Oscar Buzz: The impact of “Inglourious Basterds” on the Jews

My upcoming cover story in The Jewish Journal will examine the cultural impact of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” on the Jews.  It will be posted online this week, and appear in the print edition next Thursday.  I spoke with Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth, Rabbis David Wolpe and Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dr. Michael Berenbaum and other scholars. 

Why shine a light on “Inglourious?” The movie marks a strikingly new depiction of Jews on screen. Off screen, Jews seem to have a cultural aversion to violence. They think of themselves as a people of the book, not the sword. But Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar nominated film “Inglourious Basterds” depicts a very different kind of Jew; a violent, vengeful and aggressive one. You might say, a Jew without a conflicted conscience.

Tied into an American Jewish identity as empowered and strong, buttressed by the image (and reality) of Israel, the Jew in “Basterds” is clearly a new kind of Jew.

Tarantino himself acknowledged to me that his conception of the post-Israel Jew might have informed characters that otherwise sprung from his imagination. I asked Tarantino what came to his mind when he thought of the word, “Israel,” and he shot back:  “Jewish homeland. Kick ass army.”

Israel or not, the movie taps into another buried truth about Jewish consciousness:  seriously, what Jew in their right mind is going to feel bad about killing Nazis? And Hitler? It’s the ultimate revenge fantasy fulfilled. Indeed, for many Jewish audiences, the experience of Tarantino’s film has tapped into a deep-seated Jewish rage, allowing Jews to act out violent impulses—even in fantasy—that they’ve been collectively repressing since the Holocaust.

“Every Jew I know has a tremendous sense of ‘if only I could have killed that basterd,’” Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum said about Hitler’s cinematic offing. “Wouldn’t any Jew love to be engaged in battle and be able to bring World War II to an end and Hitler to his demise? The fact that Hitler was able to kill himself was too good for the basterd.”

And yet, a morally unconflicted Jew (which, let’s face it, is highly unlikely) challenges Jewish self conception. That’s why the movie provoked long and fascinating discussions in special screenings before audiences of rabbis and other Jewish leaders in New York and LA. At a screening at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, Rabbi Marvin Hier deemed it “quite exciting” and “ingenious.

But others found it more problematic. Because, well, it isn’t traditionally Jewish: Jews are supposed to be uber-moral—God’s chosen—and God’s partners in the redemption of the world. So what happens when a big Hollywood movie makes obvious parallels between Jews and their killers, between Jews and terrorists? As Tarantino told me, “That’s exactly what they were. They were prepared to bring the building down as suicide bombers.”

The questions here pose the kind of moral challenge Jews revel in.  Is the Jew of Inglourious Basterds troubling, or ideal?

According to Gavriel Rosenfeld, author of “The World Hitler Never Made,” portraying Jews as violent and powerful could have consequences—mostly for Israel.

“If Jews are not going to be pristine, morally, ethically upright people and are instead, willing to use sadism and violence, that changes the moral calculus a little bit,” Rosenfeld, who is also an Associate Professor of History at Fairfield University said. “Maybe that changes the equation of how people perceive victims and perpetrators in the Middle East.”

If Jews get their revenge, then they have less claim to victimhood. Which means less sympathy for the many existential threats facing Israel. The way Rosenfeld puts it, “Jews have historically been accused of using the Holocaust to defend anything Israel does and making the world feel guilty for their inaction during Holocaust; but that guilt is dependent on Jews being in role of victims.”

Maybe so, but there are also benefits to the new, empowered Jew.

For one, the film puffed up the image of Jewish men. Before ‘Basterds’ a Jewish man was Woody Allen or Jerry Seinfeld—funny, nebbishy, but the antithesis of masculinity. 

Eli Roth, who plays The Bear Jew in the film, said, “It was time to redefine Jewish masculinity on film. That’s one of the reasons I hit the weights so hard; I wanted people to go, ‘Wow, Jews are tough!’”

To read the full story check back later this week and don’t miss our special Oscar issue, available in print March 5. To read more of my interview with Tarantino, click here.