawkishness, racism, and a thirst for glory for patriotism, and engender the same in our troops. The uniform is a burden that we should carry with respect, but also with caution — and what kind of sick joke is it to make a mockery of that burden by having our kids play dress-up in it? How can we, in good conscience, put on big beaky noses and keffiyehs and go around calling ourselves Arab sheikhs?

Thankfully, the social media response to Walmart’s ill-begotten costumes was so overwhelmingly negative that the company quickly pulled both products. This can be counted as a victory for those who, like me, believe that these costumes are reprehensible. However, the fact that they ever got past the brainstorming stage is profoundly disturbing. With some people calling the current wave of violence in Israel and Palestine a Third Intifada, and people on both sides of the conflict dying practically every day, we cannot allow this kind of ignorant behavior to continue on our part. We, as Americans, do not understand this war and do not feel its effects. We, and certainly our children, must not play at war when others are dying in it.

About the Author
Brit Felsen-Parsons is an Israeli-American from New Jersey, recently released from voluntary service in the IDF. She is now studying political science and Middle Eastern affairs at Columbia University in New York. Brit is the cofounder of Columbia's chapter of Mishelanu, a national organization for Israeli-American college students.
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