Dani Ishai Behan

Gal Gadot is Middle Eastern. She’s not whitewashing anything.

Those protesting casting for the film about an Egyptian ruler 2 millennia ago ignore historical facts, starting with Cleopatra's ethnic origins
Gal Gadot arrives for the Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, March 4, 2018, (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Gal Gadot arrives for the Oscars ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, March 4, 2018, (Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

It was announced yesterday that Gal Gadot, an Israeli actress best known for her titular role in 2017’s live-action Wonder Woman film, is set to portray Cleopatra in an upcoming biopic of the same name. Its director is Patty Jenkins, who had previously worked with Gadot on Wonder Woman.

The announcement of her casting was met with fury and consternation, both from self-styled “progressives” and from large segments of the Arab and Muslim community. Before long, the internet was flush with denunciations of Gal Gadot for her alleged “whitewashing” of “Arab” roles, and of the film industry itself for casting her as Cleopatra in the first place.

The core argument of Gadot’s detractors is that, by casting her in the role of an Egyptian pharaoh, Hollywood is once again privileging “white” actresses over “actresses of color” and permitting the former to arrogantly parade themselves around in racial identities that are not their own, while denying these same opportunities to “actresses of color” who, they claim, would be far more suitable for these roles. Gadot’s casting has, by extension, also been framed as yet another example of “European” “Orientalism” and “appropriation” of “indigenous MENA cultures”.

Every last one of these accusations is misplaced, if not antisemitic and ahistorical.

Having discussed this and other related topics many times in the past, this controversy falls a bit too close to my wheelhouse for me to ignore it.

So it’s time to set the record straight.

First, Cleopatra was not an Arab. She was an Egyptian pharoah whose reign lasted from 51 BCE until her death in 30 BCE. That is to say, she died at least 600 years before the Arabs first settled and colonized Egypt.

Cleopatra wasn’t even native to Egypt herself. She was from the Ptolemaic dynasty established by Ptolemy I Soter of Macedonia, eight generations before her birth. She was not an Egyptian, but rather an ethnic Greek of partial Persian and Assyrian ancestry (the latter being the result of intermingling with Seleucids). I’m fairly certain that those groups are not Arab either.

Second, as I’ve covered at length in previous articles, Gal Gadot is not a white woman. Nor are Ashkenazi Jews writ large. Gadot is Levantine-Middle Eastern, ethnically as well as nationally, as are all Ashkenazi Jews.

The Levant and Greece are both part of the Eastern Mediterranean, even if the former sits more firmly on the Oriental/Asian (or “brown”) end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, the phenotypical gulf between Levantines and any one of the above-mentioned groups ranges from narrow to non-existent.

Yes, because it’s not like she looks like she could be Gal Gadot’s sister or anything. Image source: My own screenshot.

Casting Gal Gadot as Cleopatra is NOT whitewashing. It is merely a Levantine-Middle Eastern woman being cast in the role of another East Mediterranean. Overall, the accusations against Gal Gadot say less about the actress herself than they do about the speaker’s own historical illiteracy, antisemitism, and unquestioning acceptance of Arab colonial dogma.

To wit, it is commonly believed that because the Arabs overwhelmed and dominated the MENA region (sans Persia and Turkey) with an iron fist for so long, they practically “own” the entire region along with all of its varied histories and cultures.

Ancient Egypt? “That’s Arab”.

Ancient Assyria? “That’s Arab”.

Ancient Israel? “That’s Arab too”.

Ancient Carthage? “That’s totally Arab”.

The Assyrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Copts? “They’re Arabs”.

The Jews? “They’re Arabs. Either that or they’re fake white impostors from Europe who aren’t really Jews anyway, lol”.

And so on and so forth, one imagines, into infinity.

Whether or not most Western progressives are capable of recognizing everything I just described as being part of the same entitled colonial mindset that exists among white folks in the West – and that it is basically the equivalent of saying white settlers in North America “own” Native American cultures – is anyone’s guess. But needless to say, Arabs are not the indigenous people of Egypt. Or Iraq. Or Lebanon. Or Morocco. Or Israel. Or any part of the MENA region outside of the Arabian Peninsula. The reason these countries became “Arab” in the first place is, without exception, because of colonial conquest.

The indigenous people of Egypt are the Copts, who now live as a persecuted minority in their own country. Just as the Assyrians now do in Iraq, and just as we did in Israel before we drove the Arabs back and regained sovereignty over a large part of our country. That, in fact, was the main catalyst of the Israel-Arab conflict: Jews returning from exile, joining their co-ethnics who were still in the land, and putting an end to the longstanding colonial status quo.

But I digress.

Put simply, Cleopatra was not an Arab, and Gal Gadot is not “whitewashing” anything. In fact, Gal Gadot is arguably *less* white than Cleopatra herself was. However, I suspect that isn’t why people are so upset over this. They’re not outraged that an Israeli is “whitewashing” Greeks or even Arabs, or vice versa. Their anger has a very different source.

To be certain, there is no shortage of people who will view any instance of a Jewish actor (especially an Israeli, and especially an ardent Zionist) being cast in a non-humiliating, non-stereotypical lead role as an unforgivable affront. We are Jews, after all. We are not entitled to the same liberties and privileges gentiles are. We ought to remember our place, and we ought to remain there, as they say.

But even that, I think, is only one half of the equation. There is another, more particular concern that is disturbing people’s emotions. While any kind of positive Jewish representation is something that any antisemite would naturally balk at, I don’t think that’s what’s really bothering people here.

Their real issue is with casting an Ashkenazi Jew like Gal Gadot in ANY kind of Middle Eastern role at all. This, of course, becomes obvious once you consider the implications of doing so, as well as the fact that these “whitewashing” charges are being levied primarily by people who do not accept the validity of Ashkenazi Jewish roots in the MENA region and never will.

Casting “white” Ashkenazi Jews in Middle Eastern roles affirms that we are not, in fact, white at all. It also affirms that we are indeed ethnically Middle Eastern. Most crucially of all, it affirms that Zionism is not, and never was, a settler-colonial project and that the Jewish state of Israel is 100% a legitimate indigenous state. Seeing as the vector of progressive, Arab, and Muslim politics alike over the past 60 or so years has been stridently anti-Zionist, acknowledging any of these things is utter anathema to many, many, MANY people.

I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating here: the anti-Zionist ideology cannot survive if the idea of Ashkenazi whiteness and indigeneity to Europe is discredited. It simply cannot. And Gal Gadot being validated in such an obviously Middle Eastern role is terrifying for that very reason.

This uproar of Gadot’s casting is, if anything, just more childish denialism on their part, much like their refusal to admit that the State of Israel is even *there* at all. It is another example of hardcore antisemites plugging their ears and screaming “LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU” when confronted with some inconvenient reality.

The logic is that if they are able to successfully delegitimize the right of Ashkenazi Jews to play other Middle Eastern characters, they will have come one step closer to delegitimizing the entire Zionist project and, by extension, the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in Israel. Don’t think for even a millisecond that these two issues are not related; that the refusal to accept Gal Gadot’s legitimacy in this role isn’t a microcosm of the broader refusal to accept Jewish rights in our indigenous home region.

To wit, this isn’t the first time Ashkenazi Jewish actors have faced such charges. Jake Gyllenhaal, who is half-Ashkenazi (the other half being Swedish), faced the same charges more than a decade ago for his lead role in Prince of Persia. It can be reasonably argued that casting a half-Swedish guy wasn’t the wisest idea in hindsight, or that an actual Persian actor would have been far better suited for the role. But the way people speak about Gyllenhaal’s casting, you’d get the impression that they had cast a guy with no roots in the Middle East at all, because that is (in all likelihood) exactly what they want others to believe: that Ashkenazi Jews are white-Europeans and have no roots in the Middle East.

In short, these particular accusations of whitewashing are really just another way of saying that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. Jews who spent exile in Europe) like Gal Gadot, and myself, have no genuine roots in the Middle East and do not belong there. She would not be facing these accusations otherwise.

Granted, there are plenty of “white” Ashkenazi actors who play non-Jewish MENA roles on a regular basis, with no trouble at all. Oded Fehr, Sacha Baron Cohen, Grant Heslov, among many others, immediately spring to mind, although my hunch is that they are able to pull it off only because they are so unambiguously Middle Eastern that no one even second guesses it. Audiences simply assume “oh, they must be Arab or Sephardi or something”, whereas they would probably hurl the same accusations at these men just as quickly if they knew they were Ashkenazi.

It really is a bitter irony that the very people who purport to be the most supportive of decolonization efforts are also the most vocally opposed to this casting decision. So what gives? Is decolonization a check that Ashkenazi Jews are not entitled to cash? Apparently so. We are being systematically disenfranchised of our own roots, disallowed from being ourselves and from having any ownership over our true roots and where we really come from.

The truth is that there isn’t a “racial gulf” between Ashkenazi Jews and Middle Easterners. Ashkenazi Jews ARE Middle Easterners. Gal Gadot is not Czech or Polish or Russian or whatever. We are not “from” these places. We were exiled to these places. White Europeans are not our “cousins”. They are our colonizers. If anything, telling us that we’re not to play other ethnic groups from our home region, and that we’re only allowed to play our colonial captors, is the most brazen act of whitewashing imaginable.

Put simply, if you cannot accept the fact that ethnic Jews (including Ashenazim) are from the Middle East, and that Ashkenazi actresses like Gadot portraying Middle Eastern or East Mediterranean roles is perfectly natural and not whitewashing at all, you are neither an anti-racist nor a progressive. You are simply an anti-Semite.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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