Israelis on Screen

Blond Hair, Blue Eyes, and a Bad Accent.

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The trailers were hard to miss: Adam Sandler leaping from rooftops, catching terrorists' bullets with his bare hands, and going all "Crouching Tiger" on some bad guys. But the comic idol wasn't aiming to be the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was Sandler as an Israeli Mossad agent wunderkind whose fondest dream is to leave the high-intensity world of international intrigue and become a hairdresser. Comedy undoubtedly ensues.

Being an icon of American Judaism lite (his "Chanukah Song" is still a holiday staple), it is something of a logical progression to see Sandler playing an Israeli in You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008). Still, he looks and sounds more like a parody, or a broad sketch, of an Israeli than the real thing: sandals and cutoff jeans; a bushy goatee and Jewfro; tortured English grammar; and an insistent, ringing chorus of "no, no, no" that punctuates his conversation.

Something's Not Quite Right

Sandler gets some aspects of Israeliness right, but the accent is subtly off--more Italian than Israeli--and the overall result is like a mash-up of every Israeli stereotype known to man. Zohan is a killer with bad fashion sense; a secret agent who likes wearing Mariah Carey t-shirts to kick some terrorist butt.

adam sandler zohanSandler's Zohan is the latest in a fairly lengthy line of Hollywood depictions of Israelis. As always, it is an American (or Brit or Australian) playing the Israeli role, illustrating the central paradox of such portrayals: that they consider Israelis close enough kin to Americans that Americans can play them, but nuance and subtlety are sacrificed to that familiarity. Has Hollywood ever gotten Israelis right?

If they haven't, it's not for lack of trying. Hollywood was churning out Israeli-themed movies soon after the establishment of the state of Israel. In that earlier, more romanticized time, Israelis were heroic pioneers, successors to the law-bringing gunslingers of the Western film. At the same time, Hollywood's general lack of interest in portraying reality meant that small matters such as proper Israeli speech, dress, and looks were subsumed under the sheer firepower of star appeal.

Blond Haired and Blue Eyed Jews

Casting was essential to the process. Blue-eyed, sandy-haired Paul Newman met no one's idea of a stereotypical shtetl Jew, and that was precisely the point of casting him as the brawny, heroic Ari Ben-Canaan in Exodus. Based on Leon Uris' beloved bestseller, Otto Preminger's 1960 film was among the first Hollywood films to embrace Israeli characters, and helped set the tone for what was to follow. Israelis were relatable characters just like us, these movies said.

More to the point, after decades of the studios (almost all run by Eastern European Jewish immigrants) avoiding mention of Jews or Judaism, a belated sense of Jewish pride (or guilt) kicked in and demanded Jewish heroes. Where better to look, then, than Israel? Exodus does not entirely shirk centuries-old notions of Jews as puny and weak, more brain than brawn--Sal Mineo's shrinking Dov Landau assiduously hews to that stereotype. But Newman, with a legendary swagger and quiet confidence, sought to break the mold, making Israelis a kind of New Hollywood American: tough, brilliant, and impossibly dashing.

In that era, when the studios were still strong, the idea of having anyone other than an American playing an Israeli would have been anathema. That was what stars were for--bringing in audiences for the studios' gain. Besides, there were no Israeli actors high-profile enough to star in a Hollywood picture.

Regardless, the casting of uber-WASP Newman, like that of so many clearly non-Jewish actors in Israeli roles in future films, was itself the point. After the Holocaust, when Jews had been singled out for their supposed racial characteristics, American films were going out of their way to demonstrate that anyone could be Jewish--even Paul Newman.

Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) continued what Exodus had begun, with Kirk Douglas as a half-American, half-Israeli hero. Playing Mickey Marcus, the Jewish American army officer whose astute guidance helped the Israeli army triumph in the 1948 war, Douglas (himself Jewish, born Issur Danielovitch) exudes the same radiant glow that Newman had.

The Raid on Entebbe

The numerous films made in the aftermath of the 1976 raid on Entebbe, Uganda, to free Israeli hostages held captive by the PLO and Idi Amin, offered up Israelis as master warriors. They also presented seemingly infinite comic possibilities of well-regarded English and American actors pretending to be Israeli, and even funnier matchups of actors and famous Israelis: Richard Dreyfuss as the martyred Yonatan Netanyahu, Anthony Hopkins as Yitzhak Rabin, and Burt Lancaster as Shimon Peres in 1976's television movie Victory at Entebbe (which had the added pleasure of onetime shiksa goddess Elizabeth Taylor in a small role).

The film (along with the 1977 Israeli version, Operation Thunderbolt) was more a quick cash-in on Entebbe than a serious film, but it is also a goldmine of ludicrous accents, hairstyles, and wardrobes. The unbuttoned white shirts and copious chest hair of the Israeli politicians are particularly notable in their unintentionally parodic silliness.

After Entebbe, Israelis mostly disappeared from American movies, with a handful of exceptions like Costa-Gavras' well-intentioned courtroom drama Hanna K. (1983), with Jill Clayburgh as an American expat attorney in Jerusalem who defends an accused Palestinian terrorist while carrying on a love affair with the prosecutor.

Modern Portrayals

In recent years, the Israeli trend has re-emerged, with Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005) at the forefront. Munich retains the stunt-casting, "that-guy-couldn’t-possibly-be-Jewish" feel, with future James Bond Daniel Craig as a South African explosives expert, and Aussie Geoffrey Rush as a Mossad case officer. Eric Bana is more serviceable as Avner, an ex-Mossad agent turned global vigilante, but Spielberg's film, in small doses, went with the most audacious Hollywood casting decision of all: having Israeli actors depict themselves.

Acclaimed Israeli actresses Ayelet Zurer and Gila Almagor played Avner's wife and mother, respectively. For Zurer, her role in Munich has led to an increasingly high-profile career in American films, with roles in Vantage Point (2008) and the upcoming Da Vinci Code sequel Angels & Demons (2009).

With Israeli television shows and movies (like Be'Tipul, or Cannes prizewinner Jellyfish) in such hot demand of late, more Israelis are likely to obtain roles in non-Israeli films. In part, this is due to the globalization of present-day Hollywood, in which actors from around the world are offered roles. But it also has something to do with Israel's cinematic and literary successes in the past decade.

American film's newfound interest in performers from around the world offers the possibility of Israeli performers getting to play big-screen versions of themselves for worldwide audiences. In all likelihood, though, future depictions of Israelis onscreen will continue to feature American stars doing their best with the tricky Israeli accent, with the men displaying copious chest hair and the women showing off henna-rinsed hair. But even a few Israeli actors getting the opportunity to play themselves--so to speak--could make for a new kind of Israeli in the movies. 

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.