Why do some major shows view Jewish characters negatively?

Antisemitism is partly rooted in the facts that as Christians could not charge interest as it was called usury, Jews became moneylenders.

 JARED LETO and Anne Hathaway as Israeli native Adam Neumann and Rebekah Paltrow, living large in ‘WeCrashed’ on Apple TV+.  (photo credit: Apple TV+)
JARED LETO and Anne Hathaway as Israeli native Adam Neumann and Rebekah Paltrow, living large in ‘WeCrashed’ on Apple TV+.
(photo credit: Apple TV+)

On a first date, when a woman tells a man he is full of s***, it’s not a good sign.

But, in the case of Adam Neumann, Rebekah Paltrow saw him as someone who could be a great leader, they hit it off, got married and had six children. The hit Apple TV+ show WeCrashed chronicles how the chief executive officer of WeWork, who came to New York from Kibbutz Nir Am, became a mega-star with good lucks, charm, unbelievable salesmanship but then many workers didn’t get to cash in on what they thought they’d get. The valuation plummeted from $47 billion to an eventual $9b. after the CEO was asked to leave. Neumann was never charged with a crime. While Jared Leto nails the Israeli accent, and Anne Hathaway is extremely impressive, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that a number of streaming offerings feature Jews as either deceptive, as con artists or otherwise negatively.

What is the impact of these negative depictions of Jews, albeit based mainly on real life, and how were these people able to dupe others?

Antisemitism is partly rooted in the facts that as Christians could not charge interest as it was called usury, Jews became moneylenders. Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme did much to push the stereotype of the Jew as a con artist. Aryeh Tuchman, the Anti-Defamation League’s senior associate director of the Center on Extremism, said show-runners should be mindful of what they put on screen.

“It is not inherently problematic to tell stories about people who happen to be Jewish who have committed unsavory acts,” Tuchman told the Magazine. “But the writers and producers of such shows need to make sure that they treat the Jewish identity of their characters with sensitivity and tact. This is especially true when dealing with characters whose actions may invoke long-time antisemitic stereotypes which claim that Jews are greedy, conniving and manipulative. When poorly handled, such depictions can perpetuate and reinforce such stereotypes in the minds of viewers.”

 JEWISH ACTOR Paul Rudd (L) and Will Ferrell as Dr. Ike Herschkopf and Marty Markowitz in ‘The Shrink Next Door’ on Apple TV+. (credit: Apple TV+) JEWISH ACTOR Paul Rudd (L) and Will Ferrell as Dr. Ike Herschkopf and Marty Markowitz in ‘The Shrink Next Door’ on Apple TV+. (credit: Apple TV+)

In an email to his students, Rabbi David Block, principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, took issue with the man featured in Netflix’s The Tinder Swindler. The documentary follows different women who present recordings, emails and other evidence to show that Shimon Hayut, also known as Simon Leviev, met them on Tinder, flew them on private jets, and then used a picture purporting to show his security guard attacked, to claim he was threatened and needed money because his accounts were frozen. Israeli police in the documentary say he forged checks and fled Israel.

In a message where he praised a student who made the top 24 of American Idol and other positive role models, Block lambasted the person depicted in this documentary. The rabbi wrote: “What the Tinder Swindler did to his victims is the true tragedy, but the refrain that repeated itself over and over in my head was ‘what a disgusting hilul Hashem [desecration of God’s name].” The world is watching an Israeli Jew commit horrible acts of immorality and fraud in which he preys on those who are vulnerable – and for many, that will be their impression of Jews, of Israelis...”

ALSO ON Netflix, Inventing Anna features the brilliant Jewish actress Julia Garner in the title role of Anna Sorokin, (who went by Anna Delvey) as a woman who claimed to be an heiress soon to get hold of a huge fortune. She didn’t pay hotel bills, reportedly flashed $100 bills to make her look rich and a friend who wrote for Vanity Fair accused her of inviting her to a posh vacation, only to leave her with a $62,000 bill. Sorokin, who is Jewish, would be convicted of several crimes and spend time in jail. She also embarked on a scheme to start a foundation based on false claims of funds she never had, and investors believed her act.

Isaac Zablocki, director of Film Programs at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, said he does have one fear.

“There’s a lot of representation of Jewish characters, so there are good, bad and in-between,” Zablocki said. “But, I am a little afraid if it’s someone’s only exposure to Jews, they may feel they are more likely to be con artists. I saw that Unorthodox, which didn’t involve con artists but to an extent painted religious Jews in a bad light, did well in India. So, I hope people in India wouldn’t see these things and think negatively about Jews. Also, stories about con artists have conflict and suspense and sell very well.”

While many attribute it to the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) nature of Silicon Valley, veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf says it’s due to powerful networking and laziness.

“People don’t give money to people they don’t know,” Sheinkopf said. “But, when people network and get an introduction from a famous person they trust, it changes the equation. Famous people, they can be reeled in. There are predators out there. If someone you know for years tells you they’re investing, you might not do due diligence. This is a big mistake because anyone investing money should check things out with their own eyes. People sometimes don’t do due diligence, and some are enamored by star power. Also, it doesn’t hurt if a person is good looking and charismatic.” Sheinkopf said Jews are naturally cognizant of how they are portrayed on screen due to persecution and stereotypes. In life, he said, people are hooked by fame.

DO VIEWERS believe they couldn’t be fooled?

“I mean, you’d like to think you wouldn’t as they are clearly pandering to people’s egos,” says Chaya Glaser, a sound healer and singer who is a fan of Inventing Anna and dressed as Sorokin for Purim. “She’s skilled at diverting attention from what she can’t offer, and she wines and dines them. It’s a slow burn. She created a community for them.” She adds that Sorokin is an opportunist, but a skilled one.

The Shrink Next Door features Jewish actor Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell as Dr. Ike Herschkopf and patient Marty Markowitz. Markowitz alleges that his therapist took advantage of him, got him to cut off his sister from his life, basically took over his Hamptons home and had him do menial tasks and convinced him to set up The Yaron Foundation, so he could impress people by taking out money to donate to Jewish organizations. The Apple TV+ show is powerful but hard to digest. Herschkopf maintains his innocence, but his medical license was revoked by New York State.

According to New York psychotherapist Shira Silton, con artists can have elements of narcissism and also can be sociopathic, where they don’t feel bad for their actions, and everything must be for their own benefit. Contrary to charismatic bravado often shown to others, they often have a low sense of self-worth and a need to prove themselves to the world. Silton notes that Inventing Anna shows Sorokin looking sadly in the mirror.

“There’s often a trauma when a person is younger and it instills a motivation to prove they have great power and are better than everyone else, and this can be enhanced by initial failures,” Silton said.

Silton also said viewer response can vary.

“I think that there will be some individuals who already perceive the world in absolute black or white terms who may view it that way with all the stereotypes,” she said. “But I think perhaps others may realize that these are exceptions to the norm.”

She added that positive experiences with Jews could serve to counteract impressions of TV or film characters.

Hulu’s The Dropout is based on former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes duping Jewish former secretary of state George Shultz into believing that her company could take one drop of blood and run a hundred different tests on it. She used him to get Henry Kissinger and other notable people on her board. She has Jewish blood as she is a descendant of Charles Fleischmann, who came from Austria to the United States with a test tube of yeast and revolutionized the bread-making process. The title role is played marvelously by Amanda Seyfried. Holmes was heralded for having a machine called an Edison that could supposedly run more than 100 medical tests at a time with a drop of blood. It could not.

Holmes was convicted of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Financial adviser David Warshaw of Long Island said while it’s embarrassing that there are shows about dishonest Jews, most people realize that con artists come in all religions.

Michael Meier, who has been a real estate broker in New York City for nearly two decades, trains brokers and said he’s done more than $1b. in sales.

He said confidence is crucial but should not replace doing their homework.

“It’s not so much who has the most sales or even who has the most knowledge, which is what you think they’d be looking for, but no, they look for the person who has the most confidence,” Meier said. “Ultimately, people want to rely on someone else and don’t want to do the research.”

Holocaust survivor Sami Steigman said people should take everything in stride.

“People who are antisemites will use every opportunity they can find and it’s possible they will watch these shows and stereotype Jews with a broad label,” Steigman said. “Jews are not a perfect people, like anybody else. I teach not to stigmatize because my life was saved by a German. You have to judge each individual person on their own actions. These are based on a true story so there is nothing wrong with that. 

“Of course, there may be embellishments. I would just say that if someone is a criminal in general, there shouldn’t be a need to stress that this person is a Jew. The shows, based on real life, are not examples of antisemitism, though people who hate Jews may take it in the wrong way.” 

The New York-based writer’s articles on culture have appeared in The Jewish Week, the Jewish News Syndicate and The Forward.