Diane Gensler
Hadassah Educators Council

The Equalizer Dedicates an Entire Episode to Antisemitism – Did It Work?

Queen Latifah in the CBS drama, 'The Equalizer.' Photo courtesy of CBS

My husband and I settled on the sofa with the blankets and snacks on a Tuesday night to catch up with our television viewing, watching recorded episodes of our favorite shows. We turned on The Equalizer (Season 3, episode 11 titled “Never Again”). I wondered who Queen Latifah would be defending in this episode. Who would be the downtrodden in need of help? Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be my people — the Jews!! The viewer doesn’t know this until the victim is unconscious on the ground, and the camera pans to the brick wall outside her deli shop with the word “Jew” spray-painted over some artwork.

As I watched, my initial reaction was to give kudos to the writers, producers, directors, actors, and all the people involved and hope this was an attempt to shine a light on antisemitism and not mere sensationalism to attract viewers. How did they do? I can’t say I was 100% pleased.

For example, does one of the main characters need to identify as Jewish for the team to be hyper-motivated to find the perpetrators of multiple hate crimes? Although, I liked how they portrayed Harry as the post-bar mitzvah Jew who strayed from his religion, as that seems realistic as well as consistent with his character.

Was it necessary for the rabbi of this particular synagogue to be well-acquainted with Harry’s mother and remember Harry as a child? With all the synagogues in Brooklyn, couldn’t the victim attend a synagogue with which Harry is unfamiliar? For can’t a Jew feel welcome and at home in any synagogue whether you are a regular or not? But then again, this relationship helps to further Harry’s resolution of a family issue, so it serves its purpose.

You can’t help but like the character of the rabbi played by Richard Masur. He seems to be a real mensch, although his yiddishkeit seems to be stereotyped. Did he really need the accent? How many current rabbis actually talk like that (and even pinch Harry’s cheek, calling him boychik)? When he kept fiddling with his hearing aid, you knew it’d come in to play somewhere in the story. His hearing deficit added “color” to his character as well as provide an instrument for a “save the day” moment. I wonder though what non-Jews thought of him. Did he come off as a dunce who doesn’t realize the gravity of the situation, or a meshuggehah (crazy person)?

Robyn, Queen Latifah’s character, apparently knows the significance of a mezuzah. I think it’s good to be familiar with rituals and customs from religions other than our own. But is it realistic to think that her character would know this? Perhaps because she is “the equalizer,” the audience will accept it, even if it sounds very contrived.

Then there’s the conversation between Harry and Dante at the scene of the crime.

Dante: It never ends, does it?
Harry: You know, when I was a kid, growing up Jewish, they instilled all this fear in you,  you know, like you’re white until they find out you’re Jewish. Don’t wear a Star of David out in public, you know, and I remember not paying any attention to it, right? I didn’t figure it was going to apply to us, to our generation.
Dante: Yeah, found out the hard way growing up in Gatling County.
Harry: Yeah.

Yes, it never ends — never any place nor any time period in our history to-date. Doesn’t that also apply to racism and prejudices against a lot of people? Couldn’t we address that as well? Or was that an attempt with Dante’s personal statement about his own experiences? Harry responds with only, “yeah.” This was a missed opportunity. What Gatling County is Dante referring to? Is this meant to be a fictitious archetypal place denoting racial tension?

I know it’s hard to squeeze so much into an hour-long television show (with commercial breaks), but I’d rather they delve deeper than skirt over issues. (How about a two-parter on such a hot topic?) Harry could have at least responded to Dante’s statement with some comment that shows the universality of man’s cruelty to man. Or perhaps it would have been better if Dante just sympathized with Harry and the Jews instead of making an out-of-context statement. I imagine the statement was meant for Dante to show empathy for Harry’s plight.

In addition to providing background to Harry’s character, most Jews can relate to the warnings about antisemitism he received as a youngster. I’m sure many kids are warned from parents and grandparents and don’t think antisemitism is related to them only to receive a rude awakening. And yes, one would think that it doesn’t apply to a younger generation, but it does because, unfortunately, as Dante states, it never ends.

Harry’s Jewish identify came out of left field. Although you can feel it coming before he explains it when he says the deli has “the best chocolate babkas in Brooklyn.” Obviously he knows his stuff! And then he shows statistics of hate crimes in the U.S. last year and says they were at an all-time high. I appreciate the tidbit but wonder if it was inserted for justification for the storyline, to add “flavor” to the story, or if it’s meant to raise awareness. (Hoping for the latter, of course.)

Later, Harry responds that Jewish people are only 0.2% of the population. Another tidbit hopefully meant to enlighten. Or does it say that Jew haters shouldn’t waste their time with so few of us? If the writers wanted Harry to be half-Jewish, couldn’t they have embedded that information in a previous episode? Did they decide at the last minute that Harry would have a Jewish mother? As an English teacher, I can tell you that character development is just that – development. It takes time. It happens gradually. You don’t just drop a bomb like that, so to speak.

Speaking of bombs, what about those maniacs wielding assault rifles who plotted to shoot all the Jews in the synagogue on Shabbat morning? They were believable in that the climax of the story was going to be some type of battle, there are multiple haters out there, and there are some people who consider or attempt to commit such grievous crimes. However, there was no character development there either. Are we to believe that there was no motivation? No particular reason except pure hatred? If so, hatred stems from somewhere or is bred somehow.

It turns out that one of the skinheads was the son of the Jewish victim because she was a convert, and her son didn’t adhere to the same beliefs she did. The mother didn’t have an inkling how her son felt? He started fraternizing with white supremacists without revealing even once to anyone what his beliefs were? That was hard to believe, but I suppose children can be good at hiding things from their parents.

Mel says, “He doesn’t fit the typical mold,” and Harry responds, “Welcome to the new face of hate. It’s not swastikas and white hoods anymore. It’s the guy at the grocery store, it’s the mail man.” Mel responds with, “Meaning you never see them coming.” I suppose that is accurate, but weren’t the KKK members in their white hooded robes also men from town with everyday jobs? Isn’t hate often disguised? Have things really changed that much?

Spoiler Alert :
The leader of the group (No surprise that the team uncovers a whole group working together) turns out to be the owner of the comic book store whom they questioned in the beginning. I called that one. If you watched enough Law and Order episodes, that was easy. But, again, why? What was his motivation? Why did he hate Jews so much? Wasn’t Marvel comics started by a Jew? Did this guy feel oppressed because his comic book wasn’t published or sold, and he blamed the Jews? That was not clear in the least.

In Stephen Silver’s article in “The Times of Israel,” he quotes Ora Yashar, one of the two writers on the show. “One of the big things for this episode was that we can’t fight hate alone,” she said. “All marginalized communities, we all need to come together. Being a woman, being Iranian, and being Jewish, you know just my whole life experience has just been teaching me that all along.”

Queen Latifah’s character, Robyn, says early in the episode, “Hate like this has no place anywhere.” Amen to that! And Dante says, “Hate is everyone’s problem.” A valuable message indeed if it is actually received.

I can’t argue with the idea that we must all stand together. Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, leads rallies and other community events encouraging everyone to stand up together to fight antisemitism. Rather than calling “the equalizer” if there were such a person, we are all encouraged to be equalizers ourselves. Hadassah encourages everyone to help by reporting acts of antisemitism in their communities.

Hadassah also issued a recent policy statement defining antisemitism.

But doesn’t standing together to fight apply to everyone, everywhere? Isn’t that really the point of the entire television series – that everyone needs help sometimes and we must stick up for each other? Maybe that’s why the episode mostly works. Or perhaps it works simply because of its entertainment value. But if you are going to tackle an issue of this magnitude, stereotyping the elements isn’t the way to go. Did the episode in some small way help to lessen antisemitism? Would it change anyone’s mind about their attitudes or prejudices? Did it help my people? Unfortunately, I think not. They titled it “Never Again.” How many people really even know what that means?

About the Author
Diane Gensler is a Life Member of Hadassah Baltimore, a member of the Hadassah Educators Council and the Hadassah Writers' Circle, and a lay leader in her synagogue. She is the author of Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020) and occasionally writes articles for organizations of which she is a member, such as the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. She is a certified English and special education teacher. In addition to teaching in public and private schools, she developed educational software, tutored online and wrote and managed online curriculum. She is a Maryland Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a mentor. A native Baltimorean and mother of three, she leads the Baltimore Jewish Writers Guild and holds volunteer positions in her children’s schools and activities.
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