Israelis on Screen

Blond Hair, Blue Eyes, and a Bad Accent.

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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.

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Saul Austerlitz

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