Dani Ishai Behan
Dani Ishai Behan

Jewish Representation Matters, Part 1: Animation

Image source: Photoshop
Image source: Photoshop

Prefatory note: This was originally planned as a single post. However, as it grew in length and began to exceed all reasonable parameters, keeping it as a single column became increasingly unfeasible. As a result, I have broken it up into parts. This is part one. The remaining installments (there are to be 2 more) will be published in short order.

I will update this section with links as soon as they are up.

Over the past three months, Jews worldwide watched in horror as antisemitism soared to heights not seen since the end of WWII. In May of 2021 alone, in what has been described by many as a global pogrom, we saw nothing less than a 500% increase in antisemitic incidents.

Beatings, stabbings, sexual assaults, death threats, harassment, defamation, and intimidation – both online and offline – could not only be found in virtually every corner of society, but were even bestowed with a patina of righteousness by our self-professed vanguards of tolerance, enlightenment, and progress.

This begs a number of questions. Namely, how could this have happened? Why have our neighbors turned on us again? Why is antisemitism seemingly the only racial prejudice that is accepted, if not excused away or even celebrated, by many of the very same people who pride themselves on opposition to all forms of racism?

How did antisemitism come to be seen as a form of social justice?

A casual observer is likely to ascribe it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this is too myopic an observation.

Comparatively speaking, what we saw in Israel was utterly mundane when paired against real human rights abusing regimes throughout the world that cannot muster even a scintilla of the attention the Israeli/Palestian conflict effortlessly grabs whenever Israel so much as dares to respond to its bellicose genocidal neighbors.

What we saw (and still see) happening in the rest of the world, however, is far from normal. And it would not be possible were it not for a well-laid and well-embedded foundation of cultural and political Jew-hate.

However, if we recognize the media as a key sentinel that not only shapes our lives, but more importantly, shapes our perceptions of marginalized groups – whom we might not otherwise have any exposure to or understanding of – then, we can begin to fathom how Western antisemitism, only 75 years after the Holocaust, came roaring back into the mainstream.

This requires an analysis of how Jews, Jewish culture, and Israel are presented in global media – American media in particular – and the determinant role antisemitism plays in the structures that govern it.

Already, one can hear the incensed balking of non-Jewish readers.

“Jews control Hollywood,” they wryly interject, “and are already well-represented, if not over-represented, on the big and small screen.” A charge informed by the ingrained antisemitic notion that Jews represent a hyper-powerful, over-privileged cabal of “white” capitalist bloodsuckers who already possess more bounty than they deserve.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As we will explore here.

I will not only be covering Hollywood here, but all of Western media (in addition to some foreign media popular in the West, or at least influenced by it).

The Origins of Hollywood And How Court Jew Syndrome Undergirds It

Hollywood sits in central Los Angeles, on what used to be a thriving agricultural community called Cahuenga Valley. Originally nothing more than a small adobe hut, Kansas real estate mogul Harvey Henry Wilcox moved there with his wife in 1883, purchasing 150 acres of land. Although his agricultural efforts failed, he subdivided the land and invested in upscale homes along Prospect Avenue (now Hollywood Boulevard).

Circa 1902, another real estate mogul stepped in. His name was H.J. Whitley. Cahuenga Valley now had a hotel, markets, a post office, and a trolley. Whitley brought electricity to the area and financed the construction of a bank, an upscale Ocean View Tract neighborhood, and the Hollywood Hotel. The latter would eventually come to be known as the Dolby theatre, where the Oscars are held annually.

Who renamed Cahuenga Valley “Hollywood” and why it was so renamed is not certain. But the antisemitic canard that Jews founded and “own” Hollywood, let alone the entire entertainment industry, has no basis in fact.

However, Jewish contributions to both were essential.

The American film industry, frowned upon as it was at the time of its inception, was one of the only industries open to Jews. White-Americans initially had little interest in film-making as it was considered to be a “low class” occupation, and so Jews mostly had it to themselves. All of the so-called “Big Five” production companies – Warner Bros, Fox Film Corporation, RKO, Paramount Pictures, and MGM – were founded in whole or in part by Jews. Of the Big Five, only Paramount Pictures had a European-American founder – William Wadsworth Hodkinson – with the rest being Jewish-Americans (i.e. a Middle Eastern-American people).

The tentacles of European racism and white privilege, however, certainly in early 20th Century America, were inescapable and stifled minorities – even in industries dominated by non-whites.

The Golden Age of Hollywood, beginning in the 1920s, was a time when antisemitism was widespread and accepted in polite society. Jews were disproportionately involved in the film industry, notably at management levels, at a time when Jews were being shunned from management levels by most of the US corporate sector. For this reason, Hollywood was regularly suspected of disloyalty, and since Jews had an actual tangible presence there – much more than say, in Chase Manhattan Bank or the Hearst press group – they felt the need to conform.

In their eagerness to appease both middle and corporate America, they not only regulated themselves along criteria set by the Hayes Code – itself pandering to the stricter streams amongst US Protestants – but also pandered to the middle of the road, as much out of fear as out of a desire to sell their movies. A fear many learned was grounded in reality during the McCarthy era.

Hollywood marketed itself as Whiter-than-White, what would be euphemistically called “All-American” so to be deemed above suspicion. But while they got to sell their wares, suspicions remained. One example being that it was only after the US joined the Allies did Hollywood allow itself to be wholly and avowedly anti-Nazi.

Then, right after the war, they would greenlight feature films such as Gentlemen’s Agreement, but then again, Red Scare was the new craze, and they fell in line like sadly many “court” Jews before them who know their place and are so grateful to be granted a place at the table, even if it’s the kid’s table.

Our relative success in Hollywood (and in certain other industries, like investment banking) is too often seen as proof that we are “part of the whites club”, and not as a function of antisemitism and its history. This suggests, to me, that the speaker either does not understand how antisemitism works, or simply cannot be bothered to learn (or both).

One should never try to analyze (let alone make galling pronouncements about) our position in society without first looking at the how and why.

During the High Middle Ages, after a substantial chunk of Jews had been exiled/dragged into Europe, local kings would assign Jews to be their personal bankers and tax-collectors. They needed us to fill these roles because we had been outlawed or banned from most other professions and because the native (i.e. non-Jewish) populations were overwhelmingly Christian, and usury had been forbidden by the Church.

In exchange, the kings would grant us some measure of power, but never as much as the ruling class. This way they could scapegoat and blame us whenever things went horribly wrong, or when the economy failed.

This is what is known as Court Jew syndrome.

And it didn’t die out with the kings. This underlying structure persisted long after the feudal era was over, and was eventually exported to America, where it still survives to this day.

You can see this same structure/dynamic playing out in America right now. This is why we are allowed to rise high (but never as high as whites) and become somewhat powerful (but never as powerful as whites) in politics, media, and certain other industries. This way, we can be scapegoated in times of crisis. Artificially eliding us into “European whites” (which we are not, per the first section above; calling us that erases our identity, our origin, and our entire story) only makes this process easier, while making it that much harder for us to be taken seriously when we attempt to discuss systemic racism against Jews.

All the while, we’re never allowed to become too prominent, rise too high, or get too “uppity” about our own concerns. We are only given just enough power to keep this antisemitic structure intact, and to protect the real ruling class from facing any consequences. As with past eras, Jews are positioned as the buffer zone between the oppressed and the ruling class.

Now let’s return our attention to Hollywood.

When we talk about Hollywood having a diversity issue – and inevitably blaming that on Jewish executives – we need to remember that Hollywood has always had a diversity problem even with Jews.

This is a remnant from a time when Jewish Hollywood executives were very concerned about antisemitism and accusations of Hollywood being Jewish-run.

In the years leading up to America’s involvement in WWII, Jewish Hollywood executives were targeted and accused of trying to get America involved in “another Jewish war”, and were scared enough that they refused to be seen in public with their non-Jewish mistresses, drove inconspicuous cars so no one would accuse them of flaunting their wealth, etc.

Hollywood has ALWAYS failed to represent even Jews, let alone other outgroups.

Nobody who looks stereotypically Jewish will get picked for roles that aren’t blatant, humiliating stereotypes of Jews. Jewish actors who look stereotypically Jewish (or otherwise non-white) are portrayed as neurotic, socially undesirable “nerds”, gold diggers, loud and overbearing (and slovenly) Jewish mothers, greedy bankers, sleazy businessmen, terrorists, weirdos, etc, never as leading men nor ladies. When there are actual Jewish characters who don’t fit those stereotypes, they almost always cast non-Jews (usually whites) to play those roles – an act of whitewashing and identity erasure that almost no one acknowledges, let alone cares about.

When you think of Jewish leading men or ladies, they are always white-passing actors like Paul Newman, Natalie Herschlag (aka Portman), or Hedy Lamarr, whom no one would know were Jewish by looking at them.

And that’s because any minority-run industry in a white majority society will ALWAYS cater to whites first. This is why a lot of pro-Israel and pro-Jewish projects (i.e. anything that presents us accurately and in a holistic light) never see the light of day: because executives know it would piss too many people off, and may even result in antisemitic violence. This is why antisemitic stereotypes prevail and Jews are all but invisible otherwise. Because they have to appeal to majority tastes (the majority being antisemitic) if they want to be profitable.

Disney, which has a Jewish CEO, still refuses to go near a Jewish hero or heroine with a ten-foot pole. That’s just one example of many, but that example alone should tell you everything you need to know.

The best we are allowed to hope for are Holocaust movies like Schindler’s List, and only because that type of film feeds white saviorism while offering a panacea of sorts for white-European guilt (i.e. “see? We’re not all bad. The Holocaust was really nothing more than a freak-incident caused by bad men in jackboots, not by centuries of culturally ingrained white supremacist antisemitism. See also: #NotAllWhitePeople, #NotAllMen, etc).

We’ve never, at any point, had the opportunity to represent ourselves (let alone others) and tell our stories the way we want to. We are rarely allowed to even play ourselves on screen, unless the character is a stereotype. We’ve always been operating under the watchful eye of the larger racist (including antisemitic) society, under the harrowing specter of centuries of pogroms, massacres, expulsions, etc.

The racial policing of Hollywood is a leftover from Jewish fears from the old country. It is a result of the history of antisemitism. Only in such a fearful industry could a flagrant Jew-hater like Mel Gibson (and no doubt countless others) be allowed to operate with impunity for so long.

Now let’s take a closer look at specific areas of Western media and see how things have been for Jews thus far.

Animation

As noted in the preamble, animation and film-making were among the only occupations available to Jews in the first half of the 1900s. For this reason, Jews have been heavily involved in the animation industry since its inception.

But even despite this, Jewish representation on the cel-sheet can at best charitably be described as scarce. At worst, antisemitic.

From the so-called Golden Age of Animation, only two instances of Jewish representation can be gleaned, and neither of them are positive.

The first is Walt Disney’s “The Three Little Pigs”, released in 1933. One scene from this 8 minute short features the predatory Big Bad Wolf disguising himself as a Jewish peddler in a failed attempt at coaxing the pigs out of hiding. The disguise itself was a horrifyingly racist caricature: toucan-like hooked nose, shifty eyes, and a strained Yiddish accent with fiddler music accompanying his appearance on screen. For certain, it would have been warmly received across the Atlantic, in Hitler’s Germany.

By 1948, six million Jews had perished in Europe’s death camps after two millennia of structural racism, colonialism and dehumanization that culminated in an industrial-scale slaughter of unprecedented barbarity. And it was the dissemination of caricatures precisely like those found in Three Little Pigs that made it all possible. For this reason, Disney was forced to remove the Jewish peddler disguise entirely, although the Yiddish accent remained for a few decades more before that too was taken out.

Moving on, the second example is Betty Boop, created by Max Fleischer.

“But wait”, you say, with a confused look and an agitated tone, “Max Fleischer is JEWISH. And Betty Boop? Come on! She’s an ICON in American pop culture!”

Both of these statements are true. Yet, I maintain that Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons were highly problematic for us.

Why?

Consider the 1932 short “Minnie the Moocher”. At the beginning, we see a miserable Betty Boop sitting at the dinner table, crying as her visibly Jewish parents implore her to eat her food. Here, we see Jews and Jewish culture portrayed as strict, oppressive, and even disgusting (an anthropomorphic plant DIES after tasting the food) – as something Boop is desperate to get away from. The only way she can find success and happiness is to break away from her family – from her Jewishness – and leave home.

In this respect, Betty Boop could almost be considered a precursor to shows like Unorthodox whose entire raison d’etre is to disparage Jewish culture and promote assimilation.

Fast forward to 2021, and we can see that very little has changed. We are still seldom present in animation – big screen or small – and the few instances of representation we do have are (barring a few notable exceptions, which will be covered momentarily) overwhelmingly whitewashed or couched in humiliating antisemitic stereotypes, if not both.

But I want to talk about the few positive examples that exist before touching upon the ugliness.

First, there is Spike Spiegel from the late 90s anime Cowboy Bebop. As protagonist of the series, he is portrayed as a gruff, snark-filled bounty hunter who is skilled in martial arts and possesses a hardened exterior, but is emotionally well-rounded. This, needless to say, is a stark contrast to what we usually get in animation: neurotic, geeky, unattractive, and oftentimes overweight butt-monkeys who exist for the sole purpose of being abused, humiliated, and laughed at. It also helps that, unlike most Jewish characters we see on screen (animation and live-action alike), he isn’t whitewashed.

But, there is a downside.

Spike Spiegel’s creators did not actually intend for him to be Jewish. But with his name, his swarthy/tanned appearance, and his Jewish voice actor (Steve Blum), Western audiences naturally inferred that Spiegel was Jewish. The creators took notice of this and seemingly went along with it, even arming him with an Israeli gun (the Jericho 941). But for the upcoming Western-produced Netflix live-action series, they’ve done away with any indulgences to the Jewish community and have instead cast John Cho – a Korean-American – in the role of Spike Spiegel. Jewish fans who identified with Spiegel and saw him as a breath of fresh air relative to all of the dreadful caricatures and stereotypes we’re typically saddled with were, tragically and bitterly, left out in the cold.

Next, we have Prince of Egypt, a 1998 animated film produced by DreamWorks. As a feature-length adaptation of the Passover/Pesakh story, it is to date the only animated film of its kind (to my knowledge) that has made a serious effort – or any effort at all – at exploring Jewish history and culture. Although only two Jewish actors were cast (Jeff Goldblum and Ofra Haza), this film humanizes the Jewish people in a way no other theatrical animated release does – covering the tale of Moses as he leads us out of slavery in Egypt and back to our native land (Israel) where we can live as a free people – and presents us as a living, breathing ethnic group and civilization. It’s really no wonder that Jeffrey Katzenberg, who first pitched the idea to Disney, had to go and create his own studio just to see the project become a reality.

My third example is Kyle Broflovski, one of the four main characters on the adult animated series South Park. Written as a stand-in for series author and co-creator Matt Stone (who, like me, is ethnically Jewish through his mom and Irish through his father), Kyle is the only Jewish kid – and one of the only ethnic minorities in toto – at a predominantly white school in Colorado. The interactions between Kyle and his classmates, especially the virulently antisemitic Cartman, showcase this dynamic brilliantly. Although he is white-passing (at least until he removes his hat), he still stands out and is constantly made to feel like an outsider.

Kyle also manages to subvert many of the more noisome stereotypes and tropes that have plagued Jewish characters since the beginning. For one, he is short-tempered and absolutely not afraid of standing up for himself. In any given instance where Cartman or someone else bullies him for his Jewishness (or for any other reason), Kyle will not hesitate to put them in their place. He is also depicted as book-smart and one of the top students in his class, but without being dragged into Poindexter territory. He is also the most moral character on the show, without being a doormat.

Last but not least, there is Dr. Katz, an animated sitcom from the mid-90s that lasted until 2002. The main character – the titular Dr. Katz – is a Jewish-American professional therapist whose patients tend to be famous actors or comedians. Although his 24-year-old son is depicted as a childish buffoon, neither he nor Dr. Katz possess the degrading stereotypes, caricaturing, or whitewashing that plague most Jewish characters. Moreover, although Katz and his son are both assimilated, the show does not – at any point – go out of its way to disparage Israel, Jewish culture, or Judaism.

And that about covers it. In aggregate, we have a grand total of 3 (4, if Spike Spiegel can be counted) examples of positive Jewish representation.

Everything else falls into one or more of these categories…

Whitewashed – The ethnic Jewish characters are all portrayed as extremely white-passing with zero indication that they are of Levantine descent – instead, the opposite is strongly implied. The show’s writing identifies Jewishness as a religion and Jews as “white people of a different faith”, not as a non-European ethnic group marginalized by white supremacy.

Overweight and obsessed with food – Reinforces stereotypes/myths of Jewish greed, gluttony, and overall unattractiveness.

Unattractive, neurotic nerds and hypochondriacs – This ties into the well-worn trope of Jews as weak, ugly outsiders and punching bags. It also conveys to audiences that Jews are “whiny” and “irritating”. The hypochondria conveys to audiences that Jews are “always exaggerating their suffering”/”crying wolf” and should be taken with a grain of salt, at best.

No. Absolutely not.
Image source: Photoshop

Jewish mother stereotypes – As one article describes it, “a middle-aged woman with a nasal New York accent and ample bosom, who either sweats over a steaming pot of matzah balls while screaming at her kids from across the house. Or, in an updated version, she sits poolside in Florida, jangling her diamonds and guilt-tripping her grown children into calling her more often. The Jewish mother wants her daughter to marry a Jewish doctor and her son to love her best of all. She is sacrificing yet demanding, manipulative and tyrannical, devoted and ever-present. She loves her children fiercely, but man, does she nag.”

Greedy, bloodthirsty, or cannibalistic villains – Sinister, heartless, inhuman monsters who prey on beautiful white maidens or otherwise pure, innocent creatures. This hearkens back to medieval European Orientalist othering and fear-mongering in the form of blood libels. Notable examples include Mr. Bohlwinkel (Blumenthal) from Tintin, Gargamel from the Smurfs (whose, in his earlier appearance, had a mezuzah in his house), and Mother Gothel from Tangled (it’s never stated outright that she’s Jewish, but it’s very strongly implied).

Comedic punching bags/butt monkeys – Basically, the Jewish character exists for no other reason than to be tormented, abused, and humiliated. Audiences are expected to laugh at the Jewish character’s misfortunes.

Dehumanization – Portraying Jews as animals, particularly vermin e.g. rodents, roaches, etc. Don Bluth’s “American Tail” does this, although he didn’t intend for it to be antisemitic (most of the non-Jewish cast are also mice).

And on those exceedingly rare occasions (which can practically be counted on one hand) where a Jewish character does not meet one or more of these criteria, then it is because they are only half/partially Jewish – thus enabling audiences to explain away or understand the absence of these traits by the character having “superior” gentile blood (or non-Ashkenazi ancestry, seeing as these are mostly anti-Ashkenazi stereotypes).

These examples, taken together, construct a highly unflattering image of Jews: that of an ugly, awkward, shrill, irritating, greedy, and often duplicitous group of “white” people whose only distinguishing marks are their “weird” religious faith and an array of physical, social, and moral shortcomings that are alleged to be inherent to Jewishness, if not definitive of Jewishness.

From there, it follows that any viewer who has never seen or met a Jew in their lives (probably most people) will cry out “why are these people considered ethnic minorities? They’re not oppressed! They’re just ugly, dorky, greedy white people! Why should I care what they think? Why should their opinions matter?”.

One could easily conclude, based on everything that has been outlined here, that our culture is training audiences to hate and vilify Jews from a young age and make them want to punch us. It would hardly be an unreasonable supposition, at the very least.

This begs the question…

What Needs To Be Done?

For each installment of this series, there will be a “What Needs To Be Done?” section at the end wherein outline solutions to the specific problems presented in that article.

For the animation industry, here is what needs to happen.

Stop Depicting Us As White People – Jews are not white. We are a Levantine-Middle Eastern ethnic group, indigenous to Israel.

Yes, this includes Jews whose families spent exile in Europe (i.e. Ashkenazi Jews).

It is commonly and incorrectly assumed that, because Ashkenazi Jews (who comprise the bulk of American Jewry) recently resided in Europe, that they are essentially a European white population whose connection to the Levant is tenuous at best, and limited solely to religious belief. In other words, they’re not Jews in the Biblical sense at all, but rather Poles, Germans, Russians, and Czechs who practice the Jewish faith. And Hollywood, in turn, goes out of its way to present these myths as truth, thereby inculcating and reinforcing them.

But in reality, these myths have no basis in history, culture, or genetics.

Most real-life Ashkenazi Jews hardly resemble the whitewashed, humiliating caricatures we see in the vast majority of animation.

Of course, this does not mean white-passing Jews do not exist, or that no white-passing Jewish characters should be created. It just needs to be done in a careful, balanced way that does not engage in or promote obscurantism of our Levantine ethnic taxonomy. For example, for every white-passing Jewish character, give them parents or siblings who are more visibly Levantine.

And while it is equally important to give representation to other Jewish minhagim (e.g. Sephardim, Mizrahim, etc), they should not be used as a loophole out of giving Ashkenazim fair representation, e.g. “if we have to make dark-skinned Jewish characters, let’s just make them all Sephardi or Mizrahi or part-black or Mexican or whatever. This way we don’t give an inch to the Zionists”

No More Stereotypes – This one should go without saying, but it most likely needs to be said anyway.

No more portraying us as social lepers. No more portraying us as food-obsessed gluttons. No more portraying us as weak, neurotic nuisances and hypochondriacs. No more portraying us as evil bankers and cannibalistic monsters.

Represent us as a holistic Levantine ethnic group and, more importantly, as human beings with a full range of human experiences and emotions, not as the antisemitic cardboard cut-out caricatures constructed for the purpose of keeping us underfoot and presenting non-Jews (particularly whites) in a superior light.

Explore Jewish History And Culture – I vividly remember two Rugrats specials that explored Hanukkah and Passover, and several Hey Arnold episodes that delved a bit into Jewish culture. Despite the questionable depiction of Jews in the latter show, I see these episodes as a step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done. A Disney film set in ancient Israel would be great, and would teach kids from a young age that we are not some silly religious offshoot of Europeans. We’re a unique Middle Eastern people with a beautiful, rich culture and civilization of our own, and generations of trauma and scars that many could learn from.

More Jewish Protagonists – Self-explanatory.

All of these changes are absolutely necessary, at least if one is serious about undoing and subverting antisemitism in mainstream culture. And if antisemites scream and throw a tantrum over it, all the better. That means you’re doing the right thing. Stop caving to bigots.

That concludes part 1. Parts 2 and 3 will cover live-action media and comics/gaming, respectively.

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