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My Favorite Anti-Semite: John Galliano, the Spark of Godliness Within a Flawed Human Being

The disgraced—and atoning—fashion designer is doing some of his best work. What’s a hater to do?

Elisheva Ester Rishon
April 09, 2015
(Samir Hussein/Getty Images)
(Samir Hussein/Getty Images)

My Favorite Anti-Semite: an occasional series of tributes to writers, artists, philosophers, and others who hate us and to why we still find value in their work.

When fashion becomes its own religion, the morality of other religions and the world in general can easily be benched. John Galliano’s one true religion was fashion, and his name was synonymous with haute couture until his anti-Semitic views surfaced in 2011.

In February 2013, just two years later, Galliano was seen wearing an outfit that automatically garnered attention because of its Hasidic look. Galliano did his hair in curls similar to peyot, and he wore a long black coat and a large charcoal hat. Among others, New York State Assemblyman of the 48th District, in Brooklyn, Dov Hikind, openly criticized the designer. Hikind is labeled as a defender of the Jewish people of the community I live in. Whether it be the defacing of a local Jewish cemetery or reports of a growing neo-Nazi presence, he has been at the forefront of every controversy. In response to the outfit Galliano wore in New York in 2013, Hikind was quoted as saying: “Who is he mocking? The way the socks look, the jacket, the peyos. … My question is, who’s he laughing at?” Every piece of what Galliano wore—from the socks to hair—Hikind interpreted as a mockery of Jews. Some people called it a “subtle” reference that hinted at Jews but not Hikind—Hikind saw it as an all-out prejudiced outfit.

From the peyot look alone it would seem that all the criticism was well deserved.

This incident was especially meaningful to me, because I believe that the Jewish world and the world of haute couture have a similar power when it comes to influencing the world. The very basic foundation of Judaism involves, among other things, tikkun olam (healing the world). Tikkun olam’s driving force has the same vibe as the deepest desire of most fashion designers—especially those who live and thrive in the haute couture culture. The world of haute couture is a world where the designers make the rules that bend gravity and defy reason. Haute couture can not only be used as a force of good or evil—it can also alter one’s state of mind that would make it impossible for them to reconcile with the reality of the society they live in. Each piece created by designers is a fantasy based on their own world, and truly not one human can question their creations. Why? Because no one can question the work of a creator—a god among humans. But what about his other creations—the works of his mind, and heart and mouth? What happens when those are, by anyone’s definitions or taste, truly ugly?


Unlike many designers who have worked hard for many years in the fashion industry only to be recognized decades later, Galliano received loads of attention as early as graduate school. But he didn’t really make his mark in the fashion industry until he came to France, the home of haute couture—a close-knit, sacred fashion community of creators and admirers. In 2010, after more than a decade at Christian Dior, Galliano was quoted as saying the purpose of his guidance was to “seduce” people. And seduce he did. His eccentric views literally “seduced” the people of Le Marais—the home of the fashion elite and of the Parisian Jewish community—into becoming his biggest fans. Rising to fame in France, Galliano was well aware of the major role that Jews played in the French fashion industry, and in his own career. So, when his inner prejudices came spilling out in this district he was, in a sense, biting the hand that fed him.

Logic dictates that a man should avoid exposing his anti-Semitism when his admirers do include many Jews. But discrimination is not based on logic, it’s based on ignorance. This mixed-race gay man was a minority—embraced by the Jews of France—yet he felt the need to hate them. In interviews Galliano spoke about being bullied as a child in London because of his mixed heritage and flamboyancy. How is it that someone who knows how it is to be oppressed can harbor hatred against other minorities? The answer is simple: He is a hypocrite. Having his finger on the pulse of the haute couture culture should have allowed him to open his mind—realizing that discrimination has no place in any world.

Galliano eventually acknowledged his wrongdoing and begged for a chance to redeem himself. In a June 2013 comeback interview Galliano stated: “I am able to create. I am ready to create. … I hope through my atonement I’ll be given a second chance.”

Discrimination is not based on logic, it’s based on ignorance.

He cleverly used the word atonement, which has special meaning to Jews. His words were carefully chosen to hold the hidden meaning—in which one must mochel, or forgive, another—with a hope that his transgressions against Jews will no longer bar him from the fashion world. Even the most secular Jews hold Yom Kippur and the concept of atonement in high esteem. Galliano was wise to express this desire and in doing so I actually give him (or his publicist) a lot of credit.

The proof of Galliano’s inner change is in the very clothing he makes. Atonement is a beautiful thing, and using fashion to express it has created some of the most beautiful looks I have ever seen to date. In the past two years his collections have been more unified and innovative and have resonated with deep emotional feeling. Even the makeup styling of his models has changed—originally crude and menacing; now his models’ makeup looks more balanced, flattering, and at times even angelic. Finally, I get to see his inner core and his work is amazing.

There is a very important lesson to learn from Galliano’s rejection from and re-integration to the fashion world. What he shows us is that even in the darkest of most people there is a ray of light. Everyone is flawed. The only difference is whether people choose to nurture or neuter their flaws. Relatedly, Judaism to its deepest, inner core can be used as a light to all the nations and has the ability to set very high standards. But as are some of those involved in the fashion industry, members of the Jewish faith, too, are flawed. Some flawed Jews have used their influence and status in the community to do terrible things, and in their minds they justify it with a false interpretation of Judaism.

Which brings me back, interestingly, to Assemblyman Hikind.

In one of the more ironic instances of public shaming I have witnessed to date, a mere 10 days after excoriating Galliano for what he perceived as his use of fashion to hurt others, Hikind donned blackface as a nameless basketball player for Purim that February. It took a day for his picture in the blackface get-up to go viral.

Somehow this man, who propped himself up as a defender of rights and whistleblower on all subtle references to anti-Semitism, magically lost his moral compass and engaged in a practice abandoned many years ago all across the world out of respect for black people. “I am intrigued that anyone who understands Purim—or for that matter understands me—would have a problem with this,” Hikind responded to those who questioned the propriety—no, the morality of his choice. “This is political correctness to the absurd.”

After this “apology” made the rounds, I found myself on the other end of many inquiries from non-Jewish black friends:

Them: “Your people [Jews] do this [wearing blackface] all the time?”

Me: “Yes, they have for many years.”

Them: “And your holiday says this is allowed and you’re OK with it?”

Me: “Nope. Nowhere is there any halacha [law] written that being racist is OK because ‘it’s just Purim.’ And yes, us Black Jews are upset about it and have complained for many years to the community but no one cares about us.”

When I publicly shared my thoughts on his actions, I was heavily criticized by some members of my own Flatbush Jewish community. I found myself not getting invited to parties or Shabbat meals anymore. I was told that I was “not acting like a Jew” and “probably not really Jewish” and a “disgrace” because I openly decried the use of blackface and referenced what trauma it and many other racist incidents had on my childhood. I lost friends for revealing this pain and for protesting the acceptance of blackface in the frum community.

Eventually I realized that not only did Hikind commit a social faux pas; he also attacked Judaism in a horrendous way. He used my own religion to justify hurting me. In other words, he committed a serious chillul Hashem, or desecration of Hashem’s name. What does this mean? It means that like true hypocrites, and like Galliano himself, Hikind and many other members of the Orthodox communities believe that they live in a religious world where Hashem allows discrimination of other people for the sake of their “fun.” In their world the pain they cause others that don’t look like them is irrelevant. Hashem, our creator, made all humans equal. Hashem would never condone making another human feel embarrassed, insulted, and outraged because of the foolish antics of those who exploit this person’s racial/ethnic origin.

To do so on Purim is an even worse act and a complete aveira (sin). Why? Because Purim is the holiest day of the year right next to Yom Kippur, as they are polar opposites. You are commanded to be truly b’simcha (happy) on this holiday as a Jew for a mitzvah. But if your actions will cause others to not be b’simcha—you are instead committing an aveira instead of a mitzvah. If these participants truly believe that the religious world holds more power than the secular world, then they should realize that the true religious world does not condone hate or discrimination. Tikkun olam is the truest point of Judaism, and we should be planting seeds of love, acceptance, and growth—not rehashing painful racist practices used to hurt and humiliate others. In wearing and defending blackface are, in essence, taking something beautiful, the Torah, and making it do ugly things.

Hikind’s double standards portray a continuous hypocrisy that plays a role in the lives of some in the Orthodox Jewish community today who refuse to address or understand the concerns of Black Jews. His “apology” speech concerning the matter—unlike Galliano’s—expressed no regret or an admittance of any wrongdoing. Hikind insists we are all deluded and those that “understand” the holiday would know that it’s OK to be racist if it’s for “fun.” Hikind is not seeking redemption and has done nothing to repair the pain he caused many black people by his actions.

In contrast, though, part of me accepts that there are probably anti-Semitic ideas still fluttering around in the attic of Galliano’s mind. Yet when I look at his work I see the apology. I see him. Fashion—used as a healthy medium—can heal the world in many ways. It’s a very strong language and a great culture. In this world the oddballs, the eccentrics, the gays, the straights, the artists, the intellectuals—all and more are welcome to increase its richness and diversity. Galliano was an outsider before he found his place in this world. His inclusion in the fashion world made his social faux pas front page news and forced the world to look closer at the rise of anti-Semitism in France. Why? Because fashion matters.

We needed that Galliano trial to happen. We needed the world to witness that entire controversy. And if the strings of violent terrorist attacks against Jews means anything, the problem is growing worse and worse. For people like Galliano who have previously been accused of being anti-Semitic to take a stand against the current anti-Semitic atmosphere in Europe would be a lifeboat for us all. What I would truly wish to see is Galliano himself going on speaking campaigns to discourage anti-Semitism and doing fashion shows with themes like “Make Fashion, Not Hate.” I know, I know. I sound like a dreamer. But if you truly want an amazing message to spread, fashion is the greatest medium in the world. Why? Because fashion has always been a reflection of the times, whether it be giving women their first taste of manufactured feminism with the 1920s Flapper Style or the current Modern Woman Modesty Movement. Fashion can be used to open a dialogue about the most pressing issues, and its audience is massive. Hikind may underestimate the power of fashion. Galliano, apparently, does not.


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Elisheva Ester Rishon is a Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-bred, self-described J.A.A.P. (Jewish African American Princess).

Elisheva Ester Rishon is a Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-bred, self-described J.A.A.P. (Jewish African American Princess).