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Reclaiming a Jewish narrative in the face of anti-Semitism

The anti-Semitic replies to his film idea highlight how important it is to present diverse Jewish narratives

My effort to crowdfund a Jewish film is putting me face-to-face with anti-Semitism. These encounters are unnerving, but they also remind me why I’m doing this in the first place.

Here’s what’s happening: Several weeks ago, I began a crowd-funding campaign for a short film called “The Pirate Captain Toledano.” It’s a groundbreaking short about Inquisition-era Jewish pirates (this is historical fiction, but it’s grounded in surprising and often under-represented history. To learn more about the project, visit Jewcer.

The crowdfunding campaign began with a private appeal to family and friends, then, three weeks ago, transitioned to a public campaign, with a heavy promotional push on Facebook and other social media. No ambitious crowdfunding campaign can succeed unless it breaks past the “friends and family” circle, so I paid for a few small Facebook ads and pushed to reach a broader audience.

It has been a real joy to see the curiosity and enthusiasm that this project has sparked among people I’ve never met. The crowdfunding video alone has been viewed over 7000 times, and the project’s Facebook page is flooded with comments.

But a few unsettling things are creeping into the conversation threads. In the first week of the public campaign, someone posted an anti-Israel meme. Normally, I welcome healthy debate about Israel, but this thing got under my skin. It posed a subtly anti-Semitic argument*, and it was posted to my film’s page not because the argument had anything to do with pirates, or maritime history, or the Inquisition… It was posted to my film’s page because the film is Jewish-themed, and its supporters, at least for now, skew predominantly Jewish.

Elsewhere in the comments, I’m surprised to notice some apologists for the Inquisition — folks who suggest (in oddly gentle ways) that the Inquisition ‘wasn’t that bad’ for the Jews. One person, in particular, has been posting the same apologist article in multiple conversation threads. Clearly a man with a mission.

And occasionally, when I check to see what people are saying about the project on their own Facebook walls, I come across more vicious stuff, like a link to the Facebook page with the following quip: “Still have pirates but just do not sail the high seas anymore.” The omission of “Jewish” from the post is telling — this guy is being subtle, to speaking esoterically so only ‘those who understand will understand’. I’m grateful that we live in a world where anti-Semitism is forced into the shadows, but find it deeply troubling all the same.

A few weeks ago, someone asked me if it’s wise to make a film about Jewish pirates. “Isn’t it just going to inspire more anti-Semitism?” she asked. I don’t dismiss such a question lightly, especially in light of these (thankfully, rare) online encounters. But the answer, I think, is an emphatic endorsement of just such a project. It’s not just that a Jewish pirate movie can be made, despite the fear of anti-Semitism, it’s that it must be made to combat anti-Semitism.

We forget sometimes just how small we are. Jews comprise roughly 0.5% of the world’s population. The vast majority of people on this planet have probably never met a Jew, let alone enough Jews to form anything more than an anecdotal opinion. And that’s the key word: anecdote. Most people learn about Jews from the stories they hear, not from the Jews that they meet. Sure, there are Jewish characters in mainstream media, but they are either entirely secular (such that their Jewishness is peripheral to their identity — folks might not even notice it) or they’re ultra-religious caricatures peppered into a narrative for a bit of “color”. In American media, they’re always Ashkenazi Jews of European descent. In other words, even through American media, people get a very narrow picture of “Jews”.

When people experience Jews in such a narrowly-defined way, it’s easy to fill in the blank: “Jews are _______”. If they don’t know Jews, they could put anything in that blank: “purple”, “clairvoyant”, “charitable”, “short”, “greedy”…

And all they need is one example (whether it’s true or not) to verify their statement, and suddenly they’ve got (what they think is) a firm grasp of “what Jews are.”

The example might come from mass-media, in which case it’s probably somewhat benign. But it might also come from the ‘shadow narratives’, the schoolyard stories people tell when they’re in a private place, where political correctness is optional.

People don’t know Jews, so they build their opinions around a rickety framework of pop-cultural narrative, which is too narrow. There’s a natural human urge to fill in the gaps, to give more dimension to the two-dimensional characters people tend to encounter. That’s where the shadow narratives go to work. Anything that the media doesn’t provide, the shadow narrative fills-in.

But what if the pop-cultural narrative was more complex? What if there were more types of Jewish characters in mainstream media? What if we filled in more of the gaps, and provided a more robust picture of the diversity of Judaism? It would make it much harder, in some ways, for the shadow narrative to seep in:

“Jews are ________”

becomes

“Jews are [lots of things], [complicated], [diverse], [sometimes like me]”

That’s why a more complex, more diverse Jewish pop-narrative is so critical. We need to create more Jewish characters that fall outside of the pop-cultural ‘definition’ of Judaism. The very fact that the phrase “Jewish pirate” catches people by surprise is an indicator that this is a type of character that we need to see. It’s a reminder that Jews can share a cultural heritage with more than just Eastern Europe. It’s a reminder that a stereotype (whether it’s positive or negative) is still a stereotype.

Most people will never meet a Jew. We owe it to them (and to ourselves) to present Jews in ways that are as diverse, complex and humanizing as possible. We need to make it nearly impossible to form a stereotype from the sheer diversity of our stories.

Of course, with my own films, my goal is primarily entertainment, not social activism. I’m an entertainer first. But I can’t wriggle free from the sense that as an entertainer, I still bear a responsibility to serve the people I entertain, to make them better for having been entertained. So I write a script, I raise some money, and I make a film about Jewish pirates. What more can I do?

-AzS

*The meme, in case you’re curious, presented images of various parts of the world in 1900, including “Palestine” (which, at the time, was a region of the Ottoman Empire). Under “Israel”, it presented a blank space. The implication is that “Palestine” existed in 1900, but “Israel” did not, suggesting that “Palestine” has a greater right to exist than does “Israel”. Of course, if you go back far enough, every nation on the planet has a time before which it did not exist, so the mere fact of a national birth-date doesn’t call to question a nation’s legitimacy (or, if it did, ALL nations should have their legitimacy questioned). To apply this standard to Israel alone calls to question what it might be about Israel that sets it apart. And the thing about Israel that sets it apart is the fact that it’s a Jewish state (take that fact away, and Israel is pretty much like any other modern nation-state). That’s what makes the argument anti-Semitic.

About the Author
Arnon Z. Shorr is an Israeli/American modern-Orthodox Jewish filmmaker who lives and works in Los Angeles.
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