It was OK, a bit boring maybe, but I was rather uneasy,” my friend told me, “with all those Jewish criminals”. McMafia of course. The Godman family, transitioning from Russian mobsters to London financiers are supposedly Jewish, though heaven knows how you would tell. The paterfamilias seems more Glaswegian than Odessian, the kids are pure Bedales and they wish each other a long life when making toasts. Next, they’ll be lighting their Passover dreidels.
However, Jewish they are supposed to be, and the main man who is pulling the Bedales Boy back into criminality is a Jewish Israeli MK and former Russian, Semiyon Kleiman. This chap is a wimpy badass who uses money to employ muscle to, among other things, keep captive in Tel Aviv a series of blonde dyevushkas trafficked from the old country.
I understood what my friend was getting at. There was an anxiety about a portrayal of Jews as baddies because there aren’t that many Jews in dramas (has there been a Jewish detective yet on television? When did you see the Rabbi of Dibley?), so why have they got to be the nasty people? Isn’t it possible that this kind of thing gives Jews a bad name?
Horrid folk don’t like Jews. There are a zillion websites out there whose sole purpose is to inform their readers of how Jews are lying, cheating, conspiring, secretive, tribal so-and-sos whose main raison-d’être is screwing everything up for gentiles.
Those right-wing “news” sites such as Breitbart or Westmonster target Muslims and refugees in the same way. It’s not that the stories these sites specialise in about how some of these people commit crimes are all untrue. It’s just that by concentrating totally on those crimes and (a) ignoring any good such people do and (b) ignoring any crimes anyone else commits, they distort reality and manufacture prejudice. So much so that you find yourself hoping that the next crime report does not include a name like Mohammed or Fatima.
We could point out that Jews have been here before. All newish migrants, tending to be poor, are described or depicted or imagined as verminous, swarming, criminal and disease-ridden. It’s a fate common to early 20th-century Jewish gangs in New York and London, 19th-century Irish gangs in New York and London, 21st-century Somali gangs in New York and London — wealthy, settled people don’t usually get into gangs.
But when a certain type of crime is committed, we find ourselves — don’t we? — hoping that the criminal is not Jewish.
We don’t want the fraudster, the Ponzi scheme runner, the money launderer, the loan-shark or the Rachman-like landlord to be a Jew, because, if they are, then we just know that someone — many someones — are sitting there thinking “well, of course. What do you expect? That’s what they do.” What’s important here, however, is the stereotype.
I never heard a Jewish person complain about the depiction of Hyman Roth in The Godfather. In fact some were rather pleased to find a Jew into proper gangsterism, with all the rough-stuff, rather than being, say, the Corleone’s bent accountant. Jewish burglars, Jewish footpads, brutal Jewish murderers even —really not so bad. Had Dickens made Bill Sykes a Jew, we could have lived with it. Because it wouldn’t have been a stereotype.
Had Bill Sykes been a Jew, he would have been a Jew who was a brute just like any Gentile of any persuasion could have been a brute.
But Fagin — just like Shylock — could only be a antisemite’s idea of a Jew: greasy, envious, covetous, supremely materialistic, miserly, cowardly, cunning, timid and physically weak. When those websites get to work on the Children of Israel, you can bet your life on those being the standard attributes. When the Hungarian right and its government calls out George Soros, that’s the tar they brush him with. The oldest tar of all.
But, on the other hand, if the bad Jew displays few of these characteristics, then he/she is a bad person, not a typical Jew. So in McMafia I don’t mind there being horrible criminals in Israel, and bent Israeli oligarchs, or even convicted Jewish mobsters in London. Heaven knows there are plenty of revolting non-Jews of all kinds in the same series.
So I said to my friend, that I understood his worry but couldn’t share it this time. In some ways having unstereotypical Jewish villains is a sign of progress.
We should be pleased. Maybe.