The Marginalized Group Inclusion Spaces Forgot to Include

In November, our JITC Hollywood Bureau attended the Television Academy’s DEI summit where they told us to be brave and asked if they had missed any points. I was. They had. I explained that they had forgotten the Jews. An academic entertainment group at UCLA, Scholars and Storytellers, heard by impassioned speech and wanted me to share my point of view with their newsletter, read by entertainment execs and fellow entertainment academics. Here’s what I wrote.

My family comes from a small, persecuted, indigenous people from the Middle East. We have been refugees for a painfully long time. When my grandfather was a child, he was lined up with his family to see how many people a bullet could go through. His family thankfully got away and fled to the US. My other grandfather experienced segregation here. My father was regularly beaten up as a kid for his marginalized status.

I grew up in a middle-class home, but my parents still gave me the talk that almost every child in my tribe gets — either informally and/or once a year — when the elders share our national story. It goes like this: “In every generation our enemies rise up to destroy us.” I had nightmares throughout my childhood of when that day would come. This is not uncommon for people in my community.

My darker skin was called out throughout my childhood growing up in New Jersey, and I was verbally harassed for my marginalized status. My classmates noticed that I looked “ethnic,” and I was regularly asked what I “was” or if my mother ate too much chocolate when she was pregnant with me. My sisters and aunts have fairer features, but as far as we know, no one in our family ever married outside of our tribe. Systemic violence against our foremothers in past generations was common, but there is a lot of shame around this topic, so it is not often discussed.

In my teen years, I began to derive pride in our homeland and strength from the spiritual practices of our people, which I adopted. In the last year, both of my daughters were called slurs on the street because our traditional clothing gave them away. My community is the most attacked religious minority community in the US right now as well as the most attacked racial group per capita*. On TV and in movies, my tribe is portrayed through a colonialist lens. We are shown as having outdated values and practices that need fixing. Characters from my community only receive praise when someone is “courageous enough” to leave.

I am a Jew.

An Orthodox Jewish woman, to be precise.

Defining the Jewish Experience in Progressive Language

If the plight of Jews was seen in the aforementioned light, we would have been part of DEIA spaces from the very beginning. But Jews are rarely regarded like this. Even though our story of oppression — tracing the violent exile of the Jewish people from Israel by the Romans, including the murder of 1 million and the enslavement of the rest, blood libels, Crusades, expulsions, inquisitions, forced segregation behind ghetto walls, pogroms, and the Holocaust — is completely true. So is the systemic racism against Jews in the US that began with the limitation of voting rights and the ability to hold office in some states, quotas in Ivy League schools, Asiatic immigration restrictions, redlining, segregation in pools, hotels, and beaches, and gatekeeping in professional industries, like law and publishing and some country clubs, that persist to this day.

Instead, Jews are seen as European whites (thank you, Whoopi!), who magically sprouted of out Poland a couple hundred years ago. Too rich, too privileged, too powerful to be a protected class. All of these ideas are antisemitic tropes that are baked into progressive ideology. This needs to change.

Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews are considered brown, but as a Jew whose family was expelled to a land where they eat gefilte fish, I was led to believe that I am white, even though my lived experience has shown me that the world doesn’t view me this way. To be brown, and simultaneously gaslit that you are not brown, is very confusing.

I grew up as a proud Conservative Jew, the only Jewish girl for most of my years in public school, where I was told “Jews killed Jesus” and “Jewish people howl at the moon and pray to the devil.” A double murder/suicide of a classmate and her brother by their father when I was 8 years old pushed me into an existential crisis. After 7 years of off and on insomnia and minor panic attacks, I met an Orthodox Jewish teacher at an after-school Hebrew high. He was nothing like what traditional media had led me to believe he’d be like. He was kind and compassionate, a feminist and wise. I slowly grew in my observance, proudly retaining all of the wonderful parts of my secular identity, but adding wisdom and spirituality to my life. As an Orthodox Jew today, my family and I are identifiably Jewish on the street. I have been victim-shamed, told that we are the ones who choose to wear our yarmulkes and wigs and skirts. If we “only” looked more American and visited our kosher stores, yeshivas, and synagogues less frequently, we could be safe.

For Jews who are secular and white-passing, they are subjected to a purity test that other white-passing marginalized individuals are not. And richness negating marginalized status does not seem to apply to other groups such as Indian Americans, even though they are the wealthiest ethnic group in the US.

Success Does Not Negate Past Trauma and a Sense of Foreboding

Inter-generational trauma is a phenomenon that affects nearly all Jews, no matter how they look or what they practice. So is the foreboding most of us feel towards the future. Many of us have been feeling it more than ever, since Kanye made antisemitic rhetoric mainstream. Jewish baggage is never being able to fully unpack. And the one place we might have to flee to one day, to unpack in, is riddled with complicated politics, when so many of us simply want a place to exhale and to live in peace.

The “talk” that most Jewish parents give their children happens during the Passover seder. For some, it includes being told to always have your passport ready. With the most lethal attacks on Jews in American history occurring in the last five years and with Jews being the most targeted religious group, despite being only 2% of the population, more and more of us are wondering when we may need to dust off those passports.

Next week is Holocaust Remembrance Day, but frankly I’m sick of the Jewish people only being remembered as a group that was murdered often or a people too privileged to need protection. Instead, I want to be known and celebrated for the proud, vibrant, self-actualized Jewish life that I live, which bursts with meaning and joy. But since it’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, I’ll invoke the Nazis who used propaganda to turn the world against Jews. They are a reminder of how damaging media can be for a marginalized group and the responsibility the entertainment world has to prevent and counter-act this.

A History (And Present) of Harmful Media Portrayals

The vilification of Jews throughout Western media started much earlier than the Third Reich. In ancient Egypt, in the third century B.C.E., Jews were accused of being the Hykos people and spreading leprosy. Jews being seen as vectors of disease continued with them being blamed for spreading the Bubonic Plague, the Nazis accused Jews of being lice and spreading tuberculosis, and shockingly, this trope has appeared in modern day traditional media. Blood libels of Jews began in the Middle Ages, when Christians accused them of kidnapping Christian children to bake their blood into matzah. Depictions of Jews as bloodthirsty baby-killers has popped up in communities all over the world and continues to this day. Also in the Middle Ages, a mistranslation of the Old Testament led to Jews being depicted with horns. This trope recently appeared in a Netflix advertising campaign. The Book of Revelations describes the antichrist as having horns and a tail and clubbed feet. With Jews already having horns, this resulted in the portrayal of Jews as all out demons. Starting in the 12th century, Jews became hooked-nose in paintings. The two church councils in 1267 forced Jews to wear pointy hats. Those hats, coupled with the hook-nosed trope, led to Jews becoming the inspiration for witches.

Jon Stewart was right about the goblins in Harry Potter looking Jewish, not because anyone associated with the films is necessarily antisemitic, but rather because little men with big noses counting money is yet another trope that was born out of the Jew-hatred. Take 3 minutes to watch Funny or Die’s animated short on how greedy, big nosed Jews became cartoon villains. The practice of “stage Jew” began in the 1600’s, when non-Jewish actors would dress up in Jewish garb to mock and make fun of Jews. While Sarah Silverman popularized the term “Jewface” to mean non-Jewish actors regularly getting cast in Jewish parts — a topic worthy of discussion in its own right, especially when contemporary movies put large noses on gentile actors to play Jews (see Maestro) — it has an older and even more sinister origin.

Jewface was done in vaudeville-style minstrels, both in Eastern Europe and the US, starting in the 1800s. Sometimes it was secular Jews mocking their religious brethren. Other times, antisemitic regimes, like the Bolsheviks, manipulated secular Jews with the promise of self-preservation to throw religious Jews under the bus. (Tragically, the Bolsheviks ended up killing those Jews too.) Nazis also employed Jewface in their 1940 propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.” Jewface persists in Hollywood today, often perpetrated by fellow Jews (see our mini documentary “Hollywood’s Orthodox Jew Problem”), even though this practice is thankfully verboten for other marginalized communities.

On that note, let’s dig into the trope that Jews run Hollywood. Jews don’t run Hollywood, but they founded it because more prestigious industries shut them out due to antisemitism. The Hollywood founders hid their Jewishness, assimilated and relied on self-deprecation to survive. Sadly, many of today’s Jews in Hollywood seem to have internalized so much Jew hatred that the depictions we often see are caricatures who are not fully human and are often insufferable. Non-Jewish writers and producers are also guilty of embedding these tropes into storylines. A CSA 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 the Jews be ready for this too??

Reshaping Jewish Identities in Hollywood

What if Jews on screen could be more often portrayed as endearing individuals, with shared struggles and shared joy? While the viewer may never get to know someone from this background in real life, the screen can be a conduit to building a relationship of admiration and respect. That’s why my organization launched the first and only Hollywood Bureau for Jews last year. No one had done it before, because no one was ready to lay this out like we are. And if you’re wondering why a small nonprofit that no one ever heard of had the chutzpah to take on Hollywood, there is nothing more Jewish than being a little guy, who doesn’t know his place. Or in my case, a little woman.

Fortunately, my inspiration to be courageous comes from looking at Jewish heroines from my tradition, like Queen Esther of Purim fame (movie idea, people!), instead of taking cues from the meek and voiceless Orthodox Jewish women Hollywood depicts.

Already, we are commissioning an in-depth character analysis and impact study with a leading academic entertainment group, to explore bias in media and the negative ways inaccurate depictions of Jews shape viewers’ opinions. We’re about to have a panel at Sundance on problematic Jewish representation in Hollywood (the first of its kind) and attended the Television Academy Inclusion Summit in November. We have met with all the major studios and are creating materials with the Think Tank for Inclusion and Equity (TTIE) to train showrunners. In time, we hope to place consultants and proud and knowledgeable Jewish writers into writers’ rooms so that we can prevent harmful tropes and silly caricatures of the secular nebbish Jew, the evil, extremist Hasid, or the only-white Jew. Characters like these increase judgement, derision and hate.

#Neveragain is feeling closer than ever, but meaningful changes in the entertainment industry could stem the tide. We will usher in a new generation of Jews who are ready to lean into our heritage and demand proud and authentic representation. Perhaps when we Jews see our heroes on the screen, we’ll be overcome with self-love, and then the world will follow

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