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Jewish Top 10s: Villains

For this week's list, we look at some of the most complicated and unsettling Jewish antagonists in literature, film, and television; warning, this is not a list about Jewish heroes

By: Zak Edwards
Published: November 22nd, 2013 in News » World

Welcome to Jewish Top 10s, where we compile lists that highlight the best and the brightest of everything yehudi, from delicious recipes to funniest actors, to most obnoxious Jewish wedding songs.

For our list this week, we thought it would be interesting to look at famous Jewish villains, characters who are explicitly Jewish and also antagonists. Of course, Jews have been prominently featured in literature, movies, comics, and everything else for decades, and this doesn’t mean they have been portrayed fairly. Even now, Jewish characters can be reduced to a series of stereotypes, lacking nuance beyond not celebrating Christmas and being lawyers, bankers, or generally people controlling money. (See the Smurfs villian: Gargamel).

But this list also gives us a chance to look at some of history’s most compelling villains, both within the prejudices they may embody and how they break out and become interesting beyond a few stereotypes. Of course, we are not glorifying these villains in any way, but simply ranking them based on their respective impacts on culture.

A word of caution, some of these characters were developed by suspected anti-Semites; while we are in no way condoning their actions, we are aware of the influence these characters have had on literature, and as such, make mention of them on this list.

So, without further ado, here is Shalom Life’s Top Ten Jewish Villains, spots and all:

TOP TEN

10.


Who: Maurice Levy (Portrayed by Michael Kostroff)

From: The Wire

Created by: David Simon, 2002

The Wire is often hailed as the greatest television show of all time, not unlike Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Unlike Buffy, though, The Wire is hailed for its realistic portrayal of the drug trade in Baltimore, and how the establishments used to prevent or combat crime are often paralyzed by individual interests and neo-liberal agendas. Using the serialized format to tell a large, overarching story, The Wire is unwavering in its condemnation and critique of nearly every aspect of the United States in the years following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

While almost every character in The Wire is portrayed as both sympathetic and awful, mob lawyer Maurice Levy is never given such treatment; from start to finish, the crooked lawyer is depicted as a self-serving man purposefully keeping murderers and drug dealers on the streets while extorting them for money.

What makes Levy so dangerous is how he can manipulate the system to aid people who should be brought to justice using back channels, connections, and blackmail to obstruct the justice system, making him almost more dangerous than the men he protects. Series creator David Simon, himself a Jew, has defended his choice to make the character Jewish because of his own experience in Baltimore. “When I was covering the drug trade for 13 years for the [Baltimore] Sun,” Simon has said, “most of the major drug lawyers were Jewish… If I have people from every other tribe in Baltimore portrayed negatively, everyone is maligned in some way, how can I not do that to the Jewish guy? How can I pull that punch?”

9.


Who: Harley Quinn

From: Batman: The Animated Series

Created by: Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, 1992

Dr. Harleen Francis Quinzell was a psychologist working at Arkham Asylum who became obsessed with her patient, The Joker, until she became a formidable supervillain in her own right. Known for her thick, comedic Brooklyn accent and penchant for oversized hammers, Harley Quinn is one of Batman’s most popular villains.

Surprisingly, Harley Quinn did not come from the Batman comics, but from the nineties animated TV show Batman: The Animated Series. Originally appearing in the 1992 episode “Joker’s Favor,” she started out as the Joker’s lovestruck sidekick, desperate for The Joker’s love despite his total inability to reciprocate her feelings. Since then, Harley has been a mainstay in both comics and TV, and is featured prominently in the Batman: Arkham games.

Often seen as The Joker’s helper, Harley has gradually distanced herself from her dear old “Mr. J,” allying herself with plenty of Batman’s other villains and even being a good guy on occasion, if the mood suits her. Currently, she is part of the Suicide Squad, a group of villains who are coerced into doing dangerous missions for the United States government, and is going to star in her own series this month, a testament to her ongoing popularity.

8.


Who: Svengali

From: Trilby

Created by: George Du Maurier, 1895

Svengali is yet another classic example of anti-Semitism that has persisted in many various forms for centuries, taking stereotypes of Jews and putting them on villains. In this instance, Svengali’s Jewishness is an essential part of how he seduces, dominates and exploits Trilby, a young English girl, and makes her into a famous singer.

The promise of fame and talent is actually a much older story, usually called the Deal with the Devil, and is reportedly how famous blues musician Robert Johnson learned how to play the guitar, but Du Maurier’s novel moves the role of the devil into a Jew who is adept at hypnosis. The character is so pervasive that Svengali is now a term used to describe people who dominate, control and manipulate a creative person with evil intentions.

Like Fagin, another Jewish character from 19th century literature, Svengali is deceitful and manipulative, able to play off the weaknesses of his victims through promises of escape from their miserable conditions. The character is frequently replicated throughout history, but often divorced from any explicit Jewish heritage. The sentiment, however, is hard to ignore.

7.


Who: Le Chiffre

From: James Bond

Created by: Ian Fleming, 1953

Ian Fleming’s treatment of Jews in his popular James Bond series is not exactly sympathetic, the Forward published an excellent article on Flemings anti-Semitic characters where they say that “most of the 13 original Bond books made a point of disparaging Jews, a feature that was purged from the film versions.” Le Chiffre, like many of Fleming’s villains, is of mixed ethnicity, with “large lobes, indicating some Jewish blood.” Compared with the English racial purity of hero James Bond, Fleming’s characters read like foreign threats just as the sun was beginning to set on the British Empire.

Le Chiffre is an accomplished gambler, war profiteer, and brothel financier who famously plays poker against Bond in his very first adventure. Played by Peter Lorre, Orson Welles, and most recently Mads Mikkelsen in 2006’s Casino Royale, Le Chiffre is a quintessential Bond villain: charming, brutal, suave, and diabolical. Of course, those are traits that could also be easily applied to Bond himself.

6.


Who: Barabas the Jew

From: The Jew of Malta

Created by: Christopher Marlowe, 1590

The Jew of Malta tells the story of Barabas, a man wronged by Christians who then goes on a campaign of vengeance and murder, manipulating and deceiving those around him in a singular vision of revenge. Like Shylock, the source of Barabas’ anger and need for vengeance can be traced back to the unfair treatment of Jews, in this case their inability to speak out against their own persecution.

Barabas is a master manipulator, playing people against each other and rising in power until he controls the entire city of Malta through back dealings and deft negotiation. Not so much a warrior than a strategist, Barabas fights for himself and is unafraid of whom he uses to accomplish his goals. Barabas even uses his own daughter to get his chief rivals to duel each other, resulting in both their deaths.

But, also like Shylock, Barabas is quick to show how he learned his intolerance and ruthlessness from Christian example. In one memorable speech, he says:

“Your father has deserv'd it at my hands,

Who, of mere charity and Christian ruth,

To bring me to religious purity,

And, as it were, in catechising sort,

To make me mindful of my mortal sins,

Against my will, and whether I would or no,

Seiz'd all I had, and thrust me out o' doors.”

Barabas is both a stereotype and a warning against the consequences of persecution and, for that, he remains a powerful figure in contemporary villainy.

Continue reading on Page 2 for our Top 5 Jewish Villains

Related articles: Jewish Top 10s, Villains, The Wire, Harley Quinn, Batman, James Bond, Ian Fleming, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Shakespeare, X-Men, Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
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