Jews Stay Boxed in on British TV

Despite massive gains in social acceptance and a broad swath of education and cultural programming that has taken Jewish identity beyond the synagogue, British Jewish characters on television continue to hit upon the same tired stereotypes.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

For decades Jews were relatively hidden on British television screens. One had to look hard to find a Jew beyond the odd Holocaust documentary or religious program. There was Dorian in the sitcom "Birds of a Feather" (1989-98), Dr. Legg in the long-running soap "Eastenders" (1985-), or the series of British Telecom adverts in which Maureen Lipman portrayed, albeit gently and humorously, an anxious Jewish balabusta.

Yet, recent years have witnessed a veritable explosion of Jews on British television screens. These include the two sitcoms "Grandma’s House" and "Friday Night Dinner," the documentaries "The Jews," "Two Jews on a Cruise," "Strictly Kosher" and "Jews at Ten" and a reality show, "Jewish Mum of the Year." Such shows have had British Jewry fussing over whether they are good for the Jews or not.

What explains this change and revival of Jewish assertiveness? Factors external to the Jewish communities of Britain provoked this transformation among a younger generation of Jews who were not content to keep their heads down.

The arrival in the U.K. of a significant number of non-white minorities from the former colonies and other commonwealth countries took the spotlight off the majority of Jews because, for all intents and purposes (ultra-Orthodox aside), Jews looked white.

In response to this new type of immigration, legislation, such as the Race Relations Act of 1976, was passed. Anti-discrimination policies were enacted, and Jews undoubtedly benefited from them. Not only did the law now protect the observance of certain religious practices, but it was also recognized that the media had to cater to an ethnically and religiously diverse population. Hostility toward Jews was on the downturn, particularly toward the end of the 20th century.

Then along came Margaret Thatcher, with her anti-establishment, pro-Jewish stance. She appointed a disproportionately high number of Jews to her Cabinet, promoting Jewish confidence. Meanwhile, greater awareness, as a result of education about the Holocaust, of the inescapability of Jewishness, convinced British Jews that a low profile was useless when anti-Semites are not so discerning in their discrimination.

This was caused by curriculum changes, an increase in degree programs and study tracks in the schedule at the university level, and setting up of museums and memorials (Beth Shalom, the Imperial War Museum) and finally the establishment of an annual and national Holocaust Memorial Day from the mid-1990s onward.

At the same time, the expansion of Holocaust education has surely affected non-Jewish British perception of Jews. It is now, for example, all but impossible to publicly deny the Holocaust anymore. Witness how the far-right British National Party has dropped that as a plank of its platform.

Jews coming out of the closet

Together, the results of improved Jewish education, the distancing from the Holocaust with the growth of the notion that it will not happen in the U.K., the growth of the recognition of multiculturalism and race-relations legislation and anti-discriminatory policies, a feeling of greater comfort, changes in class and increasing affluence have combined to produce a greater feeling than ever before that it is "safe" to "come out" as Jewish. The timidity of the Jewish establishment together with its anxiety that conspicuously Jewish behaviour might spark anti-Semitism has been rejected by a new generation of British Jews who either recognize or do not care that how Jews act and appear is not in itself a direct cause of anti-Semitism. And even if it is, then why behave differently? People with such views will always find some ammunition, however dubious, to legitimate their spurious claims.

Other Jewish cultural production attests to this change in climate. New groups, minyans and organizations unrelated to the traditional religious denominations and synagogues have sprung up, particularly in London -- as exemplified, above all, by, Limmud, annual Jewish education conference.

It is possible now to lead a varied and spiritually/intellectually fulfilling post-denominational Jewish existence outside of and unrelated to the mainstream organizations and their institutions. One does not need to go to a synagogue to be Jewish anymore. Most notably, there has been a flowering of new Jewish literature: Naomi Alderman, David Baddiel, Linda Grant, Howard Jacobson, Reva Mann, Charlotte Mendelssohn, Suzanne Portnoy, Francesca Segal and Adam Thirlwell, to mention just a few, write on all sorts of Jewish topics.

Unfortunately, however, while Jews are more willing to be exposed on TV, such programs are as cringe-worthy as British Jewish films have a tendency to be, marred by the fact that most Jews on film speak like they just came off the proverbial boat. Often, there is little of the joy of what Jewish practice and culture gives people. The portrayal of Jews and Jewishness is typically utterly lacking in any real richness, resorting to a set of tired stereotypes such as Maureen Lipman’s yiddische mamas mentioned at the outset. Consequently, one learns little about being Jewish or Judaism, apart from what it’s like to say the punch line of a bar mitzvah speech in Yiddish, or how to say "Oy" in the correct fashion.

Why is it that Jews in Britain are incapable of producing anything remotely approaching the output of other Diaspora communities? Jews in the United States and continental Europe have produced some of the most interesting and challenging Jewish films of the last 20 years. It seems that despite the sociological changes I’ve mentioned above, an older generation of TV executives, perhaps with one eye on the profits and the other on the potential fallout of such shows, demand a Jewishness that is instantly recognizable to a gentile audience. This uncertainty tells us something about the context in which British Jews work.

Reach out and don't touch your TV remote.Credit: Adi Emanuel
A screenshot of Channel 4's website.

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