Life & Culture

What does a Jew look like?

When the mainstream press publishes a Jewish story, how do they illustrate it? With Charedi Jews photographed from behind


What does a Jew look like? If you were an alien and images from the British media were beamed up to you from Earth, you’d get the impression that all Jews are a) men, b) have beards and c) wear black hats. In other words, that all Jews are Charedi. Take pretty much any article from the past few years — whether in print or online — that focuses on Jews or Judaism, and the chances are that it will be illustrated with a photo of strictly Orthodox Jews. It doesn’t matter how inappropriate the images are, or whether the story is about antisemitism in the Labour party, protests at British universities, or the rise in the number of applications for German passports following Brexit: ‘Charedi’ has become visual shorthand for ‘Jew’. You certainly wouldn’t think that the community remains a small minority (albeit a rapidly growing one) of the Jewish population.

I’ve experienced this myself: an article I wrote for the Daily Mail in 2014 about the rise in antisemitism in the UK, was illustrated with a stream of photos which included shots of strictly Orthodox Israeli Jews at Yad Vashem and a protest by the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta. Rather confusingly, given that my thesis was about not conflating ‘Jew’ with ‘Israel’.

Sociologist Dr Keith Kahn-Harris, a lecturer at Leo Baeck College, and the author of several books on the Jews in Britain, including Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today, has been studying this phenomenon. He says the problem for the media is that most non-Charedi Jews don’t look visibly different from non-Jews: “That creates an issue for photo editors and editors in how they illustrate stories that pertain to Jews. It is not to do with antisemitism. It’s about pressure of time and lack of resources, and ignorance — particularly ignorance of how different the Charedi community is from the rest of the British Jewish community.”

In the past, only a minority of newspaper articles was ever illustrated. But there has been an explosion in the number of news outlets, which are now publishing more and more articles, often online, requiring ever more illustrations. At the same time, newspapers have been making cuts, sacking sub-editors, and relying on a skeleton staff to file stories fast. Without the time or money to commission bespoke photographs, newspapers head to photo libraries or other online resources. “Because they may not know anything about British Jews, they will pick the most immediately obvious pictures that come up when they search ‘British Jews’ or ‘Jews in London’, or whatever it is. That’s often a picture of Charedi Jews,” says Kahn-Harris.

In fact, often it’s the same recycled picture, portraying a group of men walking along, their backs to the camera. It’s very possible that this photo has been taken without the knowledge — or consent — of these men. And, ironically, it’s also very likely — given that they generally shun the mainstream media — that they will never see themselves pictured, or become aware that their image now represents the ‘Jew in Britain’.

If using pictures of Charedi Jews is problematic and spreads falsehoods about the composition of British Jewry, what’s the alternative? Should we instead use pictures of men wearing kippot, or women with sheitels? But they no better represent the entire Jewish population than the Charedi do. Therein lies the problem: only the orthodox have an easily-identifiable ‘uniform’. The rest of us dress like Joe Bloggs.

So what, as I asked earlier, does a Jew look like? It’s that old chestnut again: is Judaism a religion or an ethnicity? Are we a race, a people? What is it that makes someone Jewish, even if they are entirely secular? This Jew — if I take a quick look in the mirror — is small in stature, with a prominent nose and dark curly hair. You could say I’m a bit of a Jewish stereotype — although, interestingly, only Jews think I look Jewish. Non-Jews usually plump for Greek or Irish. Yes, there are lots of Jews who look like me, or Jewish men who look like like Woody Allen, but there are also many Jews who don’t. “The hard truth is there is no generic picture of Jews,” says Kahn-Harris. “We’re too diverse for that. There isn’t necessarily a typical Jew.”

He believes the media could try harder. “I’m very sympathetic to the challenges faced by the contemporary media but, ultimately, they need to address this, however 
difficult it might be. Using stock images to illustrate articles is only ever a poor substitute for doing things the old-fashioned way, commissioning photos that are appropriate to a particular article. Let’s say a story is about antisemitism at Oxford University…then you need to have pictures of, say, the synagogue in Oxford, or maybe a poster for an Oxford Jewish Society event — something like that.”

He also recommends that Jewish organisations consider publishing and distributing a booklet showing a variety of images of Jews and calling it, “This Is What a Jew Looks Like”, so the public has a wider understanding of Jews and Judaism in Britain and recognises the diversity of what Jews are.

“It’s our responsibility to think through these issues and define our relationship to the Charedi community, too,” he says. “Where do we want to be seen as being fellow Jews to them and when do we want to assert our difference from them? The Charedi community is growing fast. Sometime in the next few decades, it may become the majority of British Jews. We can’t really completely separate from each other.”

There are no easy answers here. But perhaps we should take a small grain of comfort from the fact that the media has so little understanding of Judaism and Jews, or how to portray us. For, doesn’t it serve as a wonderful foil to all those who like to believe the antisemitic conspiracy myth that the Jews run the media? Hardly. They don’t even know what we look like. 


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