Sunday 4 October 2020

Away with the Anti-Semitic Trope

Few things are more exciting than landing on Mars, right? It would be a stupendous technological achievement, the culmination of 60 years' worth of space exploration and a significant step to industrialising the solar system. Setting aside the superlatives, the sad truth is it's probably not great fodder for a Netflix televnovel. There's only so much that can be done with five people in a cramped tin can for six months. The latest Hilary Swank vehicle, Away, proves the point.

10 episodes of overwrought tedium was inevitable, I guess. And the producers of the show have tried getting around this in two ways. Moments of high tension, such as the ship's solar array failing to deploy necessitating a risky spacewalk, and the water reclaimation unit breaking down. Combine this with health issues suffered by our cast of astronauts, cosmonauts and taikonauts, such as space blindness and a nasty, infectious fever. The action is supplemented by family dramas back on terra firma. Hilary's hubby suffers a stroke and spends the season rehabilitating, keeping him away from his very important job at ground control. And her 15-year-old daughter pseudo-rebels by getting a boyfriend, riding dirt bikes and, whisper it, having sex with him. Going for much complex emotional content, one of Hilary's fellow astronauts confesses to having feelings for her just as her friend admits to having the hots for hubby to, um, hubby. Being good Americans of fine moral standing, both spurn the advances. I guess adultery on top of under age sex was too much for the showrunners.

The show does have a handful of commendable features. The production values are very high and they pull off weightlessness convincingly. The crew is fittingly multinational (American, Indian, Russian, Chinese, British) and multi-ethnic. All characters are three-dimensional, with the taikonaut Lu Wang refusing to conform to the wooden stereptypes afflicting Chinese characters. And in line with the wave of woman-led drama the place of women at all levels of the space programme is acknowledged - a far cry from the (admittedly period) Apollo 13 and the pre-2010s centering of men in science fiction programming. Laudable as all this is, it doesn't make Away any good. The space bits are too hackneyed and predictable, and the human interest stories tiresome. Though very different, The Expanse shows both can be fruitfully combined.

Yet there is something else about Away that cannot escape comment: an egregious anti-semitic trope that could not simply be coincidence. In episode five, Space Dogs, Misha, the Russian cosmonaut, attempts to reconcile with his daughter by putting on a puppet show for his grandkids back on Earth. Roped in to assist is Kwesi, the English-Ghanaian botonist. It just so happens Kwasi was raised by, and identifies with his Jewish adoptive parents. Okay, coincidence then? But when you consider Misha is played by Mark Ivanir, an Israeli actor, it starts looking a bit suss. Put it like this: they got the one Jewish character and the one Jewish actor to play at puppeteering. This is underlined in the final episode, Home. At ground control Kwasi's mum turns up in the family room in anticipation of the touchdown. There she is greeted by another character as, um, the "mother of the puppet master."

Hyper sensitivity thanks to recent history? Possibly, but it does seem too much of a coincidence to have these two characters do a puppet show and one of them, in the absence of relevant context, being referred to in terms of a well worn anti-semitic trope. So, as well as junking the opportunity for producing a decent drama, Away carries a big racist question mark with it.

Image Credit


Shai Masot said...

It is antisemitic, under the IHRA working definition to use a hyphen when refering to antisemitism.

Blissex said...

It is possible to see antisemitism everywhere, but then I wonder why Stephen Kinnock has not net been expelled immediately from New New Labour after declaring:

we condemn violence in all its forms. Whether it is Hamas launching rockets, or the IDF bombarding Gaza or bulldozing Bedouin villages to make way for illegal settlements, we oppose any and all actions that lead to the death and destruction that have so tragically come to define this conflict. [...] But Israel’s consistent flouting of UN resolutions and the Fourth Geneva Convention has undermined the rules-based order for decades, and the international community can no longer look the other way.

Jim Denham said...

Shia Masot: I followed your link and found that your claim that "It is antisemitic, under the IHRA working definition to use a hyphen when refering to antisemitism" is simply not true. Actually, I knew that anyway, just as I'm sure you do.

Here's what is stated on the IHRA site you've linked to:

"The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) would like to address the spelling of the term 'antisemitism', often rendered as ‘anti-Semitism’. IHRA’s concern is that the hyphenated spelling allows for the possibility of something called ‘Semitism’, which not only legitimizes a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology, but also divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews.

"The philological term ‘Semitic’ referred to a family of languages originating in the Middle East whose descendant languages today are spoken by millions of people mostly across Western Asia and North Africa. Following this semantic logic, the conjunction of the prefix ‘anti’ with ‘Semitism’ indicates antisemitism as referring to all people who speak Semitic languages or to all those classified as ‘Semites’. The term has, however, since its inception referred to prejudice against Jews alone.

"In the mid-nineteenth century, the derived construct ‘Semite’ provided a category to classify humans based on racialist pseudo-science. At the same time the neologism ‘antisemitism’, coined by German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879 to designate anti-Jewish campaigns, was spread through use by anti-Jewish political movements and the general public. The modern term gained popularity in Germany and Europe incorporating traditional Christian anti-Judaism, political, social and economic anti-Jewish manifestations that arose during the Enlightenment in Europe, and a pseudo-scientific racial theory that culminated in Nazi ideology in the twentieth century. Although the historically new word only came into common usage in the nineteenth century, the term antisemitism is today used to describe and analyze past and present forms of opposition or hatred towards Jews. In German, French, Spanish and many other languages, the term was never hyphenated.

"The unhyphenated spelling is favored by many scholars and institutions in order to dispel the idea that there is an entity ‘Semitism’ which ‘anti-Semitism’ opposes. Antisemitism should be read as a unified term so that the meaning of the generic term for modern Jew-hatred is clear. At a time of increased violence and rhetoric aimed towards Jews, it is urgent that there is clarity and no room for confusion or obfuscation when dealing with antisemitism."