Sarah Katz
Don't fit the mould - MAKE the mould.

Jews Need Better Representation In Hollywood

It was recently announced that Mel Gibson, a notoriously antisemitic A-list actor, would portray the “villainous” elder Rothschild in an upcoming Hollywood production centered on the Rothschild family. This news has engendered significant outrage from Jews worldwide, and for good reason. The Rothschilds were a prominent 19th century Jewish banking family, and were the center of countless antisemitic conspiracy theories. It is commonly believed by antisemites (including Gibson himself) that the Rothschilds financed wars, controlled the economy, and could manipulate Western governments to their advantage. Orientalist theories provided the bedrock for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous Czarist forgery pointing to a worldwide Jewish conspiracy aimed at world domination.

The fact that a movie like this is being made at all shows that antisemitism has not only mainstreamed in a horrifying way, it has become a lucrative market in itself. This normalization of conspiracy theories involving Jews points to a far deeper, longstanding problem in the way Jews are treated in Hollywood. Because for all of the conspiracy theories pertaining to alleged Jewish “control” of Hollywood, Jews are not nearly as well-represented in front of the camera as they are behind it. Perhaps this, in itself, is meant to signal to us our overall invisibility; we are only good to keep around so long as we make ourselves useful and stay out of sight.

It also bears mentioning that the preponderance of Jews in directing/producing roles stems from the fact that, in the decades prior to World War II, film producing was not seen as a “respectable” endeavor. For this reason, Jews had the field more or less to themselves. To this day, Jews who are visibly identifiable as Jewish (i.e. not the half-Danish Scarlett Johanssen, who is white-passing to the point that no one even knows she’s Jewish at all) tend to be limited to a very narrow selection of (usually stereotypical/degrading) roles: lonely geeks, losers, hypochondriacs, neurotic mothers, gold diggers, bankers, eccentric rabbis, terrorists and, ironically enough, Arabs.

There are, of course, exceptions to this cinematic Jewish stereotype rule (Jeff Goldblum immediately springs to mind), but they are too few and far between. Beyond that, the older among us will sometimes get to portray Holocaust survivors (with the one notable exception being Ben Kingsley, who is half-Indian), as these movies emphasize Jewish weakness and Western savior mentality, but that’s about it. Characters played by Ashkenazi actors such as Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman, Jason Alexander, Gene Wilder, Simon Helberg and Jerry Seinfeld, to name a few, invariably tend to be intellectual, but also hyper-neurotic and, at times, socially awkward to the point of primarily or solely providing comic relief.

One may be tempted to counter this by pointing to actress Natalie Portman, who portrayed a white-American woman (Jackie Kennedy) in her recent film, “Jackie”. However, this argument runs into several problems: one, casting Jews in white roles isn’t white privilege. It is whitewashing. White, when applied to Jews, is not a compliment. It is a form of erasure that very much dovetails with ongoing attempts at divorcing modern Jews — particularly Ashkenazim — from their Middle Eastern origin. Two, Natalie got this role because she is an attractive, white-passing woman. If Natalie looked more like Sarah Silverman or Mayim Bialik, it is unlikely that she would have been cast. Likewise, Hispanics are not “white” just because Cameron Diaz or Raquel Welch are white-passing enough to play white roles.

In fact, with the approaching release of Disney’s highly anticipated live-action film “Aladdin”, a fair amount of attention has gone toward that movie’s casting choices. Although a Dutch-Tunisian actor will fill the role this time around, Israeli actor Oded Fehr portrayed the iconic Arabian villain on ABC’s popular TV series “Once upon a Time”, and audiences did not bat an eye. Relating back to the intersectional view of Ashkenazi Jews as “white”, the casting of an Ashkenazi Jew in the role of Jafar, and the fact that many fans wanted him to reprise the role in the live-action Aladdin remake, indicates the dubiousness of highlighting Ashkenazi as interchangeable with “white”. Oded has also portrayed Ardeth Bay, the mysterious Egyptian medjai in Universal’s “The Mummy”. Similarly, Ashkenazi Israeli actress Gal Gadot plays the legendary, exotic beauty Wonder Woman, a mythical goddess hailing from a fictional East Mediterranean utopia. Even American Ashkenazi actor Adam Sandler, while bringing to life the quirky, titular Mossad persona Zohan in “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan”, emphasizes a passion for the traditional Middle Eastern snack hummus while exclaiming to his Palestinian terrorist enemy: “People hate us because they think we are you”, demonstrating a strong association between Jews (Ashkenazim included) with Arabs in the eyes of non-Semites.

These examples show, at the very least, that despite the insistence of many that Ashkenazi Jews (if not Jews more broadly) are “white”, people know deep down that we are not. Moreover, despite these same naysayers’ equally vehement assertion that Jews enjoy “white privilege”, that notion could not be further from the truth, even in the allegedly “Jewish-controlled” Hollywood. For example, provided the understandable aversion many minorities, such as Native Americans, hold toward white actors portraying Native characters, many Jews could take issue with white actresses such as Rachel Brosnahan playing the titular role in the period comedy series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (although coincidentially, her father is portrayed by Tony Shalhoub, who is Lebanese). You also have white actors playing Einstein, Magneto, King David, Solomon, Moses, and so on, thereby whitewashing/erasing our existence as an ethnic minority. And now, we see this trend culminating in the odious casting of white-Australian antisemite Mel Gibson in what will no doubt be a deeply antisemitic portrayal of the elder Baron Rothschild.

In this way, we see that if Jews truly “owned” Hollywood, the directors and producers that allegedly hold all the power would never allow such stereotypical character portrayals or inaccurate casting choices. On the contrary, there remains a distinct caricature persona when depicting Jews across Western cinema and television. Instead of having the opportunity to “pass as white”, the fact that some Ashkenazim are believable in a white role can be used to showcase Ashkenazim as “white” while, at the same time, more obviously Jewish Ashkenazim still face the possibility of either being showcased as neurotic social invalids or desert-dwelling barbarians.

About the Author
Sarah Katz is a UC Berkeley alumna, cyber security engineer, and author.
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