Doubling Down: Discussing the Role the Jewish Community Plays in Racism, Censorship, and Divisive Politics

S. Ezersky

Assoc. Fantasy Contributor

While writing a review of the Star Wars series for a sequence of columns about science-fiction and fantasy genres, I discovered that the lead character in the first Star Wars movie, Natalie Portman, actually uses a stage name, and her real name is Netali Hershlag.

Hershlag starred in Star Wars at the age of sixteen, and left at age 19 when her character was killed off. Hershlag, a teenage millionaire, thereafter went off to attend Harvard College to study an A.B. in psychology, then immediately went back to Hollywood and never used that degree a day in her life.

When quizzed about her days in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Hollywood, California — or the Arabi-Israeli conflict — the Israeli-born actress, who immigrated to the United States as a child, routinely gave the typical answer a West Coast Liberal would expect: mindlessly pondering at the subject until reaching a conclusion the public would accept.

When Hershlag was asked if she alters her physical features for her roles and in her private life, she admitted that she straightens and bleaches her hair with hot irons and chemical dyes, adding the quip, “Don’t we all?

When I wrote an article about why Netali Hershlag would take on shiksa roles like Elle Woods or in British period pieces, it seemed incumbent upon those criticisms that Netali should embrace her Israeliness, and use her multimillion dollar platform to normalise Jewishness for all actresses instead of trying so hard to pass for European — because why the hell would any self-respecting person want to do that?

She already has her fame, her money, her platform, her fanbase, and her deep establishment with the hobnobbery of media executives and Ivy alumni. If anyone needs to make a statement, not just against reactionism in Israeli politics which Hershlag has already spoken out about, but a statement about why people shouldn’t be adopting Nazi-ish policies like obsessing over flat hair or wearing pale face makeup, it would be someone like her, who has made millions upon millions of dollars off the backs of mediocre films — like the Star Wars prequels — where she does just that.

This prompted me to shift my article from reviewing the Star Wars series as-is, and questioning — frankly, why an Israeli actress adopted a false name and adopted a shiksa appearance — and appeared to be quite successful over the past thirty years in doing so.

I came to the conclusion that this is because Hollywood must be guided by some kind of undercurrent of racist or antisemitic practices, given most Jewish actors deemphasise their Jewishness once they make it big.

But then comes the complication: There are a lot of extremely successful Jewish (or “Jewish”) actors, directors, and producers. How infringed upon can they be?, one might ask.

Researching this topic offered another question: If Jewish people face antisemitism at the same rate other protected classes experience group hatred, why is the American Jewish community, in particular, one of the most successful and overrepresented subcultures in the world?

Other Western minority groups may be overrepresented (like the African-Caribbean community), or highly successful (like the Japanese community), but Jewish and Israeli Americans have achieved both, despite being much fewer in number.

When I wrote an article suggesting that Netali Hershlag was an altogether separate personality from Natalie Portman, and that the ‘Natalie Portman’ identity was tantamount to cultural appropriation of European stereotypes by Hershlag, it was based on the facts, and it was favourable to Hershlag — and who she truly is, as opposed to whoever it is she pretends to be on camera.

My argument was we needed more Jewishness, and to recognise that the spate of powerful and monied so-called “Jewish” success stories in Hollywood are sucking the life out of the Jewish identity by commodifying and Europeanising it.

The backlash from the Jewish community was immediate.

The article was hardly the most significant or expansive of contributions it had been filed with. Still, because of the sparse publishing on its subject, it stood out as willing to break new ground. Using the keywords ‘Natalie Portman’ and ‘Cultural Appropriation’ brought up the article as a top result on a popular a search engine.

There seemed to be only three posts in the whole world, of which this was the top one, that directly considered Natalie Portman and cultural appropriation playing a role together (the second was a lame meme about Star Wars, and the third was some post about appropriation that just happened to mention Natalie Portman’s name).

Other than this top search result, not much came over the article for several days. It was an eclectic and contemplative piece, that it seemed had not reached much of an audience just yet who were going to read the whole way through.

Then, the entire webpage the article was published to on Medium.com was taken down. After that, the entire account, with several other contributions, was wiped from the website with an error 404: Not Found notice.

Over a week later, it was conveyed that a reader had made a comment about the article, calling it, among other things, “dogwhistling antisemitic bullshit,” but was not more specific than that.

Such a vague condemnation is difficult to contend with, since there is no indication about what made the criticiser so upset. Was it a disagreement with the end determination that Netali Hershlag was indeed a peddler of cultural appropriation? Did they even read that far?

Or was it the separation of Netali’s alter egos into one which is more Jewish and one which is less Jewish? Or could it be the declaration that a rich subset of people who are considered Jewish have actually done quite well?

Whatever the problem was, the article was gone. A month or two later Medium.com reposted the account with all the contributions up to that point and said that it had “accidentally” been taken down.

Incidentally, the website was down for long enough that all results were purged from search engine results, and it was down for sufficient time to be buried under new discovery posts by other webpages in a similar category. The page was taken down after publishing, and only reinstated after being stripped of all searchability.

This removal threw off the entire schedule for the entire network, halting the schedule for other contributors altogether who would focus on completely different topics, since it took almost two months to resolve. A story that should have been done started to overtake things.

Everything was thrown off. Some contributors focus on the education system, others on cookbook recipes. None of the articles were about Judaism, and my article only mentioned it as an aside in a Star Wars review. I took on the issue in my article as correctly as was fit, and nothing in that article is antisemitic. There were no known factual errors, and I stand by the premise and the conclusion.

I questioned my response. My article was a wash. I have absolutely no interest in writing on Jewish issues, which I tried to make apparent in a contribution which was ostensibly about the Star Wars trilogies. Do I insist the editors take the original post down and republish it to regain relevance, perhaps in a censored and redacted version? Would that bury it deeper? Do I wait for several more months and hope to find if the lost connectivity will be restored?

I address this follow-up to answer three questions:

Was the article anti-Semitic?

No.

Was the article in some effect buried?

Yes.

Even if there was some broader criticism of Judaism, which there wasn’t really, would it have been right?

Probably unbeknownst to the critics, I did have a background of research in collaboration with academic and editorial accounts which informed the perspectives of the original article. That kind of sourcing is what makes a statement justifiable and purposeful. I didn’t go that deep into the issues surrounding debates around Judaism and the Jewish diaspora because that was far from the focus of the article — which, again, was about a children’s show from the 70’s and 90’s and featured a very unremarkable actress who’s been in other movies like Transformers.

For the behind-the-scenes, I did read many first-hand accounts from people in Hollywood and papers by critics who discuss Jewish issues. The Jewish identity is one of the most explored and wrote-about socioreligious topics in 20th Century and 21st Century literatures.

To list a few of these papers, one was titled, “Jewish collaboration with ***** Supremacism in America,” where the author explained his that Jewish people did not do enough to combat and denounce racism, and even directly benefitted from a racist society that put people like them above people from Asia, the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific. Jewish people benefited from the racist apartheid in America, as well as benefitted from the constitutional protection of Jewish practices from Christianity. That is a unique mix of favouritism which Jewish people in America got access to, like no other Jewish community in the world.

Another list of anecdotes was from different Jewish activists from numerous diaspora communities, including in North Africa, in Israel, in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe, in the States, and in the Middle East, and just what it means to be “Jewish” for each of them. One of the complaints many diaspora and Palestinian Jewish people have is the perception in the West that the Ashkenazim (Jewish people from Europe, as opposed to everywhere else) seem to be at the front of the line, and seem to have the most prowess and the most voice. That is a criticism coming from both within, and outside of, the religious, and ethnic, Jewish communities.

Another paper I looked at before contributing the articles was titled, “Are Jews *****?,” in a manner of examining to what extend are Jewish people actually just a subgroup of Europeans, after inhabiting the countries of Europe for hundreds and thousands of years.

It seems each time one of those papers appears it is met with fierce resistance by the Ashkenazi Jewish population who happen to be vocal about such things. They don’t like it when people talk about then, especially the Sephardim or the Gentiles, and they don’t want to be considered Europeans, and they also don’t want to be considered not-Europeans.

To them, saying there is an economic and political divide between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, Mizrahim, et cetera, is ‘anti-Semitic.’ To say that large swath of the Ashkenazim have abandoned Judaism and effectively consider themselves another sect of Europeans, is ‘anti-Semitic.’ To suggest that the Jewish people have unique and pliable beliefs, to them, is ‘anti-Semitic.’ It seems more than anything, to non-Jewish Jews, there are no more meaningless and exhausted terms than Anti and Semitic.

Religious Jewish minorities and Jewish separatists are different from other cultures, and they gladly choose to be. And there is something to be said of how peaceful and integrated fully Jewish communities are.

People of Jewish ancestry who have integrated into Western society and change their names and bleach their hair and all that stuff — are they Jewish? Most people would probably say, ethnically yes, and culturally no.

Here’s the thing, I would suggest that Judaism is nothing without a community — the purpose lives in the people. Jewish “identity” is only meaningful insofar as it lives in people’s hearts and helps them to live their lives.

When Donald Trump said John Stewart was “ashamed to be Jewish” because he changed his name from Leibowitz to Stewart, that was wrong. Not because of the point Trump brought up, but because he used antisemitism in society and a perception of fear Stewart had of that antisemitism as a weapon to silence on of his most prominent critics; And that was at a time when Stewart was trying to hold back, and didn’t even issue a response in public.

When I refer to Netali Hershlag by her real name, I do so because Natalie Portman not her real name, it is a stage name. There is a distinction between the person and the personality. While I criticise Natalie Portman for setting a bad example, I have only tried to explore Hershlag’s decisions on a human level. I went so far in my Star Wars review to say she seems like a nice person, even if her performance in her early years sucks due to the shoddy material, and she has only taken relatively safe roles since, with her most adventurous move being to shave her head for V: For Vendetta, where she still continues to play the female interest, and a double of Kiera Knightly.

The editors added a note in the original article, aware that people might miscontrive one of the articles points at a superficial level. Here is a similar point. The actor Marlin Brando once made sneering comments that “Hollywood is run by” Jewish people. He was kicked out of Hollywood for the comments, and not ‘allowed,’ if allowed is the right word, to return until apologising to the Jewish world, and meeting with a rabbi to get his seal of approval.

Satirists seized on the affair by pointing out the irony in the fact that Brando said Jewish people “run Hollywood” and was then kicked out of Hollywood until apologising to Jewish people abroad. It kind of seemed like there was some Jewish machine out to get him at that point. In reality, of course, people were outraged about the clear antisemitism, because Brando’s implication was that he wanted to see less Jewish people in showbusiness, or that the presence of Jewish people was bad for him. This is why satirists didn’t defend Brando, but they also made fun of the outrage, because it in a way played into the baseless hatred by giving it credence.

This is why Conan T. O’Brien made a joke on his show, in a sketch he wrote with many Jewish comedy writers, that “the cash-ews run Hollywood,” which is probably a swipe at the absurdity of Brando’s remarks and subsequent blubbering capitulation.

In my article, I said that there were a lot of Jewish people in media production like Hollywood, which casts doubt on whether the rich Jewish communities are really put upon by discrimination at all, as opposed to the average Western middle-class and third-world Jewish person who is much more vulnerable — and I came to the preposition in that article that those Jewish people in Hollywood were not only not too Jewish, but they weren’t Jewish enough.

Not only were papers sceptical of Jewish bystanderism consulted, but so too were various accounts of antisemitic history in the Middle East, Mesopotemic regions, Europe, and America. It is true, Jewish people faced horrific exposure in the West, particularly in Europe and Britain. However people often tend to exaggerate Jewish exception in history.

After all, the raids and ruins against Jewish people in the states in which they lived were often continuations of societal evils that engulfed many other groups of people as well. There has never been a solely anti-Jewish policy in history, only policies that folded Jewish people into a larger catalogue of the oppressed.

And Jewish people are one of the few communities in the Western, or precariously-called First World, or Second World, that has been completely abalienated of vilification. The Abalienation of the Jews is their greater exception, than the tales of their persecution.

The fact is, Jewish Americans never “achieved” equal status, as they relatively rarely faced obstacles in the first place. And the type of secular “Jewish” people who enter into Hollywood do not represent the challenges and livelihoods of the Jewish community as a whole.

To be Jewish in Hollywood means to have a grandfather that grew up in the Soviet Union and to celebrate Christmas ironically; It has nothing to do with faith or ethics.

All too often ethnic Judaism, cultural Judaism, and religious Judaism get muddled, with non-religious, Non-Jewish Jews vaguely leading the pack by way of sheer numbers.

Somehow, in quoting a joke from Conan and raising alarm over tacit antisemitism in the form of doubtful self-image in the Jewish community itself, that was, in the estimation by some, thrown in with comments of the exact opposite kind.

Everyone hates Mel Gibson (except Robert Downing Jr.), but I will not needlessly defend nor apologise to the free Jewish community for taking the position that I think Netali Hershlag (and even, perhaps, John Leibowitz and Larry Zeiger) should use their reals names — and especially not to the kind of in-name-only Judaism that believes Jewish people need to existentially appear less Jewish.

Jewish people don’t need to appear more Jewish, but they just need to appear the way they are. And ultimately that requirement extends to one group of people more than anyone, including our Jews, which is the self-identified Europeans. European-Western values need to stop hurting people with racism, and as an extension of that, stop ethnicifying Jewish people.

Judaism should be a culture and a religion, but it shouldn’t be hereditary, and it shouldn’t be ethnically-charged. That way people can come and go, convert and apostatise, as they please.

Netali Hershlag was the subject of that original article because she walks a line. She wears a Hitlerite mask, but professes a Jewish heart. That is why she was the focus of a consideration about that middle ground.

If Hershlag wants to erase her Jewish life for the sake of Western audience, if she thoroughly wants to be a clone of Kiera Knightly, let her do so — but let it be known she is wrong to do so. I long for the day when a blockbuster film can headline “Neta-Li Herschlag” in the opening credits, and Netali can speak Hebrew openly at the after party, and wear her self-proclaimed “Jew curls” with pride.

Hershlag wasn’t chosen because she’s considered by some to be a nice person, or because she’s considered by some to be a beautiful or young person, but because she is an ordinary person, and one who owes a lot to a machine that recklessly controls peoples images.

If nothing else, Jewish people in Hollywood do seem to control other Jewish people’s perception of themselves, and do so using characters like Natalie Portman.

And that just might reek of some cultural appropriation.

That was the thread of the main article, that Jewish people need to take some responsibility for protecting Jewishness, and need to lay off the roles playing into Aryanistic stereotypes like Superman movies.

It’s not antisemitic to suggest that one of the highest earning per capita communities in Britain, America, Russia, and the Levant need to speak up and shun racism, rather than attack critics and allies with inane reactionism.

Jewish people alone don’t bear the blame for that, but neither do Jewish people allow face the perils of discrimination, and especially not the interconnected and affluent Hollywood-to-Harvard crowd who stay silent but for a public outcry, and whom people like Netali Hershlag readily represent.

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