Crooked TV Jews


Elliot Gertel reflects on some nasty recent representations of Jews on US television.


     FBI: Most Wanted definitely has it in for older, wealthy Jewish women. And the series reserves its biggest broadsides against this “type” for season closers. In 2021, it was a Southern Jewish heiress to a major grocery chain who was augmenting her wealth through drug running.

     This year’s Jewish villainess is a 67-year-old mother named Rachel who is determined to eliminate would-be witnesses to her son Benji’s killing of a college buddy several years before in a dust-up over a woman. Both episodes were written by David Hudgins.

     At Rachel’s urging, Benji, her only child, has never owned up to the killing, and a homeless black man has been falsely incarcerated for a quarter of a century.

     For her part, Rachel, described as having no employment history and doing a lot of charity work, has lived comfortably in an Upper West Side high rise, manipulating her son’s life. The widowed Rachel had been married to a non-Jewish Italian-American who made a fortune in the wire supply business.

     The writer makes a point of emphasizing that Benji is a Hebrew speaker. Lest some viewers assume that all Jews with Jewish mothers (genetically?) speak Hebrew, the writer makes a point of stressing the Zionist aspects of this family in that Rachel has a brother in Tel Aviv. At any rate, Rachel manipulates her son in Hebrew with her plans to orchestrate his escape to Israel.

     Benji visits a Jew sporting beard and payos, obviously haredi or ultra-Orthodox, who deals in false identity documents: “Who do you want to be today?”  Orthodox Jews are thus associated here with professional enablers of criminals. While lacking moral fibre as well as a spine, Benji is adept at bribing people in the Department of Motor Vehicles.

     But Mother continues her murderous, Hebrew-speaking overindulgence spree, defiantly telling the FBI agents that she spent her whole life protecting her only child and is not going to stop now. As if to relieve the Jewish parent of all blame (in the past, anyway), the writer shares that the deceased non-Jewish father threatened a potential witness and then paid off the DA.

     This hour gives voice to every vile stereotype about stifling Jewish mothers, conspiring Jews, Zionist plots, and murderous Jewish designs on non-Jews, not to mention the exploitation of blacks. A good Evangelical Christian woman who “turned her life around” and “got right with God,” is shot in the back of the head because her testimony might put Benji behind bars. And the viewers cannot forget the unjustly imprisoned black vagrant whose only crime was selling recreational drugs to Benji and his friend.

     This episode’s dastardly Jews have destroyed many lives. Among those affected is head FBI agent Remy Scott (Dylon McDermott). A key arc of Remy’s storyline has been his entering the FBI because of the death of his brother Mikey. As it turns out, Mikey was killed by Benji, though, after all, Benji may have thought he was acting in self-defence after being attacked first by Mikey, who was unreasonably jealous that Benji had designs on his girlfriend, Jenna. Mikey died, then, because of an awkward fight due to an unwarranted conflict. So writer Hudgins relents on depicting Benji as a purposely murderous Jew, preferring to attribute any of his baseness, including his lack of moral backbone, to his mother. Remy preaches, “You’re a grown-ass man, Benji. Don’t let your mother protect you. All the guilt’s been poisoning you.”

     Remy is blessed to learn that he has a nephew through Mikey and Jenny, and meets the lad at the conclusion of the episode. But the impression left by hour’s end is that of Jews, at least wealthy and connected ones, having access to bearded Jews  (not to mention Jewish mothers) with whom they can speak Hebrew and with whom they can achieve any illegal actions they deem necessary or desirable.


     Right out of the starting gate, the pilot episode (11-16-22) of the one-season East New York, introduced Adam Lustig (Scott Cohen), “the major developer in East New York.”

     Written by series producers William Finkelstein and Mike Flynn (either or both involved in all episodes discussed here), the hour lost no time in exposing Lustig’s false denial of knowing Nikolai Dushkin (Miro Barnyashev), a site foreman on one of his projects. Dushkin shot an African immigrant taxi driver who was hiding blue diamonds smuggled to America by an African mine worker from Dushkin and from his boss, Lustig, who needed them to pay off business debts—double exploitation by both men of African males.

      I wondered immediately whether Lustig was supposed to represent an arrogant American-born Jew and Dushkin, a murderous Russian Jewish immigrant.

    Lustig often calls upon Deputy Mayor Sharpe (Darien Sills-Evans), a shadowy politician whom idealistic just-arrived Deputy Inspector Regina Haywood (Amanda Warren) pegs as an obstacle to justice and progress. Inspector Haywood saves Lustig’s life, but he still has a lot of explaining to do. Before he is carted off for questioning, he comes up with a mantra that is the closest he ever comes to morality, “Nothing my lawyer can’t handle.”

     This series liked its suggested crooked Jewish characters.

     I suspected that Lustig would be back. And return he did. Sharpe makes Lustig the financial chair of his campaign. Lustig also plans to develop for the archdiocese the property of a stately old Roman Catholic church where the brother of the Latin American Bureau chief John Suarez (Jimmy Smitts) happens to be the priest. Under family pressure to protect his brother, Suarez summons Lustig and, after reminding him that Inspector Haywood had saved his life, tells him, “I don’t know how you manage to stay out of prison.”

     Suarez threatens constant police surveillance unless Lustig makes an offer to another church with more land, whose parish is already seeking to sell, and personally pays for repairs to his brother’s church. In return, Suarez promises to rein in Haywood, whom Lustig regards as having a vendetta against him. He adds that Lustig will have nothing to worry about if he’s not breaking any laws.  (3-5-23)

     Lustig obviously likes to pull down any moral bar. He taunts Suarez about “ceding moral authority,” and asks if it is possible that they are “cut from the same cloth.”  Then he arrogantly states that he will “err on the side of caution—this time.”

    These Lustig-like qualities were extended to another character with a Jewish-sounding name, District Attorney Paul Wexler (Kevin Kilner), who is trading “leniency for sex” with female criminals of limited means between 20 and 25 years of age. When two officers confront him at a fundraiser, he mocks them by telling them they can stay only if they come up with $1500.00 each and an appropriate change of attire. When they inform him that they are aware that he bugged the office of his assistant D.A. whom they suspect him of murdering, he responds that he procured a warrant to do so because he suspected that she was “compromised.” Then, with full Lustig-style arrogance, he tells them that if they don’t have what they need to arrest him, they should go back to their squad room in East New York and search for the “perp,” “instead of making fools of yourselves here.” (4-23-23)

     Added to this mix is another character with a Jewish-sounding name, a business owner named Robert Azeroff (Adrian Pasdar), who is grooming East New York cop Tommy Killian (Kevin Rankin) to be a bodyguard and strong man. Killian asks for help with the medical expenses of the father of his girlfriend, and Azeroff gladly agrees, in a bid for the cop’s loyalty. At the end of the series, the well-meaning but morally challenged Killian is told that the Department of Justice is investigating Azeroff for violating sanctions against certain Russian individuals. (4-23-23; 5-14-23)

     These are all bona fide Jewish names, but then again, they don’t have to be. What kind of game were the writers and producers planning to play in this series? Then there is the Kings County DA, Seth Tolchin (Max Gordon Moore), another suggested Jew. The ambitious Tolchin prefers career self-protection over obtaining warrants to remove guns from the streets. When Haywood shows him that a smooth-talking criminal is probably making phone cases and gun modifiers on the same 3D printer out of the same blue-coloured material, Tolchin snarkily replies that “judges are like toddlers: they like the word ‘No’; they love to argue; and the threshold for some of them is very high.”

     Haywood’s executive officer Captain Stan Yenko (Richard Kind) exhorts Tolchin to go to the right judge with the totality of factors “put…together.”  But Tolchin fears being embarrassed by “some Ruth Bader Ginsburg wannabe…telling me my showing for probable cause is insufficient.”  (Are the writers gratuitously showing Ginsburg in a bad light as well?) Haywood has to guilt-threaten Tolchin into requesting a warrant by suggesting that if one of the modified guns results in school killings, it would come out that the DA’s office “did nothing to prevent it.” Yenko chimes in, “Get us the warrant, you’ll sleep better.” (10-16-22)

     In another episode, we catch a glimpse of Sy Somers (Michael Tucker), an attorney friend of Haywood’s cop father, in a storyline about Haywood’s uneasy attempts at reconciliation with her dad. At first, she doubts Sy’s competency to help her father with difficult matters, but then she realizes that he will come through. (4-16-23) Again, there is the suggestion of a Jewish name, but not necessarily. Did the writers come up with a “nice,” “laid back” suggested Jewish character to counterbalance nasty suggested Jewish characters?

     East New York had a fine cast and a lot to offer. It purported to explore issues like the challenges to Latin and African American officers to navigate and influence the police system. It created interesting scenarios like white police officers volunteering to live in public housing occupied mostly by African Americans. But the staff chose as their most recurring foils those characters with Jewish-sounding names instead of offering creative perspectives on high-crime neighbourhoods, gangs, and issues of policing. Why?

     As for FBI: Most Wanted, the question is why an entire staff, working in concert, would try to incorporate every vicious canard about Jews. Why?

     One can only guess as to the behind-the-scenes issues with Jews and Judaism on both production crews. Both went out of their way to feature very nasty characters who actually speak Hebrew or have Jewish-sounding names. Is this a portent of TV to come?

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Elliot B. Gertel is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago. He has been film and television reviewer of the "National Jewish Post and Opinion" since 1979. His books include What Jews Know About Salvation and Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television.
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