What If Jews Controlled (Better Representation In) Hollywood?



There was once a treacherous year in the spread of Jewish libels. Not surprisingly, violence against Jews rose during this time. There were depictions of Jews with enlarged noses and horns, bloodthirsty baby-killing Jews, Jews who dipped their enemies into molten gold, Jews depicted as vectors of disease, leeches on society and lecherous. That year, Jewish cemeteries and ritual baths were accused of poisoning wells. The year I’m referring to wasn’t during the Middle Ages or even 1930s Germany. It was what major TV shows, movies and newspaper articles in prestigious outlets featured in 2023.

If these descriptions shock you in our age of increased sensitivity towards marginalized groups, it’s because increased sensitivity never extended to Jewish representation. Neither did accommodations to Jews working in entertainment. In 2023, Jews were additionally represented as moneyed and scheming (“Cobra Kai”), benefiting from the slave trade (“You People”) and committing fraud (“The Bear”). The horrors of the Holocaust were joked about and minimized (“Dave” and “You People”). Jews were also depicted as insufferable, judgmental religious fanatics who are only celebrated when they have the “courage” to reject their identity (“My Unorthodox Life”). Imagine this dynamic laid over any other minority.

While authentic casting became the norm for every other group, multiple biopics came out with gentiles playing Jewish parts over and over again in 2023. Blackface and other forms of appropriation became verboten several years ago, with celebrity apologies and television episodes pulled out of circulation. Contrast this to Jewface — using Jewish garb, affect and/or prosthetic noses, by Jews and gentiles alike — to portray a “Jew.”

Jewface is alive and well, even though its origins are parallel to blackface. “Stage Jew” began in the 1600s in Shakespearian productions, when white actors would dress in Jewish garb and noses to denigrate Jews. Then, in the 1800s, the term “Jewface” was coined when Jewish appropriation was done in vaudeville-style minstrels, both in Eastern Europe and the U.S. Nazis also employed Jewface in their 1940 propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.”

Attacks on the Jewish community don’t just end on the screen. The most lethal assaults against American Jews have occurred in the last five years. There is constant violence against Orthodox Jews in urban areas, Jewish college students face increasing hostility on campus for supporting Israel, and social media has given a platform for Jew-haters to spew venom in broad daylight, posts bolstered by celebrities peddling libelous conspiracies that were once reserved for 4Chan. When an antisemite faces consequences, as others have for being racist, Jews are then blamed for being too powerful.

Despite being only 2% of the U.S. population, Jews are the most targeted group in the country per capita, but because the FBI hate crimes report mistakenly identifies crimes against Jews as a religion and not an ethno-religion, it is never expressed this way.

While one popular trope is that Jews run Hollywood, sadly, many of the Jews that are in Hollywood seem to have internalized so much Jew-hatred and shame that the depictions we often see are caricatures, who are often insufferable and not fully human. Non-Jewish writers and producers are also guilty of perpetuating Jewish stereotypes. A Casting Society of America member recently told me that Jewish actors usually play down their Jewishness, lest it negatively impact their career.

In an age when every other marginalized group is proudly leading into their identity, when will Jews be ready for this too?

What if Jews could be more often portrayed as endearing individuals, with shared struggles and joy? The model for this exists for every other minority group. Starting 70-plus years ago, the NAACP founded the first Hollywood bureau to advocate for fair and authentic portrayals of Black characters. Decades later came NILAP for Hispanic representation, MPAC’s Hollywood bureau for Muslim representation, CAPE for Asian representation and many more. The heroes of “Black Panther,” “Encanto,” “Rami” and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” are just some of characters who have come to the big screen in recent times due to the advocacy of Hollywood bureaus. None of their characters are perfect, but they all defy stereotypes and show pride in their identity, as well as characteristics like empathy, loyalty, charm and honesty.

A well-written TV or film character who is authentic and nuanced can make a profound impact on viewers, as the screen can be a conduit to building a relationship of admiration and respect with characters from backgrounds viewers might never come across in real life. Impact reports show the correlation between representation and the opinions audiences hold of minority groups.

This is why my organization, Jew and the City (JITC), launched the first and only Jewish Hollywood Bureau last year. If you’re wondering why a small nonprofit that no one ever heard of had the chutzpah to take on Hollywood when none of the legacy organizations ever did, there is nothing more Jewish than being a little guy who doesn’t know his place. Or in my case, a proud Orthodox Jewish woman who didn’t read the script that told me to be meek.

DEIA spaces almost always exclude Jews, as we’re considered too white, too rich, too powerful — all ideas based on antisemitic tropes. Jews are an indigenous people to the Middle East and the perception of Jewish money and power has never saved Jews from myriad expulsions, pogroms and other discrimination we have faced for millennia.

While 2023 has been a rough year in Jewish representation, it’s turning out to be an incredible year for Jews fighting back to take control of our narrative. Jew and the City’s Jewish Hollywood Bureau recently started collaborating with the Norman Lear Center to study how Jews are represented in scripted TV. We’re testing to find out how often Jewish characters are portrayed in ways that are consistent with stereotypes and tropes, in addition to portrayals of Orthodox Judaism as something to escape. We held the first panel ever on Jewish representation at the Sundance Film Festival to a standing-room-only crowd. We attended the first Television Academy Inclusion Summit last November, where I told the room that they had forgotten the Jews. By the second Summit this spring, the TV Academy included a panel on Jewish representation. We have met with all the major studios, held the first JITC Media Awards, and are creating a fact sheet with Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE), so we can train showrunners on tropes we are tired of and stories we’d like to see more of.

We plan to place consultants in the room, build writers labs and create a culture of Jewish accommodation, so Jews of all observance levels feel welcomed in Hollywood. We want to ensure that proud and knowledgeable Jews are able to share their stories and can prevent the nebbish Jew, the extremist Hasid or the whitewashed Jew from being constantly showcased. Characters like these increase judgment, derision and hate.

Jews don’t control Hollywood, but they founded it. They founded it because more prestigious industries — like publishing, law, medicine, real estate and others — shut them out due to antisemitism. The Hollywood founders hid their Jewishness, assimilated and relied on self-deprecation to survive. We are leading the way in helping today’s Jews lean into their heritage and demand proud and authentic representation.

We hope that when Jews see their heroes on the screen, they’ll be overcome with self-love, and then the world will follow.

Allison Josephs is the founder of Jew in the City.

This article is part of Variety’s Antisemitism and Hollywood package and was written in September.


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