A larger-than-usual debate has erupted over the latest episode of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm: “Palestinian Chicken.” Our beloved anti-social, misanthropic, crazed individualist has taken his shtick to the freighted arena of Israel/Palestine relations, and popular culture may never be the same. Many have dismissed the episode as racist, perpetuating stereotypes and dangerously false representations, and they would be right. Others have found great humor and even brilliant social satire in the episode, some of it groundbreaking, and I would also have to agree that they are correct. It has been surprising that many in the longer-than-usual discussion thread (at Eleanor Kilroy’s post) dismissed the show as just racist, unfunny and unwatchable, so it seems a closer look at the less-discussed subversive side of this episode is warranted.
First, a disclaimer. Yes, this episode is filled with typically racist, stereotypical, reductive, and problematic representations of Palestinians, and for that I make no excuses or apologies, — it reflects the impoverished and racist/imperial nature of US popular culture and discourse at this time and place. In this sense, it is much like Bill Maher’s Real Time, Family Guy, most of CNN, and tons of other mainstream shows that betray an air of intelligence or even progressiveness while reproducing colonial and racist assumptions. And of course, different audiences, with different political and cultural orientations will watch this show, like all “texts,” differently. So, there is no single correct reading of this show, just endless debate and discussion, which is itself a reflection of both the quality of the show and the significance of the issues it exploits for comedy. However, whereas Maher’s anti-Arab racism is consistent, he usually paints his Jews, especially when secular and/or Israeli, as saints. Here Larry David is much more balanced, as a consistently scorching critic of US Jewish foibles. For example, “Palestinian Chicken” continues a thread exploring the “pitfalls/consequences of [knee-jerk Jewish] tribalism & exceptionalism,” started in the first episode of the season, “The Divorce,” in which Larry fires a Jewish-acting lawyer named Berg only to get burned in his divorce settlement with the “real” Jewish lawyer he stereotypically thought would be better. [Thanks to Adam Shapiro for making this connection.]
Some discussants worried that Jews watching this episode felt affirmed by it, and that Arabs uniformly hated it as racist, but a review of comments in US and Israeli media suggest this was far from uniform. At Haaretz, Israel’s leading daily, several commented that David was a “self-hater,” with a “stupid message,” that “purposely made Jews look like ‘racists’.” On HBO’s official CYE page, we find: “this episode crossed the line. It was disrespectful, insulting and downright antisemetic. Shame on you, Larry David!!” next to the comment from Faisal S., “I am Jordanian and absolutely loved this episode. I think Larry is brilliant…. i am laughing my a… off!!” And Nathan Burstein at The Jewish Daily Forward concluded his review with: “Some Israel lovers will find ‘Palestinian Chicken’ distasteful, but it’s a hit among David’s fans.”
My argument is that beyond the serious cultural limitations we sadly have come to expect on US television, there is also something else in this episode, something subversive, which is not common at all, and which casts light on the significant cultural moment we are living through. In this sense, I think too many critical thinkers with good politics have moved too quickly to throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one. Amidst the gross but predictable equalizing of two profoundly asymmetrical “sides” in this very real conflict, David and crew actually showcase Jewish racism in both its extreme and its liberal forms, and this is something truly rare on television. They also give us brief flashes of otherwise censored concepts like “occupation,” “settlements,” or even just the real-life restaurant posters which show an Israeli tank facing down children, or declare: “Right –vs- Might,” and “Visit Palestine” – things we never see on tv.
It can be hard to tell when these aspects of the show are intentionally subversive, and when they are more the unintentional product of David’s ad-lib production style in which his cast reproduces its own cultural assumptions whole cloth, whether or not tongue-in-cheek. Whichever it is, and we may never know for sure, I think the comedic tensions running through the show mirror a broad shift in the zeitgeist of both Jewish and non-Jewish [Western] public opinion about Israel that reflects the growing success of the non-violent Palestinian peace movement centered around Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions [BDS] called for by Palestinian Civic Society. It is not an accident that this show, shot earlier this year, appears at a time when anti-boycott legislation in Israel is being universally decried as undemocratic, even neo-fascist [see Haaretz op-ed]; when Alice Walker and hundreds of activist were sailing toward Gaza with letters, but were thwarted by Israeli frogmen cutting boat propellers in the dark of night; when a rising tide of artists and veterans of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa are vocally joining the new anti-apartheid struggle against Israel, as seen in the recent Feminists of Color Solidarity Statement signed by Angela Davis and others.
It is a commonplace in mainstream US culture since 1967 to collapse Jews and Israelis into a single entity, so that all criticisms of Israel can be falsely reduced to anti-Semitism. So it is not surprising when that happens in this episode in more than 10 places, for example when Larry and Jeff look at the restaurant’s pro-Palestine posters and Jeff says: “Yeah, they do not like the Jews,” instead of “they do not like illegal Israeli occupation.” But this false unity also starts to break down under the weight of the show’s comedic narrative, in the central theme that Larry is more loyal to the hot sex offered by his new Palestinian paramour than to his “own people’s” laughable insistence on separation and isolation. Clearly, Larry feels no obligation to Israel in this episode, and this brilliantly highlights the growing re-separation of Jewish from Israeli identities.
Another clear theme that emerges here is Larry’s willingness to make visible Israel’s arbitrary and violent excesses. Usually in our popular culture, there is a quasi-maniacal Israel-can-do-no-wrong mentality that also requires total erasure of occupation and injustice. But here, Larry references “settlements,” which he says would be “taken down …in the morning” if they’d “send their chicken over to Israel.” In an obvious critical reference to the “Ground-Zero Mosque” flap, the cast also makes light of both Israeli and US spatial intolerance when the Funkhauser says: “How in the world can they dare open up a Palestinian chicken restaurant next to the sacred land of that [Goldblatt’s] deli?” to which Larry responds: “Hey, this is America, they can do whatever they want!” Later, when Funkhauser decides to try the new chicken joint, he says, “Shalom. You know, I thought all last night, if Rabin can break bread with Arafat, I can have chicken at this anti-Semitic shit hole.” Some will correctly see his assumption that because the restaurant is Palestinian it is necessarily anti-Semitic and a shit hole as blatantly racist. However, he is also showcasing everyday Jewish racism and xenophobia in a frank and accurate way, and this is taboo in US culture.
And we have to discuss the deeply transgressive sex scene. When Larry is later having “the best sex [he’s] ever had, anywhere,” with Shara from the restaurant, she is screaming ecstatic epithets: “Fuck me, you fucking Jew,” and Larry escalates with: “Filthy Jew, filthy Jew.” Shara replies: “Filthy fucking Jew, you Zionist pig, you occupying fuck; occupy this!” Larry keeps things going with, “I’m an occupier, [yeah] I’m an occupier.” There is much more to this amazing scene, including Shara’s lines: “You want to fuck me? Like Israeli fucked my country? Show me what you got,” and: “Fuck me like Israel fucks my people; show me the Promised Land.” Most commentators have cringed at Shara’s “anti-Semitic” barrage, but most of what she says is accurate, and again crosses a taboo in our culture, which Larry happily admits: “I’m an occupier…” Where else have we ever seen Israel-as-oppressor in our pop culture landscape? This is powerful subversion.
As Larry triumphantly walks downstairs to greet a stunned Funkhauser who has been listening below, he recites the theme verse from the Scarlet Pimpernel, revealing to the audience a high degree of intentionality here and even literary sophistication. As a precursor to the “masked superhero” theme of later comic book culture, Larry as Pimpernel portrays himself as a “social assassin” super-hero who publicly plays a shallow fool, but is secretly a daring double agent. How strictly we are to take David’s literary reference remains up to us: The original play and novel place the Pimpernel’s true sympathies with the Trans-Channel aristocracies of France and Britain during the French Revolution, so this would translate into our times as a covert allegiance with the Trans-Atlantic US/Israeli imperial regimes against the Palestinian resistance. However, David may not have meant it this literally — many have just used the Pimpernel reference to refer to a generic undercover rebel, as when Nelson Mandela was called the Black Pimpernel before his capture and incarceration. I think David meant to refer to himself as a subversive double agent of some kind, hinting at deeper (social assassin) intentions behind his otherwise egocentric inter-ethnic sexual escapade.
This brings us to the admittedly subjective realm, in which I argue (and I am not alone here) that this show represents Larry David at his best: a comedic genius of historic proportions, cultural and political flaws notwithstanding. In less than 30 minutes, Larry David intricately weaves three-plus plotlines into a seamless whole, while dropping a relentless barrage of one-liners, some of which are destined to immediately enter the lexicon as new catchphrases: “verbal texting,” “social assassin,” “Koufaxing,” “desert referee,” “no matter what,” and at least in my book: “the penis wants to get to its homeland.” In terms of pacing and sheer comedic escalation, the first watching of this episode is an intense ride that rivals any other in the genre, and deserves respect for the high pop culture art that it is. This episode will go down in history as the point at which Larry’s anti-social compunctions were elevated into an artform finally recognized by his friends, who now name and hire him for his skills as a “social assassin,” replete with “hits,” “contracts,” and his halting attempts to retire from the business. We are given the Palestinian restaurant as the ideal place for Jews to cheat, brilliantly mocking the arbitrary and ultimately unsuccessful separation of people based on Middle Eastern geopolitical lines. We see Larry blackmailing the Rabbi into letting Funkhouser play golf on the Sabbath because even she succumbs to the chicken. We get the classic line: “What is this, the raid on Entebbe?” Yes, my review here is subjective, and some who are offended at the outset, or do not “get” Larry David, may not be “in” the episode enough to find it funny, but I think a compelling argument can be made for this episode’s brilliance.
The portrayal of Shara trades in tired Orientalist racial tropes: anti-Jewish, over-sexed, aggressive, militant, dehumanized. But there is also a more nuanced element to this sexual encounter. Some would argue, on some level, that as the object of his desire, Shara is also partially humanized by Larry David, who brazenly transgresses a very stark social division (especially in Israel this year, if you’ve been following the headlines of the new Rabbinic Jim Crow calls) when he chooses her over the demands of his own “tribe.” Some will say this doesn’t matter, because she is still a dehumanized sexual conquest. But again, the political and social context in which this show aired tells us that, if nothing else, there is intentional referencing of current issues and taboos here. Although at the end of the episode we are left to wonder which “side” in the protest Larry will choose, few observers doubt he will join Shara, now offering to add her sister Yasmin into the equation, over his overbearing Zionist friend Susie and the born-again Marty Funkhauser. It is worth noting as one critic did elsewhere, that L.D. was unable to bring himself to have sex with a buxom Republican in a previous episode, because of the portrait of George Bush above her bed. So, what does it say that he has no such compunction about “miscegenating” with a beautiful Palestinian woman who foments against Israel and its occupation during sex? Clearly, the deeply culturally-Jewish Larry David can more easily jettison association with Israel than he can abide by association with a sexy Republican ideologue.
Again, the racism and representational flattening in this episode is indeed objectionable. But, I hope I have made the case that this show is also a rich mine of psycho-sexual-racial intersections and unravelings that deserve closer attention. Consciously or not, it is also an auto-critique of Jewish whiteness, liberal Zionism, religious hypocrisy, and constructions of Jewish manhood and sexuality. There is a growing ambivalence in the once solid assumption that Jewish = Zionist that is both reflected and amplified here, and which our present cultural and political moment is all about. The show is far from an anti-Zionist masterpiece, but in reflecting an occasional fracturing of dominant assumptions once thought taboo to question, it marks the beginning of a shift in Western cultural thinking that we need to continue working towards.
Jesse Benjamin is Associate Professor of Sociology and coordinator of African and African Diaspora Studies at Kennesaw State University.