Holding Antisemites Accountable.

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Antisemitic Undertones in Two Hit TV Shows Causes Outrage

Photo: Lovecraft Academy, HBO
Photo: Lovecraft Academy, HBO

Two popular television shows, Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy and HBO’s Lovecraft Country, have recently included troubling allusions to anti-Jewish stereotypes.

The Umbrella Academy depicts a family of superheroes who must come together to protect the world. Among the evil actors they battle is a “lizard person” who disguises himself as a human, and an organizer of evil forces who speaks Yiddish, among other languages. This seems to echo the bizarre anti-Jewish conspiracy theories of former soccer player and BBC sportscaster David Icke, who has written books claiming that many prominent Jews are actually secret “lizard people” seeking to world domination.

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The Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote a letter protesting this anti-Jewish slant in the program, saying “Whether intentional or not, this makes for very uncomfortable viewing. Netflix should take action to remove the racism from this scene.”

Lovecraft Country, HBO’s hit new series, has only aired a few episodes, but it’s already gained over a million viewers – and raised troubling questions about its recent use of anti-Jewish tropes.

The show is based on Matt Ruff’s bestselling 2016 novel about a group of Black Americans travelling through the US during the Jim Crow era. In addition to the monstrous racism the characters encounter from prejudiced White Americans, they also have to contend with actual monsters as the book and show veer into horror.

On August 30, the series’ third episode aired. Titled “Holy Ghost,” it showed the character Leti buying a dilapidated old Victorian Mansion in a mostly White Chicago neighborhood. As she begins to fill the house with Black tenants, her White neighbors turn menacing – eventually turning on her and burning a cross on her front lawn. This horror outside is matched by horror inside, as restless spirits threaten the tenants. Eventually, Leti finds out the root cause of these angry ghosts: a scientist with the very Jewish sounding name Hiram Epstein apparently kidnapped eight Black people years before. He conducted gruesome experiments on them, murdered them, and buried their bodies underneath the house. It’s their souls that cause some of the mayhem in the hour-long episode.

In a show without any other Jewish characters, the introduction of such a Jewish-sounding name, particularly one who is so bloodthirsty and destructive, is startling.

That stereotype is the accusation that Jews somehow are driven to kill non-Jews: the “blood libel” that’s plagued Europe and the Middle East for centuries. The first blood libel occurred in England in the 1100, when a boy named William was found dead in the woods outside of the town of Norwich. A local monk accused the local Jewish community of torturing and murdering him.

Blood libel accusations spread throughout Europe and even into the Middle East. Between 1100s and 1500s, historians have documented about a hundred blood libel trials, most of which resulted in massacres of Jewish communities. In 1840 a major pogrom against Jews occurred in the Syrian city of Damascus after local Jews were charged with kidnapping and murdering a Christian priest. Thirteen Jewish leaders were tortured to extract confessions (four died), and 63 Jewish children were seized from their parents in an attempt to make their Jewish mothers and fathers confess.

In 1928 the blood libel even came to America. When a four-year-old girl disappeared from home in the upstate town of Massena, New York, local townspeople began claiming that local Jews had murdered her. The police chief ordered a local rabbi, Berel Brennglas, to come to central police headquarters and asked him whether it was true that Jews killed Christian children in order to use their blood in Jewish religious rituals. Outside, a threatening crowd gathered, convinced that local Jews were to blame. It was only later when the little girl was found safe and well that a potential pogrom prevented.

The ancient blood libel contributes to a pervasive feeling that Jews are somehow untrustworthy, dangerous and evil.

Jews are the most frequent targets of religiously-motivated hate crimes in the United States: despite being less than 2% of the population of the United States, Jews are the subject of nearly 50% of all religiously motivated crimes.

It’s likely that the writers of Lovecraft Country and The Umbrella Academy never thought of their recent episodes as anti-Jewish. But giving a character who secretly lures, tortures and kills non-Jews an unmistakable Jewish-sounding name has a terrible history. Creating characters who echo extreme anti-Jewish conspiracy theories perpetuates the false belief that Jews are alien, different, strange, and somehow seek to control or dominate others.

Repeating these horrible slurs only serves to heighten dislike, suspicion and hatred of Jews.