In some of my classes, I assign a paper in which students are asked to view a Hollywood film and reflect on how much of what we know of other cultures is from films. The question is how reliable a source of information are cinematic films? And even if we realize they are not reliable, how much do they influence our view of culture, humanity, or a particular culture? The keystone of the paper is to critically evaluate how the film presents other cultures. You Don’t Mess with the Zohan would be perfect for this assignment.

With an Adam Sandler vehicle, I expected the juvenile humor that is his hallmark. Sandler plays Zohan, an Israeli Mossad counter-terrorist, who wants to leave the pressures of war and dancing naked on the beach with supermodelesque beauties to become a hairdresser who sleeps with his geriatric clientele in New York. What through me for a bit of a loop is the treatment of “Orientalist” tropes and stereotypes.

At one level, the film revels in the stereotypes that Jack Shaheen sees as typical of Hollywood’s racist vilification of Arabs. Shaheen identifies five arcehtypes of the Arab in Hollywood films: 1) Villains, 2) Sheikhs, 3) Maidens, 4) Egyptians, and 5) Palestinians. Add to these the tropes of exoticism and eroticism and you have symbol pool from which Hollywood fishes. In Zohan, the Arab world is reduced to Palestine. And in keeping with Shaheen’s archetypes, (one set of) the villains of the piece are Palestinian. In fact, Zohan’s archenemesis, the Phantom, is a terrorist who has “rock star” status. Also in keeping with Shaheen’s analysis the villains can be overwhelmingly incompetent as when they try to bomb Zohan’s beauty shop with a glob of Neosporin.

But this points out a less obvious theme of the film. Although there are people who wish to capture or kill Zohan (Sandler) in support of the efforts of the Palestinian people, neither they, nor no-one they know can figure out how to construct a bomb. And they have no way into a terror network. They call what is supposedly the Hezbollah helpline but cannot break through the automated phone system.

There are other stereotypes that are busted. Zohan’s love interest, Dhalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is Palestinian and is the Phantom’s sister. She does not wear hijab and decries the violence between her people and the Israelis. It is interesting that the actress is a Canadian whose parents were Moroccan Jews. Further, the Arab-Israeli conflict is reduced to a land dispute with absolutly no religious overtones. The lifestyle of Zohan and his friends certainly put to question the idea of Israel being a Jewish (in the religious sense) state.

The film also shows Israelis and Palestinians working and living together in a New York neighborhood. It also shows how Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews are almost culturally indistinguishable from their Palestinian neighbors. They gorge themselves on hummus and pita, foods that are almost iconically “Arab.” The use of hummus in the film reaches peaks of the ridiculous. For example, Zohan’s father uses his eyeglasses to eat hummus and in the film’s climax, Zohan uses hummus to extinguish a building fire. Both Israeli and Palestinian men are showed to be oversexed and interested in screwing their own mothers (but use other old women as proxies). In other ways as well, both Israelis and Palestinians are shown to be unsavory characters in their business dealings.

The Israelis and the Palestinians come together when the real villain, a white American land developer hires a group of white supremacists to burn down the neighborhood and make it appear to be a racially based. They band together to thwart his efforts but the neighborhood still manages to burn to the ground. In the end, they build the Peace and Brotherhood Mall paid for by fire insurance.

In the paper assignment, I ask students to evaluate the extent to which the film is trying to present a given culture as real and true. In a film like Zohan, it is pretty clear that the film uses the representation of Israeli and Palestinian cultures for comedic effect and does not mean to represent the group realistically. But this does not lessen the impact of the film on how the audience sees the target cultures. Arguably, comedies may have a greater impact on our view of other cultures than other genres. Because we know that this film is not meant to be serious, we may be far less analytical of its subtexts that we would of a more serious film.

Ron Lukens-Bull