It’s amazing how far people will go to erase the Judaism from Jewish characters. In TV, in movies, in books, Jewish representation is a mockery of what Judaism is; it’s assimilated nonsense that has no more Judaism in it than a Muslim character would, or it’s badly written Orthodox characters written by people who have clearly never met an Orthodox person. Within our own narratives, we are excluded or pushed aside for the sake of goyische narratives (that just means non-Jewish, in case you were wondering). We’re seemingly everywhere, and yet we have no room to exist as a complete, complex people – we don’t see ourselves properly as a culture, as a religion, or as a nation. We are left with scraps, but are told that we have everything.
But I’d like to talk about the fannish experience of being a Jew. I’d like to talk about the experiences me and my Jewish friends have as Jews in fandoms, and I’d like maybe to have people listen.
It’s a recognized truth in Jewish circles that antisemitism is different from several other, more recognizable forms of oppression. This isn’t to say it’s either worse or easier than other forms; I’m not trying to tie this into oppression olympics. It’s just that it has a very different history than other forms of oppression, and is much, much older, by hundreds if not thousands of years. It’s called “the longest hatred” for a reason. This means it’s in many ways both more ingrained and less important in the eyes of modern audiences. Saying being money hungry is easy to ignore because Capitalism is Bad; but calling Jews money hungry has been an antisemitic canard for more than a thousand years, and applying to Jews is always going to be a red flag. What I want to focus on in this post, however, is the issue of assimilation.
Jews have been different since our existence began. At first, we were a monotheistic society in a world that was exclusively polytheistic world. By the time Ancient Greece becomes a major player in the Mediterranean, the antisemitic canard that Jews think we’re better than everyone else has come into play; all over the region, Jews were feared and loathed for not believing in the gods. During the Hellenistic occupation of the ancient kingdom of Israel, the Greeks would force Jews to convert, desecrated the Temple, and threaten Jews with death if they didn’t eat pork. Assimilation was a genuine threat, and Hanukkah – probably the best known Jewish holiday, and therefore the most misrepresented and mistreated in media – is meant to celebrate our victory over the Hellenistic occupation, and more importantly, how we overcame the assimilation we were threatened with, recovering our identity through rebellion.
This carried over to the Roman occupation of the very same land. They destroyed the temple in 70 CE, but that was part of the wider, very common and very effective strategy of displacing peoples to prevent uprisings and rebellions. This is how Jews spread throughout the world; we were forced out of our homeland. We were sent to Europe and other places in the Middle East, for the most part; some Jews eventually made it to China or Ethiopia. When the first Temple was destroyed several hundred years before and the Babylonian Exile began, Jews were forced to radically change the way our religion works to adjust to a Temple-less existence; now, Jews needed to return to that existence, again, so we would not need to assimilate.
Note: there’s a common misconception that Judaism changed radically into rabbinical Judaism when the Second Temple was destroyed. But the basics of that kind of existence were planted and partially bloomed during the Babylonian Exile. We were allowed to return to Israel after a relatively short time, so we managed to go back, more or less, to a Temple-based religious society; but it was different in many ways, and the seeds were already blooming by the time that the Second Temple was destroyed.
That isn’t to say that Christianity didn’t influence antisemitism. Because it did. Arguably, (but not really,) antisemitism would not be nearly as insidious, commonplace, and influential without it.
Jesus (Yeshua in the original Hebrew) himself (if he was real, lol) said that he didn’t want to change a word from the Torah. He had founded what was at the time only one sect among many; much of what he said is misinterpreted and taken out of its Jewish context even by the most learned Christians, because they don’t have the necessary context to understand, for example, the toom’ah (not an exact translation, but it sort of means religious uncleanliness) is what he is referring to in the passage that Christians assume means that kashrut no longer applies.
When he died, the sect wanted to spread as much as possible, and they didn’t want the wrath of the Romans on them, so they blamed it on the easiest targets: the Jews. They wanted to distance themselves from the Jewish population for many reasons – they wanted non-Jews to convert, and the easiest way to do that is to do away with the arduous conversion process that one must go through in order to become Jewish; they wanted the Romans to not hunt them down, and so blaming a people that the Romans already disliked rather than the Romans themselves was easier; and they resented the fact that the Jewish people dismissed Yeshua as the leader of one sects among many at the time.
Personally, I think that the early Christians mostly wanted to appeal to the goyim; selling themselves as the only way to salvation and doing away with most of the restrictions that Judaism had was probably the most effective way to do that. But it also pissed them off that Judaism, then and now, has no opinion about Jesus in the religious sense, and in fact dismisses him entirely; now, as a people, we do not relish in his existence at all, since, y’know, he inadvertently caused the death of literally millions of us. So that’s fun.
I want to focus on European antisemitism because that’s what influences Western media and by extension fandom the most, but I want to clarify something before I continue: antisemitism exists everywhere, and is slightly different depending on the culture. The Islamic world was and is by no means free of antisemitism, and many of the issues I have talked about in the past and mentioned lightly here did and do exist in the Islamic world. The one thing that wasn’t common in the Islamic world, however, is what I’m focusing on in this essay: assimilation. Whether or not Jews were in favor that year, Islam demanded that the only nations allowed to remain unconverted were monotheistic religions with religious texts that predate Islam. Judaism and Christianity were chief among them, and during the Islamic Golden Age, Middle Eastern Jewry thrived.
European Jews weren’t so lucky.
The Church declared itself and Christianity “The True Jews”, and once it took hold of most of Europe (in the mass conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century) it didn’t waste time in demonizing and persecuting the Jews. Jews were isolated, forced into certain trades (ahem money-lending – I could actually talk about the various ways this happened in a whole other post because it’s actually much more complex than people generally believe), attacked in pogroms, and accused of being in league with the devil, all of which led, among others, to stereotypes about witches and goblins, the belief that Jews have thorns, and the accusations that Jews are money-hungry.
The belief in the status quo being the will of God was strong; Jews must be inferior, they reasoned, because they were currently oppressed. It was a logical fallacy, but it was what they believed. Jews were colluding with the devil; the were part of a scheme to hurt all of humanity, especially pure Christians. Jews were money grabbing goblins; the were inferior, powerless. These two beliefs, opposite though they seem now, were both considered to be absolute, and non-contradictory, truths.
The Christians set out to Save the Jews. They must be converted, they reasoned, to save them from their dalliances from the devil, from damnation. They must be punished for not being Christian, the most unChristian of them all, the first to reject the message of Christ, those who caused his death in the first place. And at times, it was either convert or die, or convert or lose your home. The Spanish Inquisition and Expulsion was only one among many: England was the first, followed by Hungary, France, and Austria – the Spanish one followed, being the fifth and standing out mostly by how quick and brutal it was, rather than its unique status.
Then, Sicily, Lithuania, Portugal, Nuremburg, Naples, and last but not least, Milan. (A more detailed list can be found here.) Jews either converted, or lost everything, sometimes including their lives. They moved from country to country, only to lose their home again only a few years later. But the Jewish people had an identity thousands of years strong; year after year, we told the stories of our victories, the way people had always tried to stomp us out, and never succeeded. The Egyptians, and the Babylonians, and the Greek had all tried and failed; it would not succeed now.
And, still today, it has not succeeded.
So maybe you can understand me when I say that the way people portray Jews in fandom is appalling.
Jews are erased enough in media as is; their insistence on celebrating Christmas, never mentioning the Seder or Yom Kippur, only ever discussing Hanukkah as “Christmas-lite” as opposed to holiday about resisting assimilation. It’s ironic that Hanukkah has become so tied to Christmas because they happen to coincide, since, as I just said, it’s literally about avoiding that kind of behavior.
Fandom needs to acknowledge that the way they treat Jews is absolutely trash.
On my blog on tumblr I’ve spoken at length about the way cultural Christianity affects one’s viewpoint. JKR doesn’t know better than to just assume a Christian mentality even in a Wizarding World – but that doesn’t excuse the way she treats Jews as “Christian-lite”, nothing notable about the way they exist at all. Anthony Goldstein is a throw away character; Fantastic Beasts apparently takes place during Hanukkah, but Tina and Queenie’s apartment doesn’t even have a Hanukkiah (Menorah for most of you living outside Israel); Queenie even joins a fascist Hitler-figure in the second movie.
But that’s just canon. Fandom presents itself as a space where minorities can thrive, treat themselves and be treated better than the canon.
So maybe don’t have the only Jewish characteristic of a Jewish character be them having done a bar mitzvah (even if they’re a woman); maybe don’t present every single Jew as celebrating Christmas; maybe don’t assume that Jewish readings of the Torah = Christian readings of the Christian Bible; maybe even do a little research into Jewish beliefs, customs, habits, denominations.
Because for many of us, there is nothing worse than assimilation. For many of us, Jews being Jewish in a way that is in any way realistic or accurate is so hard to find, that we feel abandoned by fandom. And when we create our own content, fandom pushes back. It berates us. It questions us. “Why can’t they celebrate Christmas?” fandom whines. “Why can’t I have their parents being homophobic shitholes, and present disconnecting from Jewish tradition as enlightenment?”
Because we are sick of being treated as Christians. We aren’t. We never will be. We have fought for millennia to remain ourselves, and fandom, you are doing a terrible, terrible job at letting us do that. Respect us, or get the fuck out of our way.
(Oh, also, don’t ship us with Nazis.)
Gail is a Film & TV student who accidentally started writing about antisemitism on their main blog, sheisawonder.tumblr.com, and now has turned it into their niche. They occasionally post about books on their side blog, queerastronauts.tumblr.com. They contribute weekly posts to the book blog Northern Plunder. They can be found on Instagram under the handles @cuddlingwithmycat and @queernovels, and on twitter under the handle @gailwald.
#DiverseBookBloggersDiscuss is a way to boost diverse bloggers who are brilliant, have a lot to say and deserve to be heard loud and clear. What this is, is basically a guest post feature where every Sunday, one blogger from a minority will discuss things they are passionate about on my blog.