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.
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?
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.
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.