Jewish characters have been played by non-Jews going back to medieval mystery plays about the crucifixion of Jesus. Since then, portrayals of Jews have ranged from sincere and heartfelt, to problematic, to downright offensive. Here are some of the most noteworthy.
The Good: Tuvia and Asael Bielski, “Defiance” (2008)
Daniel Craig and Jamie Bell play Tuvia and Asael Bielski in the 2008 film based on the true story of the Bielski partisans that resisted the Nazis and saved hundreds of Jews during the German occupation of Poland. Their rugged portrayal of the Bielski brothers, alongside Liev Schreiber (who is Jewish) as Zus Bielski, flies in the face of the meek “nice Jewish boy” stereotype, and portrays their characters as the complicated heroes that they were.
The Bad: Caiaphas, “The Passion of the Christ” (2004)
Given Mel Gibson’s historic disposition toward the Jewish people, it should be no surprise that he chose to portray the mighty legions of Rome as hapless bystanders, powerless to dissuade Jewish rabble from crucifying Jesus; notably included is Caiaphas’ (portrayed by Italian actor Mattia Sbragia) assertion, “His blood [is] on us and on our children!” the basis for centuries of antisemitism and accusations of blood libel. While Gibson decided to remove the closed captioning for that line in post-production, he chose to leave the dialogue in the final cut of the film.
Moses, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014)
Though there was nothing necessarily harmful about Christian Bale’s portrayal of Moses (perhaps aside from the whitewashing of an Egyptian prince from 3,000 years ago and the significant deviations from the biblical narrative), his commentary on the Jewish lawgiver is problematic: ““I think the man was likely schizophrenic and was one of the most barbaric individuals that I ever read about in my life.” Oy.
The Ugly: Fagin, “Oliver Twist” (1948)/ “Oliver!” (1968)
One of the most offensive characters from 19th century English literature is Fagin from Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist; or, the Parish Boy’s Progress.” Fagin is written as an irredeemable criminal who kidnaps children and turns them into pickpockets, in turn selling whatever they steal for him. He is portrayed as a greedy, greasy haired, big nosed, thief, swindler, child abuser and schemer.
As if to remove all doubt of who he could be comparing Fagin to, in Dickens’ first editions of the book, he refers to Fagin as “the Jew” more than 250 times throughout, and refers to him as “the old man” or by name on fewer than 50 occasions. Dickens removed all references to Fagin as “the Jew” in later editions, after a close Jewish friend of his told him that it was offensive. Feh.
Before he was Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alec Guinness played Fagin in the 1948 film version and was made-up to exaggerate stereotypical Jewish features. And even though Ron Moody’s 1968 portrayal of Fagin may have won him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for best actor, it is probably one of the most grotesque caricatures of a Jew in film, ever.
Even Ben Kingsley, who has portrayed many sympathetic Jews throughout his career, donned a stereotypical guise while portraying Fagin in 2005’s “Oliver Twist.” As it turns out, it is difficult to inoffensively portray a character that was intentionally written to be a stereotype.