Dani Ishai Behan

Why Is Whitewashing Only OK When It Happens To Jews?

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Julius Robert Oppenheimer, otherwise known as J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a renowned theoretical physicist and “father” of the atomic bomb. Born in 1904 to a struggling family, Julius was a highly gifted student with an avid interest in chemistry, South Asian philosophy, and horseback riding.

He was also a Jew.

No, he didn’t practice Judaism. Nor did his parents. Throughout his lifetime, he never celebrated Jewish holidays. Never went to synagogue. Never had a Bar Mitzvah. Never tasted hummus. And, at least as far as we know, could not speak a lick of Hebrew.

But, he was a Jew. That was his ethnicity. That was his reality. One that he knew he could never escape, and not for lack of trying (he denied his Jewishness for years). In fact, his primary motive for building the bomb in the first place was to prevent white supremacy from annihilating his people.

Director Christopher Nolan’s latest movie – aptly-named “Oppenheimer” – is a biopic of the scientist’s life, wherein he is portrayed by Irish actor Cillian Murphy.

In other words, Hollywood has once again cast a white actor in the role of an ethnic Jewish character.

Typically, when white actors are cast in ethnic minority roles (a practice referred to as ‘whitewashing’), there is a massive uproar from both inside and outside of the aggrieved minority group’s community. But when it happens to Jews, there is a deafening silence. It is treated as completely normal, if not salutary. We (Jews) tend to be the only ones who call it out and, when we do, we are invariably gaslit and broadsided over it.

To wit, if this were an Arab, Persian, or Turkish character being portrayed by a white actor, there would be an enormous outcry from many (if not most) of the same people who are now looking askance at this article. The hypocrisy is infuriating, to say the least, and speaks to a very obvious and ugly antisemitic sentiment.

“Why is it whitewashing when white actors portray Jewish characters? Aren’t Jews white?”

No. Jews are a West Asian/Middle Eastern ethnic group and diaspora indigenous to the Levant, specifically modern day Israel, Palestine, and western Jordan.

We are not “white people of a different religion”. We are an ethnic group. From the Middle East.

So why were Oppenheimer’s parents living in Europe? Because, like all Ashkenazi Jews, his family were either exiled to that continent or taken there as slaves – from the Middle East. Same reason African-Americans have lived in America for the past 500 years. Same reason Cherokee Indians have lived in Oklahoma for the past 200.

Our presence in Europe is entirely the result of colonial crimes committed against us. Calling us “white-Europeans” is not only inaccurate, it is erasive and sick. And very antisemitic.

Are some of us white-passing? Yes*. But on the whole, we are a community of color (as much so as Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians at least). Ergo, if casting white actors in non-Jewish Levantine/Middle Eastern roles is a form of whitewashing, then so is casting white actors in Jewish roles. You can’t have it both ways.

Attempting to justify the latter but not the former is an exercise in hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is the beating heart of prejudice.

*Many non-Jewish Levantines/Middle Easterners are also white-passing, but that’s neither here nor there.

“But it’s acting. Are you saying that only Jewish actors should be allowed to play Jewish roles?”

No, of course not. Although I believe casting directors should at least make an effort to find Jewish actors to fill Jewish roles, using actors/actresses from other Middle Eastern or East Mediterranean backgrounds should be fine. And vice versa. Jewish character Abe Weissman’s role being filled by Tony Shalhoub (a Lebanese-American actor) has, as far as I know, been met with overwhelming positivity. Rachel Brosnahan? Not so much.

Cillian Murphy is an immensely talented actor, but Middle Eastern he is not. Using an actor like him for a Jewish role only serves to misrepresent our community to a global audience and, by extension, feed popular antisemitic canards (e.g. “Ashkenazi Jews are white-European Khazars/not indigenous to Palestine”).

For example, Uncut Gems used Jewish actors for every single Jewish role, and the difference is immediately obvious. The Jewish characters all feel authentic, and adequately convey that Jews are a Levantine ethnic minority and not “white people with funny hats”.

The way we are portrayed, and by whom, sends a message to the world about who and what Jews supposedly are. Any commitments to fair, equal, and accurate representation for marginalized groups must necessarily be extended to Jews. Otherwise, it is nothing more than an exercise in gentile privilege.

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