DC’s 'Harley Quinn' fights off allegations of antisemitism

The petition also accused three of DC’s comic creators of antisemitism after they reportedly referred to the character Sy Borgman as being “Half man, Half Jew."

The 'Harley Quinn' series is available on the DC Universe streaming service. (photo credit: ANTMAN3001/FLICKR)
The 'Harley Quinn' series is available on the DC Universe streaming service.
(photo credit: ANTMAN3001/FLICKR)
Accusations of antisemitism have been leveled against the DC Comics adult-oriented animated series Harley Quinn and against the part of some of DC’s comic creators.
One of the most noteworthy entries in their new DC Universe streaming service, the Harley Quinn series has been a smash hit with fans and critics alike, focusing on the titular character as she frees herself from her abusive relationship with the Joker and begins to strike out on her own as a top-tier super-villain.
Raunchy and provocative dark comedy is a staple of the character in all of her incarnations. However, some fans believe the show has gone too far. In the fifth episode titled Being Harley Quinn, the series introduces the character of Sy Borgman (portrayed by Jason Alexander), the old and stereotypically Jewish landlord of where Harley and her friends are living, who – as his name implies – is also a cyborg.
According to a petition filed on the social-action platform , “the antisemitic caricatures” of Borgman and his wife, Golda (portrayed by Rhea Perlman), are “reminiscent of Julius Streicher’s work in Der Stürmer.” The petition cites a quote from the episode where the two refer to Borgman burning down his building to collect the insurance money as “Jewish lightning.”
The petition also accused three of DC’s comic creators – Jimmy Palmiotti, Adam Hughes and Cully Hamner – of antisemitism, after they referred to Borgman as being “Half-man, half-Jew” in a conversation over Twitter.
“Had this sort of vile bigotry been directed at any other minority in the world, these men would have been fired immediately, and the show canceled mid-season,” the petition stated, concluding by calling for “prompt action” to show that “neither DC Comics nor its parent company Warner Bros. endorse this sort of hateful expression, particularly at a time when the majority of hate crimes in America are already directed at the 1% of the population who are Jews.”
Palmiotti defended the character of Borgman as being a case of positive and comedic diversity.
“Amanda Conner and I created Sy for the Harley Quinn comic book, where he is a retired super-spy/secret agent and crime fighter,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “Diversity is one of the strong suits of the books that we write, and we think Sy adds a great dimension to our comic stories.”
However, he added that “Sy is portrayed differently on the animated show, and we do not write for the show,” clarifying that the comics are a separate entity.
Regarding the comment about Borgman being “half-man, half-Jew,” Palmiotti explained that he drew inspiration from one of his favorite comedians: Mel Brooks.
“The quote from our conversation [between himself, Hamner and Hughes] was in reference of us talking about casting my favorite comedian, Mel Brooks, as Sy,” he explained to the Post. “We were trying to imagine how Mel Brooks would sell it.
“With Twitter that did not come through. That’s the problem with grabbing quotes.”
But the petition itself has also been criticized by others for being an overreaction and counterproductive.
“When something is presented as antisemitic in pop culture there tends to be a massive rush of condemnation from people who want to believe that they are contributing factors in the fight against hate,” Ari Feldman, a writer and analyst for Jerusalem U, which produces educational films about Israel and Judaism and watches for antisemitism in media, told the Post.
“In reality, the effect can be quite the opposite.
“Antisemitism connotes hatred and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture. Presenting tropes and caricatures of Jewish characters for comedic purposes is another thing entirely, especially when the caricatures themselves are played by Jewish people... who clearly enjoy their over-the-top performances,” he added.
“There are actual hate crimes that are perpetrated involving violence, vandalism and hate speech. Jokes made on television shows that have Jewish producers and actors are not hateful and should not be perceived as antisemitic.”
Though the phrase “Jewish lightning” does have an antisemitic connotation and history, Feldman believes its usage here was as a reference to the DC character Black Lightning, with the characters in the show even wondering if Jewish Lightning was simply his “Israeli cousin.”
The character Harley Quinn canonically has a Jewish father in the comics. However, at the time of writing, this has not been addressed in the series.
The Harley Quinn series is in the middle of its first season, with its second season already confirmed