For More Than a Century, Cinema Has Portrayed Jewish Soldiers as Cowardly, or Worse

December 2, 2022 | Benjamin Vos
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Created during World War II, Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) is the rough equivalent of the American Delta Force or Navy Seals. A recent BBC miniseries, SAS: Rogue Heroes, offers a fictionalized version of its creation and operations in Africa in 1941. Benjamin Vos notes that the show follows a long line of war movies that depict Jews as unmartial and unmanly:

SAS Rogue Heroes features one Jewish character, the fictional French soldier Halévy. Unlike the rangy, fit SAS men, he is small and portly, can’t mount a truck without help, is bullied, and almost flunks a test of bravery. While his comrades seem inherently warlike, Halévy fights specifically to avenge his deported family. His graduation to bravery necessitates his own death, as he immolates the traitor Brückner, himself, and others in an explosion.

Halévy first appears when, among a group of soldiers standing to attention, he sneezes and is laughed at. Halévy’s humiliation, unsoldierly reticence, moral preoccupation, and self-sacrifice continue a grisly dramatic tradition of fictional Jewish soldiers being bumbling, cowardly, or otherwise unfit to fight. The lucky ones die quickly.

This comic-relief role for Jewish soldiers has been a constant for well over a century. In Cohen Saves the Flag (1912), two Jews at Gettysburg put romantic rivalry above the interests of the Union Army. The running joke about lascivious and cowardly Private Lipinsky in What Price Glory? (1926) is the size of his nose.

Vos traces these tropes in films over the decades, and also notes some even more insidious stereotypes—which persist into the 21st century—of Jews as treacherous or lecherous. In other movies, their deaths provide salvation for their Gentile comrades:

Stalag 17 (1953) is a tense tale of betrayal among angry, violent POWs, within which Harry Shapiro is unreliable, vulgar, and indebted—and lusts after female Russian prisoners. . . . Corporal Gabby Gordon in Objective, Burma! (1945) is a standard-issue daft Jewish soldier. In the film, a Lt. Jacobs is tortured by the Japanese but passes on a vital message before dying. Jews [tend to] die to impart benefit to other characters or even moral instruction to viewers. In The Deep Six (1958), Frenchy Shapiro dies after rescuing his Quaker friend from Japanese soldiers. More significantly, Anzio (1968) features licentious Corporal Rabinoff who dies while drawing German fire from his non-Jewish comrades. Rabinoff’s death inspires a moral epiphany in a cynical war journalist.

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