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Jews Are A Middle Eastern Ethnicity, And We Deserve Accurate Representation

Maestro, an upcoming Netflix drama focusing on the life and love of Leonard Bernstein, just saw its first official trailer released to Youtube. Herein we see Bradley Cooper – a non-Jewish actor of European descent (i.e. a white actor) – taking up the role of the esteemed Jewish composer.

If that act of whitewashing isn’t insulting enough, just wait until you see his prosthetic “Jewish” nose. Yikes.

Typically, articles that call attention to whitewashing, caricaturization, and misrepresentation of Jews are met with ferocious backlash, ranging from the antisemitic (e.g. “Ashkenazi Jews are not Middle Eastern”, “god, (((you people))) are insufferable”) to the merely tone deaf (e.g. “it’s called acting, mate”). Whatever their justifications, the underlying grievance appears to be the same: “Jews are demanding the same considerations and respect meant for gentiles, and we don’t believe they need or deserve it”.

A stance like this is clearly incompatible with the DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusion) commitment to equal representation for ethnic minorities and marginalized groups. But not only is this blatant double standard accepted, it is aggressively defended. Why? And more importantly, why should we oppose it?

Before we can answer those questions, we must first establish who Jews are as a people.

Who Are Jews?

Jews are a Middle Eastern nationality and ethnic group indigenous to the land of Israel – a territory encompassing present-day Israel/Palestine and Western Jordan. It is often asserted (typically by gentiles) that Jews are more of a religious persuasion comparable to Christianity and Islam, but as popular and comforting as this belief is for many gentiles, it simply isn’t true. Ethnic Jews worldwide share a common descent from the land of Israel and the wider Middle East, which comprises the majority of our DNA.

So then why were there Jews in Germany, Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia? Because we were exiled/taken as slaves to that continent by colonial powers. Same reason African-Americans ended up in the United States. Same reason Cherokee Indians ended up in Oklahoma.

Our exile in Europe, prolonged as it was, did not change who we are. It did not change our ethnic identity or origin. This is reflected in our looks: the vast majority of us look no different from other populations of the Middle East and North Africa.

Claiming that we are white-Europeans/treating us as interchangeable with white-Europeans by dint of being forcibly exiled there is a form of whitewashing, and very antisemitic.

With that in mind…

Why Should Jews Have Accurate Representation?

1. Consistency

If ethnic minority representation is important (and it is), Jewish representation is equally important. Arguments to the contrary are little more than a defense of gentile supremacy and an assertion that Jews are not “proper” ethnic minorities. Ergo, it is an antisemitic proposition.

2. Authenticity

It’s a given that characters from certain ethnic backgrounds will feel more authentic, and more powerful, when portrayed by actors who belong to that ethnic group. Not only will the actor already “look the part” (thus circumventing the need for prolonged make-up sessions), but they can draw on their own experiences, traumas, etc that come from living as a member of that community and infuse it into their character, enhancing the performance.

Lamentably, Hollywood consistently gets this wrong. At least where it involves Jews.

Jewish actors, more often than not, will land Jewish roles only when the character has some flaw that aligns with antisemitic stereotypes. If, on the other hand, the character is heroic, admirable, or commanding, the part will almost always go to a white actor. In addition to J. Robert Oppenheimer (subject of the recently released biopic “Oppenheimer”) and Leonard Bernstein, Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, William Kunstler, Anne Frank, and countless other Jewish heroes and heroines have been portrayed by white actors. Conversely, Jewish actors who are more noticeably Jewish or otherwise “exotic” will typically be saddled with roles reflecting disparaging stereotypes, e.g. geeks, hypochondriacs, bankers, etc.

Many have tried to minimize the gravity of this problem by (erroneously) comparing it to “Catholics playing Methodist characters” and “non-serial killers playing serial killers”, with the underlying subtext being that this is “just white-Europeans playing other white-Europeans”. As noted above, Ashkenazi Jews are a Middle Eastern diaspora population, indigenous to the Levant, with a deeply traumatic history involving prolonged exile in Europe and centuries of racial persecution therein. We are not “white” people with big noses and funny hats.

More to the point, white-European actors throwing on prosthetic noses and affecting “Noo Yawk” accents is in no way authentic. Or acceptable. To the contrary, it is disrespectful, dehumanizing, and heinous.

It is a textbook form of whitewashing.

Whitewashing is not only inauthentic (obviously), it lays the groundwork for eventual erasure of a character’s Jewishness. In the domain of comics, one already hears talk of phasing out the Jewishness of several mainstay characters – especially Magneto, who is a Holocaust survivor. For some characters, this has already happened. And I am certain neither would have been possible were it not for more than 30+ years of whitewashing on screen.

3. More Work For Jewish Actors

The more frequently Hollywood casts white (or other non-Jewish) actors in Jewish roles, the less work will be available for Jewish actors who are struggling to be noticed.

As things stand right now, our stories are being told without us, and people who actually have lived experience as Jews are not able to get work even if they are just as talented as big names like Cillian Murphy and Helen Mirren.

In this time of rising antisemitism, Jewish representation matters now more than ever. A clear message needs to be sent that Jews count, both as a “proper” ethnic minority who deserve to be included and as a Middle Eastern people whose full story deserves to be told.

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  • Avatar photo Yup says on August 15, 2023

    Acting is a profession like any other & if you’re really good at it you get paid very well. If an actor can accurately portray a character who cares about their background? In the Jazz Singer Sir Lawrence Olivier played the religious father. A wonderful performance (as he always does). What was missing because he’s not Jewish? Nothing. He’s an actor (& a darn good one). Is this seriously saying only Jews should play Jews to give Jews more opportunities? You don’t seem to want an equal playing field you want special treatment.
    When Non-Jews say, “OK, only Jews can play Jews then only Non-Jews can play Non-Jews. You’ll be screaming Antisemitism! Why? If only Jews can properly play Jews it makes sense only Non-Jews who lived the Non-Jewish experience can play Non-Jewish roles.
    I’d love to hear what you think, ty.

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Dani says on September 7, 2023

      If accurate representation is the standard for everybody else, it should be the standard for us as well.

      Simple as that.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo Debby says on August 16, 2023

    Your point is well made; however some of us are fair skinned blue/green eyes. Are we from intermarriages-not as far as I know.

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on August 16, 2023

      There are fairer Arabs as well. But something our community never discusses is how prevalent violence against Jewish women was over the last 2000 years. So many of us may be wearing the DNA of our foremothers’ oppressors.

      Reply
      • Avatar photo Yup says on August 16, 2023

        Claiming Jews look White cause of violence against women is highly problematic. While jewishness comes from the mother whether a person is a Kohen or not is from the father. You’re basically saying all blond hair &/or Blue eyed Kohanim are suspect because they look that way due to violence (not Jewish father=not a Kohen). That’s a terrible accusation to make against a large number of people with a tradition of being a Kohein.

        Reply
        • Avatar photo Allison Josephs says on August 16, 2023

          A baby conceived out of rape is not the fault of the family. In cases like this, I’m sure the rabbinic approach is to not look too much into the issue. The Talmud deals with questions on how to handle Jewish female captives who are taken as sex slaves. It began with the destruction of the Temples and continued for thousands of years. Queen Esther is a very famous woman taken captive and produced a son who helped the Jews rebuild the Temple. We don’t look down on these cases.

          Reply
          • Avatar photo Susan says on August 17, 2023

            Exactly right. In fact elaborate stories were known to be told about the children of rape to conceal and erase the paternal involvement in their creation.

        • Avatar photo Shayndi says on August 16, 2023

          I agree with the general premise but I do think that with Ashkenazi Jews it is more nuanced. Most of us look much more European than middle eastern. It is very clear that we do have some kind of European blood influx, even though it is not clear exactly when or how that occurred.
          Ashkenazi Jews are caucasion. I never questioned identifying myself as such and I don’t know any others who do as well. Anthropologically there seems to be a lot of confusion and debate as to how exactly we Ashkenazi Jews came to be this is way. But the reality is that, even though there are “Jewish features” that are often identifiable, we are, for all intents and purposes, white.

          And I do genuinely think that that makes it more nuanced.
          It’s easier to compare that to a British actor playing an Irish roman catholic.

          Reply
          • Avatar photo Dani says on August 17, 2023

            @Shayndi

            No, it isn’t more nuanced.

            Ashkenazi Jews are indigenous to the Levant and, on the whole, resemble non-Jewish Levantines more than Europeans. Racially, we are Levantine-Middle Eastern, not white.

            Your argument is akin to saying that it’s OK for white actors to play Native American characters because many have European blood/are white-passing. I’m sure they would never accept an argument like that, and there’s absolutely no reason why we should either.

      • Avatar photo Susan says on August 17, 2023

        My mother was blue-eyed and a natural blond. So was her sister and father. (My grandfather hailed from the Ukraine.) Also from the Ukraine was my father’s mother. A natural redhead with green eyes. None of these relatives had anywhere near a Middle Eastern appearance. You mention the violence against Jewish women. I suspect these non Middle Eastern features were usually the result of rapes during the pogroms. Jewish women who lived in the shtetls of Eastern Europe rarely mated with gentile men except against their will.

        Reply
    • Avatar photo Yup says on August 16, 2023

      Many Jews married women who converted to get married. No, not everyone was Antisemitic & cared. Single Jewish men from Poland heard about business opportunities in Hungary. They went there & found it was indeed a good place to make money. The problem was the Jewish women in Poland wouldn’t marry them because it meant moving to a place with no/small Jewish communities & their families were all in Poland (imagine leaving a Shtetl where you have 50 relatives to move to a place with no family & few Jews). So the men found Non-Jewish Hungarian women to marry & brought them back to Poland to be converted & married. There’s a reason I look more Hungarian than Jewish. A Jewish woman very into this stuff said, “You’re a Hungarian-Jew.” Shocked I asked, “How did you know?” She said, “I can see it in your face!” To say my (at least) 50% Hungarian DNA doesn’t count & I’m 100% indigenous to Judea with no connection to Europe is simply not true.

      Reply
      • Avatar photo Dani says on August 16, 2023

        50% Hungarian DNA? Is one of your parents gentile?

        Ashkenazim don’t have Hungarian admixture. Certainly not to that extent. Genetically speaking, we’re roughly 60% Levantine-Middle Eastern with the rest being Greek/Central Italian. Even if genetics alone determined our ethnicity, Ashkenazim would be (at best) half-white. And half-white isn’t white.

        Your argument is akin to saying that it’s OK for white people to play Native American characters because, hey, Natives have a significant amount of European DNA as a result of colonization. You would be laughed right out of the room if you ever said that with a straight face, and rightly so.

        What makes our case any different?

        “Why doesn’t that apply to Non-Jews?”

        I never said it didn’t.

        Reply
    • Avatar photo Yup says on August 16, 2023

      I understand you don’t allow anything that disagrees with you but can you please explain one point. Only Jews should play Jews because they have the experiences & traumas to draw upon. Why doesn’t that apply to Non-Jews? How can a Jew possibly play a Non-Jewish character when they’re lacking the Non-Jewish experiences (&/or trauma) to draw upon? Tia.

      Reply
      • Avatar photo Dani says on September 7, 2023

        It DOES apply to non-Jews.

        Part of my issue is that Jews are the only people whom it seemingly DOESN’T apply to. And, yes, that’s antisemitic. Holding Jews to a separate standard from non-Jews is textbook antisemitism.

        Reply
  • Avatar photo Rachel Zrihen says on August 16, 2023

    One concept to consider might be that we have antisemitism to thank for the fact that the Jews remain an ethnic group despite the extended sojourn in Europe. Anti-Semitic attitudes and attendant laws made assimilation impossible, even if it were desired. So, if Europeans had been less anti-Semitic, they might have succeeded in eradicating the Jews. They weren’t, so we are still here.

    Reply
  • Avatar photo Yup says on August 16, 2023

    The why doesn’t matter (besides it’s not true). Most comes from European women converting & marrying Jews. You can’t dismiss something because you don’t like what happened. Can we ignore African-AMERICANS have 25% White DNA because a lot came from White Slave owners? Most European Jews have 80% European maternal DNA.
    “All told, more than 80 percent of the maternal lineages of Ashkenazi Jews could be traced to Europe, with only a few lineages originating in the Near East.” Claiming it was “Violence” doesn’t explain why pure maternal DNA (only passed through the mother) points overwhelmingly to Askenaz Jews descending from Europe & not the Middle East.
    If you want people to take Jews seriously we need to be honest & base it on facts, & not want we “Want to be true”

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Dani says on August 16, 2023

      Firstly, we’re Ashkenazi Jews. “European Jews” is an erasive misnomer, akin to “Arab Jews”.

      Second, having European admixture is not the same as being ethnically European. Native Americans, African-Americans, virtually all groups colonized by Europe have some degree of admixture from Europe. They’re still not European. They’re still not white. Neither are we.

      Conflating us with the civilization that colonized us is not OK.

      Reply
  • Avatar photo Larry Zweig says on August 17, 2023

    “Because we were exiled/taken as slaves to that continent by colonial powers. …”
    Seven times a year millions of Jews in and out of Israel say prayers in the Holiday Musaf Service, which include these words:

    ומפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו ונתרחקנו מעל אדמתינו ואין אנחנו יכולים לעשות חובתינו בבית בחירתך בבית הגדול והקדוש שנקרא שמך עליו

    Here it is in Yiddish if you don’t know Hebrew…
    , “איז האב איך געטראכט אז איך וועל עס אויסשמיעסען דא…”

    “But because of OUR SINS* we have been exiled from our land and sent far from our soil….”

    *This is a cardinal principle of Jewish Faith. History is not haphazard: Israel’s exile and centuries-long distress is a result of OUR SINS. It is axiomatic; therefore, that only repentance can reverse this process.

    Sure, the rest of the world’s peoples have to take responsibility for their sins … against Jews & themselves & Heaven!!!!!!! Their mistreatment of Jews, and everyone else is a sin … a CRIME!…
    … but our Promised Land Rights (whatever they will be) depends 100% on OUR KEEPING OUR PROMISES.

    Reply
    • Avatar photo Larry Zweig says on August 17, 2023

      Almost forgot … tomorrow is Elul…. Shanah Tovah. Sei gesund

      Reply

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