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January 12, 2022 2:04 pm

British Writer David Baddiel Questions Casting Non-Jews in Jewish Roles Amid Helen Mirren Debate


avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

David Baddiel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

British writer and comedian David Baddiel defended actress Maureen Lipman after she faced a backlash for suggesting that a Jewish performer should have been cast in the role of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in an upcoming biopic, rather than Oscar winner Helen Mirren.

Baddiel, the author of “Jews Don’t Count,” explained in a piece for The Guardian published on Wednesday that despite the “extreme intensification” of conversations about appropriate representation and inclusion for minority groups, “one minority — Jews — has been routinely neglected.”

“This issue is not really about who gets the work. It’s about the idea that minority experience should be expressed by those who truly know it, rather than caricatured by those who don’t,” the Jewish comedian said. “Casting a non-minority actor to mimic that identity feels, to the progressive eye, like impersonation, and impersonation may carry with it an element of mockery – or at least seem reductive, reducing the complexity of that experience by channeling it through an actor who hasn’t lived it.”

Lipman, who is Jewish, was subject to online criticism earlier in January for saying that although she has “nothing against” Mirren starring in the new film “Golda” and believes the Academy Award-winner “will be brilliant in the role,” casting directors should have first considered Jewish actresses such as Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, and Scarlett Johansson to take on the character. A Jewish person should be cast in the role because the “Jewishness of the character is so integral,” she argued.

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“If the religion fires the character, then I honestly think you should look at that group; that gender,” said Lipman. “If the character is gay, I think you should see the gay actors first; see the Jewish actors first. If it doesn’t work out, fair enough, go ahead.”

“I’m sure [Mirren] will be marvelous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela,” she separately said in an interview. “You just couldn’t even go there.”

In his piece for The Guardian, Baddiel highlighted other projects — including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and the British shows “Friday Night Dinner” and “Ridley Road” — in which non-Jewish actors were cast to play lead Jewish roles, “even when the characters and storylines are very Jewish indeed.”

He added: “I believe two things at once – that in an ideal world, non-Jews should be allowed to play Jews, but the fact this allowance already exists, and has up to this point received very little pushback is, in the modern casting context, a discrepancy, and one that needs to be deconstructed, because it says a lot about how people see Jews.”

Ultimately, he concluded, minorities should not be criticized for questioning casting decisions affecting their community. “It is, as I say, complex,” Baddiel wrote. “At the end of the day, I don’t know the answer. But I think that I – and Maureen Lipman and any other Jew – should not be abused for asking the question.”

In October, actress and comedian Sarah Silverman slammed Hollywood for what she described as a long-standing tradition “of non-Jews playing Jews, and not just playing people who happen to be Jewish, but people whose Jewishness is their whole being.”

“The pattern in film is just undeniable,” she argued, “and the pattern is: if the Jewish woman character is courageous or deserves love, she is never played by a Jew.”

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