Is ‘Jewface’ ok? UK Jews speak out about casting non-Jews in Jewish roles

Some British Jews say Jewish roles should be reserved for Jewish actors; other say freedom of expression trumps all.

By World Israel News Staff

Casting controversies rocking Hollywood are nothing new. The idea that an actor can play a character of a different ethnicity, race, or other identity markers, has become taboo. In today’s climate, the casting of a non-black actor for a black character, or a heterosexual actor taking on the role of a gay character, would likely be met with blistering criticism.

Except when it comes to Jews.

Non-Jewish actors are regularly recruited to play Jewish characters, spanning the range from Holocaust survivors to an Israeli prime minister. Within the Jewish community, whether this practice is acceptable or not is up for debate.

Maureen Lipman, a Jewish British actress who has been an outspoken opponent of cancel culture and censorship, told the Jewish Chronicle that despite her passion for freedom of expression, she was unhappy that non-Jewish actress Helen Mirren was cast to play Israel’s only female prime minister, Golda Meir, in a biopic.

“With that I disagree, because the Jewishness of the character is so integral,” she said. ““I’m sure she will be marvelous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.”

Lipman’s note about cross-racial casting being widely considered offensive when it comes to black characters, but par for the course for Jews, calls to mind a recent BBC debate in which a panel of non-Jews debated whether or not Jews could be the victims of racism or should be considered a non-white ethnic group.

Jewish playwright and director Patrick Marber vehemently disagrees with the concept that an actor must share “lived experience” with a character in order to take on a role.

“I…hate that expression,” he told the Jewish Chronicle. “Because ‘lived experience’ is sort of a denial of what creativity is and denies the actor the fundamental challenge and right to become someone else to impersonate another human being from another time, from another culture from another religion and another sexuality and other gender.”

Making casting decisions based on the real life identity of the actor is both stifling to freedom of expression, a Jewish stage actor told the Chronicle.

“The notion of people showing their papers to authenticate Jewish ancestry in order to justify playing a Jewish role is a dystopian nightmare,” said Elliot Levey.

“I’m adamant that we can’t have checks and balances.”