columnArts & Entertainment

The real problem with the Oscars’ woke DEI standards

A letter protesting that Jews should be part of a minority representation requirement for an Oscar is right about antisemitism and Jewish erasure, but not about the new rules.

Oscar given at the Academy Awards. Credit: LanKS/Shutterstock.
Oscar given at the Academy Awards. Credit: LanKS/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Perhaps it took an atrocity like the Oct. 7 pogroms in Israel to cause them to speak up for themselves, but better late than never. An open letter protests the fact that new standards that will require films to pass diversity rules to include minorities in order to be considered for a Best Picture Oscar award that omits Jews and Jewish themes are “steeped in and misunderstands antisemitism.”

The letter, which was signed by more than 260 Jews in the entertainment industry, including well-known actors like Mayim Bialik, Ginnifer Goodwin, Debra Messing, Juliana Margulies, Bret Gelman, Michael Rapaport and David Schwimmer, eloquently denounces the erasure of Jewish identity except when Jews are depicted as assimilated in much of American pop culture. And it correctly notes that a standard of inclusion that elevates certain minority groups, though specifically excludes Jews, “erases Jewish peoplehood and perpetuates myths of Jewish whiteness, power, and that racism against Jews is not a major issue or that it’s a thing of the past.”

Their willingness to demand recognition of Jewish identity is particularly timely at a moment when, in the aftermath of the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, the United States is experiencing a surge in antisemitism. They’ve highlighted the fact that the set of inclusivity standards adopted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the body responsible for the annual Oscar awards—ignores Jews and the plague of antisemitism, even as it supposedly promotes sensitivity to prejudice. In doing so, the signees pointed out the problematic new rules that will determine eligibility for the prestigious honor that is the pinnacle of the movie business.

While their letter makes a lot of important points about what is wrong with the standards that will apply to movies made in 2024, it also fails to understand the real problem with them. The issue with the inclusivity rules is not that it doesn’t list Jews alongside African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other approved minorities. It’s that they exist at all. Injecting the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into Oscar eligibility is itself fundamentally flawed, whether or not the Jews are mentioned.

Racial quotas have no place in the movies

The Oscars have always been as much about commerce and inside Hollywood politics as artistic excellence. But shoehorning divisive quotas that demand that certain types of people or themes be a part of every film production isn’t about correcting past injustices or making the industry more open to diverse ideas and people. Instead, it’s a reflection of the way the arts world is in thrall to toxic left-wing ideas that are transforming the movies from a form of popular entertainment into an exercise in politically correct virtue-signaling. Racial or ethnic quotas of any kind have no place in the movies or any other form of artistic expression. The idea of mandating them in awards turns the entire concept of artistic merit on its head.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask for anyone actually working in an industry where even the mildest hint of conservatism is not just unfashionable but a death sentence for a career to push back against the imposition of DEI on the Oscars. Though the letter from these Jewish artists is well-intentioned, their preferred solution is both unrealistic and wouldn’t solve the problem that woke quotas are creating not just in the movies but throughout society.

Demanding that Jews be accepted as a recognized minority beset by prejudice and hatred makes sense if you are paying attention to a post-Oct. 7 world in which antisemitism has come out of the shadows and is now openly expressed in the streets, on college campuses and as part of mainstream discourse. The shameless manner in which so-called progressives call for the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet and advocate terrorism against Jews is shocking. But it’s the product of the same woke mindset that has created DEI mandates in academia, the business world as well as the federal government.

The diversity and inclusion rules demanded by DEI are strictly limited to approved minorities labeled people of color and who are assumed to be oppressed by those with “white” privilege. The equity it mandates is the polar opposite of equal opportunity for all, but rather a demand for racial quotas that would supersede merit. In the woke mindset, the volume of antisemitic invective or even violent incidents going on now or in the past doesn’t matter. The neo-Marxist frame of reference divides the world into two immutable groups of powerful white oppressors and powerless victims of color forever locked in conflict. And since the left thinks of Jews as white—even though they come in all colors, with most Israeli Jews tracing their origins to Arab lands in the Middle East and North Africa—they are defined as part of the oppressor class that must be defeated under any and all circumstances.

This is madness, especially since the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t about race or ethnicity. But it’s why the left instinctually supports even genocidal Hamas terrorists against democratic Israel. And it’s also why they cling to the antisemitic myths the Jewish artists complain about.

Jews and Hollywood

It’s true that Jews have been powerful figures in Hollywood and the arts since the beginning of the film industry in the early 20th century. But as the letter notes, these founding fathers of the movies were primarily interested in assimilation and were committed to erasing or covering up their own identities, as well as any visible signs of Jewish life in their films. The only Jews depicted in the movies were people eagerly throwing off their faith and traditions.

That continues to this day with few films being made about Jews living Jewish lives other than those about the Holocaust. Observant Jews are still largely unwelcome in Hollywood, and negative Jewish stereotypes—such as the presence of a character in last year’s Oscar-winning “Everything Everywhere All At Once” of a stereotypical “Jewish American Princess” called only “Big Nose”—pop up from time to time. A straight line runs from that kind of thinking to the crude antisemitism expressed by someone like Kanye West.

That erasure was continued when the Academy opened a Los Angeles museum in 2021 about the movies that celebrated “diversity” in film but largely omitted any mention of the Jewish immigrants who founded the industry. At one point, nearly all of the major studios were run by Jewish men.

While Hollywood rallied around the cause of the Black Lives Matter movement, relatively few celebrities have been willing to brave the abuse of the Israel-bashing intersectional left to speak up in defense of the Jewish state even after the slaughter, torture and rape of Jews that took place on Oct. 7. The assumption among the fashionable left is that Jews “control” Hollywood as they did in the past and that they are a powerful group that must be humbled and cast aside to make way for diverse representations of approved minorities.

That’s why the willingness of even the minority of Jewish artists who signed the letter is an encouraging sign of a new self-assertiveness. Yet the letter is still clueless about the damage that faith in the new woke secular faith of DEI is doing to the country as a whole. What America needs isn’t more set-asides for particular groups, even if the Jews could be allotted a piece of the DEI grievance pie. That includes the notion that Jews should only be played by Jews—something that makes a mockery of the dramatic arts, which is, after all, about make-believe, not ethnic or racial quota set-asides.

Jews shouldn’t be erased any more than any other group. But the elevation of race and religious and/or ethnic origin above all other factors that DEI demands is antithetical to the fundamental values of American liberty articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. when he dreamed of a country in which people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

Those in the entertainment world should also understand that the fundamentally racist mindset that the woke DEI catechism demands also sounds a death knell for the creativity and artistic merit that the Oscars—for all of their commercialization—are supposed to represent. When politics imposes standards on the arts—as is the case in any totalitarian system, whether run by fascists, Nazis, Communists or today’s woke DEI commissars—artists and their work are always sacrificed on the altar of ideology.

Those speaking up for Jewish rights in Hollywood should stop clamoring for including Jews in the Oscars’ deeply misguided inclusivity standards. Instead, they should be demanding the scrapping of DEI—not just in the film awards but throughout society since it is this toxic ideology that is fueling the surge in antisemitism that they rightly lament.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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