Media Portrayals of Religion: Judaism

Anti-Semitism is experiencing a modern revival in popular media, not only in Canada but worldwide. While Canada, with the fourth largest Jewish population in the world, is not among the nations where anti-Semitism has increased most dramatically, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has nonetheless acknowledged violence against Jewish people as a significant problem in this country [1]. Awareness of media stereotypes and misrepresentations faced by the Jewish community is fundamental in countering this anti-Semitist resurgence with tolerance and acceptance.

Mass media commonly stereotypes Jews as incredibly wealthy, cheap, mean, immoral or unethical. Examples of these stereotypes can be in many forms of media, from The Big Bang Theory’s unscrupulous Howard Wolowitz to the deviant Andy Botwin of Weeds. Jews are often portrayed as in control of the world’s mass media and as using media to spread religious propaganda. For example, in 2002 the New Statesman ran an article entitled “A Kosher Conspiracy?” [2], suggesting Jewish media control. In addition, 48 million Americans believe that Jews are in control of the world’s mass media [3]. As well as these stereotypes with negative connotations, there also positive stereotypes, such as Jews being intelligent or proficient at music. Yet again, these stereotypes can be seen in Glee, where Rachel, the star of the Glee club, is Jewish. These kinds of stereotypes, however, are no less damaging because they help to misshape public opinion regarding a social minority [4]. In truth, Jewish people can be wealthy or poor, intelligent or less intelligent, kind or otherwise. It is important, particularly with a global history of anti-Semitism, that Judaism be portrayed in a balanced manner that does not encourage such popular misconceptions.

A very contentious issue facing the Jewish community is the framing of Israeli-Palestinian discourse in popular media, most notably news media. Israel is the world’s only Jewish majority state and has had a history of conflict with the predominantly Islamic Palestinians. Canadian mass media has historically been encouraged by Canada’s Israeli lobby to frame reports related to Israel in a way that portrays Israel positively. Unlike Jewish lobby groups, Israeli lobby groups are not forced to negotiate the identity politics that are found in a religious community: Israel refers to a specific state that is Jewish in identity, as opposed to Judaism itself. This lobbying has been successful, with many Canadian media members identifying themselves as allies with Israel [5].

North American media has recently, however, come under criticism. Various studies have shown some Canadian media outlets to display an anti-Palestinian bias, having a tendency to portray Palestinians as terrorists [6]. Media has also been accused of framing the North American debate around Israel and Palestine in terms that equate criticism of Israel with criticism of Judaism [7]. Automatically pairing Israel with Judaism is problematic, since it implies that sympathy for Palestine is automatically anti-Jewish.

 


[1] Schaler, J., & Simon, R. (2007). Anti-Semitism the world over in the twenty-first century. Current Psychology, 26(3-4), 152-182.
[2] Sewell, D. (2002, January 14). New Statesman - A Kosher Conspiracy?. New Statesman - Britain’s Current Affairs & Politics Magazine. http://www.newstatesman.com/200201140009
[3] Michael, R. (2005). A concise history of American antisemitism . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
[4] Anti-Defamation Commission, Inc. (2008). Antisemitic Stereotypes. B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission Inc.. Acessed: February 4, 2011. http://www.antidef.org.au/www/309/1001127/displayarticle/1012009.html
[5] Whitaker, R. (2004). ‘Israel is the new Jew’: the Canadian Israeli Lobby Today. Studies in Political Economy, 74, 191-213.
[6] Fisk, R. (2002). Journalists Are Under Fire for Telling the Truth. The Independent. Accessed: February 1, 2011. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-journalists-are-under-fire-for-telling-the-truth-611311.html; Moiseiwitsch, C., & Murray, G. (2008). CanWest Huffs and Puffs While Free Speech Burns. Straight.com: Vancouver’s Online Source. Accessed: February 1, 2011. www.straight.com/article-153833/canwest-huffs-and-puffs-free-speech-burns; Austen, I. (2004). Reuters Asks a Chain to Remove Its Bylines. The New York Times.
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/20/business/media/20reuters.html?_r=2
[7] Whitaker, 2004.

Diversity in Media Toolbox

The Diversity and Media Toolbox is a comprehensive suite of resources that explores issues relating to stereotyping, bias and hate in mainstream media and on the Internet. The program includes professional development tutorials, lesson plans, interactive student modules and background articles.

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