Superman, Batman, Captain America, the X-Men — Jewish creators have been responsible for some of the most visible and beloved heroes in pop culture. Yet, heroes and superheroes in pop culture are rarely openly Jewish themselves. Iconic representations of Jewish people are much more likely to portray them as victims, in need of saving, than they are to portray them as saviors. Jews elsewhere in pop culture are stereotypically neurotic, weak and nerdy. Those presuppositions are strong enough that even when Jewish actors such as Gal Gadot or Scarlett Johansson or Jon Bernthal portray heroes, those heroes are presented as canonically not Jewish.
Iconic representations of Jewish people are much more likely to portray them as victims, in need of saving, than they are to portray them as saviors.
There have been a couple of exceptions. Magneto, a Holocaust survivor, is often a villain, but he's been portrayed as a hero in recent X-Men films. Jewish actor Ezra Miller quips about his character, the Flash, being Jewish in the 2017 “Justice League” film. The movies "Inglourious Basterds" and "Defiance" both feature heroic Jewish people killing Nazis. And so does the new Amazon series "Hunters."
Created by David Weil, "Hunters" is set in the late 1970s. It follows Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a young New York comic book nerd whose grandmother is mysteriously murdered. Jonah soon discovers that his beloved "safta" was a determined Nazi hunter, who tracked down refugees from the Third Reich hiding and plotting in America. Jonah soon connects with Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino) and a team of Nazi fighters Offerman recruited using a Jewish matchmaker, (one of the series' better gags.)
The Nazi conspiracy plot is familiar from Cold War pulp fiction like Robert Ludlum's "The Holcroft Covenant" or Ira Levin's infamous Hitler clone saga "The Boys From Brazil." Geeky bullied genius Jonah and wealthy eccentric Meyer do not exactly shatter any molds either, as far as Jewish representation goes. Most frustrating for some critics, the depiction of the Holocaust is also Hollywoodized with camp commanders portrayed as super villains who kill people in fiendish — and ahistorical — ways. The Auschwitz museum has specifically criticized a fictionalized scene involving a human chess tournament.
And the series is wearisomely committed, in typical pulp fashion, to the idea that torturing someone for information is effective and justified. "Hunters" is well-acted and engagingly written, but it's not ground-breaking.
And yet, there's an undeniable exhilaration in seeing Jewish characters — with a diverse set of allies — fight fascism directly. Jonah occasionally has to be saved by other Jewish people, but he's not just hanging around waiting for a Nazi industrialist or a Christian zookeeper to keep him safe. Rather than a celebration of the special Christian white person who did the right thing, the series is about how Jewish people and others under threat, including black people, Asian people and queer women of color, organize to protect themselves despite the indifference, or outright enmity, of those in power.
Jonah frequently references Batman and other superheroes, and though they have no costumes or superpowers, the hunters are consciously positioned as "real life f------- Jewper heroes" — inheritors of the capes and masks handed down by those Jewish creators of yore. The series doesn't so much turn heroism Jewish, as it gives all those historical caped crusaders back the Jewishness that commercial considerations kept them from acknowledging.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the series is the way that it insists that if you want to learn about fascism, you should listen to the people who are targeted by fascism. The first, and most affecting, scene of the series is set at the house party of a powerful U.S. government official. A Jewish guest recognizes the man as an infamous Nazi, and has an understandable, and terrifying, breakdown. The other guests, including even her husband, don't believe her — which results in the the worst possible outcome for everyone.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the series is the way that it insists that if you want to learn about fascism, you should listen to the people who are targeted by fascism.
"The greatest gift of the Jewish people is to remember," Meyer Offerman says. But the series suggests that the real talent of Jewish and other marginalized people is to be able to live open-eyed in the present. Nazis in "Hunters" are everywhere. The authorities neither see them, nor are interested in seeing them. It's up to marginalized people to point them out and track them down. "Hunters" even provides a fake infomercial on how to identify Nazis near you, hosted by an adorable young black girl who points out, as a helpful tip, that while not all white people are Nazis, the vast majority of Nazis are white people. (Such surreal tidbits serve as reminders that the series was created by Jordan Peele.)
As a Jewish viewer, it is satisfying to watch Jewish people get to kill the Nazis themselves, directly, rather than having to be rescued by gentiles. But what I appreciated most about the show is the way it understands that heroism is most important as epistemology. Heroes, in pulp, are the people who identify the villains; they're the ones who can separate sheep from goats, right from wrong.
The U.S. government did facilitate the immigration of hundreds of Nazi scientists. But we don't actually have thousands of war criminals from Hitler's Germany living among us, plotting a new “Fourth Reich.” We do, however, have plenty of homegrown racists, fascists and anti-Semites — including, some would argue, in our government. Who gets to point them out? Who is allowed to resist them? Whose warnings should be listened to? In most of our pop culture, up to now, Jews weren’t the ones supposed to lead the charge. "Hunters" offers a welcome change.