Is New BBC Hit TV Show 'McMafia' anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli? Its Writer Fights Back

The big-budget thriller is being criticized for 'gratuitous slurs' against Israeli businessmen, but co-writer Hossein Amini says people shouldnt rush to judgment after the first episode

James Norton as Alex Godman in the BBC thriller "McMafia."
Nick Wall / Copyright Cuba Pictures/ CPL Godman / BBC

The writer of a high-profile new British TV drama has rejected accusations that McMafia – set in the world of international organized crime and featuring an Anglo-Russian Jewish protagonist – is anti-Semitic and trades in anti-Israeli stereotypes.

McMafia premiered on the BBC on New Years Day, ahead of its U.S. premiere on AMC later this year and on Amazon Prime Video in Israel. But it immediately drew flak from a U.K. pro-Israel lawyers association for its negative depiction of an Israeli businessman, as well as on social media for having lots of Jewish villains in the first few episodes.

The British thriller has been touted as the BBCs follow-up to its international hit The Night Manager, and is inspired by the best-selling 2008 nonfiction book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld, by Misha Glenny. The shows protagonist, Alex Godman (played by James Norton), is the scion of a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in London, whose comfortable, middle-class life is threatened when he is dragged back into the family business of international crime.

The shows co-writer, Iran-born Hossein Amini, says he was taken aback by the controversy, triggered by the UK Lawyers for Israel group (UKLFI), which accused the show of gratuitous slurs against Israeli businessmen and making references to Israel which arent mentioned in the original book.

The group was specifically concerned with the portrayal of Semiyon Kleiman (played by U.S. actor David Strathairn), an Israeli businessman and Knesset member who moonlights as an international drug runner and money launderer.

Speaking for the first time about the controversy, Amini tells Haaretz that Kleiman is meant to be seen as a multidimensional character. The depiction, he says, was really not meant to offend in any way.

On a personal level, he notes, one of the things I admire about Israel is that it is a robust democracy. It has the ability to have different opinions and questions. In every country there is corruption and corrupt people, but that does not become a general view of what every businessman is like from that country, he added.

Amini, who received an Oscar nomination in 1998 for his adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, says Kleimans character evolves over the course of the eight-part series. What we try to do is show that everyone has good and bad sides, he says. When someone comes to those conclusions after one episode and makes a call on a character that is a mistake.

He also echoes previous comments by the Israeli actor Yuval Scharf, who plays Kleimans assistant Tanya in McMafia, when he says, We are talking about people – not countries.

Explaining how the character of the Israeli businessman will evolve, Amini says, Its a drama and you start off thinking one thing about Semiyon Kleiman and end up thinking something else. There is fragility and humanity in him, and we try to find it in every character.

The Godmans and acquaintances attending a family funeral in "McMafia."
Nick Wall / Copyright Cuba Pictures/ CPL Godman / BBC

Amini himself was forced to flee Iran with his family during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 at age 11. When I grew up, it was a time when Iran and Israel were on much friendlier terms than now. I am Muslim and tolerance was something I was certainly brought up with. I dont come from the position of what has been happening recently – the sort of polarization of those two worlds, he says.

The UKLFI statement on Facebook also criticized the show for distorting the motto of Mossad, which was quoted in the drama as By deception (sic) we will do war. The actual motto comes from Proverbs, 24.6 and says For by wise guidance you can wage your war. The use of the word deception in substitute for the words wise guidance attacks the integrity of Mossad and insinuates that Israel officially sanctions deception in its intelligence activities.

The BBC offered no comment on the groups statement.

UKLFI Chairman Jonathan Turner admits to being surprised by how much media interest was created by his groups statement. And while he stands by that initial Facebook post, he tells Haaretz now that the UKLFI is prepared to see how the show unfolds before passing final judgment.

We think it is only fair, having raised concerns about the potential problem of anti-Semitic tropes in dramas, to see the whole of the series and see if those concerns are born out, he says.

It may well be that by the time one sees the full series, it is balanced and overall the point will be that there are Jewish and Israeli crooks, but there are also Italian crooks and Saudi crooks and American crooks and others around the world. If the series had just focused on Israeli crooks and presented the world of modern money laundering as a purely Jewish activity, one would be rather worried – particularly as that is in line with traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, Turner adds.

Jumping the gun

British political and media commentator Tom Gross tells Haaretz he acknowledges concerns about the series. Given the recent rise in anti-Semitism and the fact anti-Israelism is rife in some progressive and cultural circles in London, there is understandably a certain sensitivity about the danger of stereotyping Jews on a major new BBC drama, says Gross, before offering a character reference for Amini, who he has been very close friends with for three decades since they studied together at Oxford.

Like many Iranian exiles I know, [Amini] is a philo-Semite and an admirer of Israel and of Jews, and who is embarrassed by the Iranian regime and its sometimes anti-Semitic attitudes, Gross says. I think critics have jumped the gun in judging the series only on the basis of the initial episodes. Later in the series, an Israeli will emerge as one of the central heroes.

Besides, the series depicts many nationalities in an unfavorable light, he continues. You will see Arabs kneecapping women, Pakistanis smuggling heroin, Indians and Russian doing horrible things.

Indeed, the Russian Embassy in London weighed in on the series over the weekend. BBCs #McMafia depicts Britain as a playground for Russian gangsters. But do you know how many Russian offenders there are actually in UK jails? it tweeted, before providing its answer: Fewer than 10. Crime rate among Russians in UK is well below national average. Good that our followers are not buying into cliches BBC is spreading.

Gross doesnt spare the BBC from criticism, but his problem with the corporation lies elsewhere. There is certainly much to complain about regarding the BBCs coverage of Israel and Israelis – but complaints should really be directed against BBC News rather than against this fictional series, he says.