There are many clubs in which Jews have never been welcome. Today, a big one is the intersectionality club: the hierarchy of grievances that puts whoever is deemed most “marginalised” at the top. Sexual and racial minorities, as well as trans people and even the disabled (though rarely the poor), all compete for top billing, and therefore, in a grotesquely ironic way, top underdog, in this system. But because Jews have never been taken seriously as a persecuted minority, these rules scarcely applied to us.
Which is why — as David Baddiel made abundantly clear in his relentlessly true book, Jews Don’t Count — there are such glaring double standards in our society when it comes to what’s acceptable for other ethnic minorities and what’s acceptable for Jews. For instance, in film, TV and theatre, it has become unthinkable for a white person to play an ethnic minority, and increasingly verboten for a straight person to play a sexual minority. But it is entirely acceptable for non-Jewish actors to don “Jewface”, and thus for Helen Mirren to play Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in a hotly-anticipated forthcoming dramatisation of the redoubtable woman.
Striking pictures of Mirren have been seen in which prosthetics have transformed her into a likeness of the Jewish PM. This has made some Jews squirm, however, including the iconic Maureen Lipman who told the Jewish Chronicle that: “The Jewishness of the character is so integral. I’m sure she will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.” In Lipman’s view, and those who agree with her, the role should have gone to a Jewish woman.
This feeling is understandable, and the casting of Mirren certainly would seem to support the Jews Don’t Count thesis. But in this case, the thesis seems misapplied. Society in general and Jews in particular would benefit from getting away from, not moving towards, a world in which identitarian grievance runs everything, and in which art and culture is determined by a perfect match in the race between creator or object and actor or artist. The best person for the role should always get the role, since the point of art is fundamentally about, well, art, not cultural-political point-scoring. If Mirren is the best woman for the job — and the wonderful pictures of her suggest she will be — then great.
There is, of course, a caveat when the depiction of an Israeli Jew is at stake, given the enormous malice so many in the arts feel towards the Jewish state. Thus, far more important than whether the actor is Jewish or not is whether they are going to respect the memory of the person they are portraying, and in this case, whether they are rabidly anti-Israel, like so many actors are, or sensitive and respectful towards its right to exist. Mirren passes the test, having throughout shown due respect both for Meir and for Israel. And it’s worth remembering here that Golda is directed by Guy Nattiv, an Israeli, who has said Mirren was always his first choice for the role. Mirren’s casting therefore cannot be said to be happening in spite of Jews; she was chosen by one.
Then there’s the simplification of Meir herself that the Jewface row inevitably causes. Yes, Meir is “integrally” Jewish, but just as integral is her statesmanship, her extraordinary character and the barriers she faced as a woman in that time and position. Boiling her down to ethnicity does her, and any depiction of her, a disservice.
In fact, the Jewface row distracts from real anti-Semitism: caricatures of Jews on screen, slurs and violence against them off-screen, and of course the cruel and manipulative distortions of Israel past and present practiced by large swathes of the world. In this light, casting one of the world’s best actresses as one of the most extraordinary Jews in modern history is hardly something to fight over.