Moses Was a Jew: Erasive Anti-Jewish Racism and The Greatest Jewish Hero

The British production of the Prince of Egypt musical cast non- Jews to play some of the most important figures in Jewish history…but claim they’re promoting diversity.

Yesterday, I found myself in a Youtube rabbit hole and as it’s currently Pesach I clicked on a video titled, ‘The Prince of Egypt in the West End | “When You Believe” performance’. As a huge fan of the original film (which I watched after Seder on Saturday) I excitedly clicked on the link.

As I watched the performance, my first question was whether these actors were Jewish? The importance of Pesach as a fundamental Jewish story is clearly fresh in my mind and I was curious as to whether these actors, portraying some of the most important people in our history were Jews. Through some research I found the actor (Luke Brady) playing Moses was not a Jew, nor was the actor playing Miryam (Alexia Khadime).

This fact irked me, but I found that this feeling turned to dismay when I learned that the musical in the West End was praised for ‘diversity’. Michael McCabe, the producer of the British Production, stated in a Guardian interview:

“We all went into it feeling very strongly that the show … should be a true reflection of our society. That it was about now as much as it was about being authentic to the time the story is set. This show needs to resonate with all audiences, and it cannot achieve that if what you are seeing is not a mirror of all of us.”

For McCabe to prioritise diversity over authenticity in this specific case is very frustrating, particularly when casting Jews to play Moses, Miryam and others would have been a twinning of both authenticity and diversity. Regardless of the talent of the performers, it is not, as what was bafflingly suggested in a Jewish Renaissance review of the production, ‘pitch-perfect casting.’

Let us be crystal clear, as I detailed in The Case for Anti-Jewish Racism, Jews are an ethnic minority. There are only 14.7 million of us in the world and we are one of the most continuously persecuted people in the history of mankind. We are in desperate need of positive representation. We have been maligned and murdered, demonised and denigrated since time began. To erase us from our own story by prioritising a narrow perception of diversity over authenticity as opposed to marrying these ideas by casting Jews to play Jewish historical figures is not progress, is a shining example of Erasive anti-Jewish racism.

The Exodus story is one of the most famous stories ever told, but it is a Jewish story. It is the story of Jewish liberation and the journey to Jewish self-determination. It is the story of the unifying of Jews as a distinct people with our own land. Last weekend, Jewish people all over the world commemorated this story like we do every single year with the holiday of Pesach. We gathered around the table with our families and we conducted the same ceremony we have for generations. We say the same prayers and sing the same songs. As we are instructed during the Seder, we remember our journey from slavery in Egypt to liberation. This is our story.

Of course, non-Jewish people can be inspired by or even feel connected to elements of this story but to remove Jews from it is erasive. Michael McCabe erased us from our own story. In his search for diversity, he failed to realise that to cast Jews as figures central to Jewish history would have been a triumph of authenticity and diversity.

McCabe’s decision seemingly came about due to the American production of Prince of Egypt being criticised for being too white (which is also an example of Erasive Anti-Jewish racism). We also saw this in other productions. When discussing the casting of the Australian production, John Tiffany, the Director, stated, ‘“I never want to drop what kind of quota of diversity we have got. I think it’s really important that we say: no, we need that number of non-white actors in this cast.’ But clearly, as David Baddiel recently wrote, Jews don’t count.

This was not the only time that Moses’ Jewishness was erased. In September 2020, Adnan Mahmutovic wrote an article titled Black Moses Matters which attempts to combat anti-Black racism in Mahmutovic’s Muslim community. In it, he too erases the Jewishness of one of the most important Jewish figures in history. He attempts to prove that Moses was a Black man but his Jewishness was not referenced, not even once. Describing Moses as Black does not inherently erase his Jewishness, as we know, there are many Black Jews who are an important part of our Peoplehood. However, this is not a conversation on whether Moses was a Black Jew, it is a conversation that ultimately erases Moses’ Jewishness. It erases the realities that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East which would have been reflected in Moses’ appearance. In short, he was a Jew living long before Jews were expelled from our indigenous homeland and how he looked would have reflected this reality.

It is true that the original 1998 film featured an almost exclusively non-Jewish cast. We have Val Kilmer playing Moses and Sandra Bullock playing Miryam . Neither of these people are Jewish. Importantly, Ofra Haza, the legendary Jewish singer, does provide some of the soundtrack, although she doesn’t voice a character. The film was released in 1998 when these issues were not understood in the same way they are today. However, a musical production produced in this era when we clearly understand the importance of diversity should have done better. The reality is that the 1998 film has never claimed to be a beacon of representation, whereas, the current musical is being touted as just that.

Clearly, Michael McCabe did not purposefully exclude Jews from this production. However, due to the prevalence of Erasive anti-Jewish racism he seemingly didn’t even consider us.

In many ways, Erasive anti-Jewish racism is rooted in the Dominant Narrative Theory. This proposes that a dominant narrative acts as an “invisible hand” that guides societal perceptions of reality. In the western world, the dominant narrative on prejudice, due to concepts such as Critical Race Theory, is prejudice based on skin colour and specifically (although not exclusively) anti-Black racism. So, when Michael McCabe wants to create a diverse cast for his new musical, his cultural markers of prejudice and issues that require addressing are related only to the colour of his cast’s skin. The cultural domination of one form of prejudice over others is rooted in the idea of an Oppression Olympics and ultimately leaves other at-risk minorities fighting to be heard. In this case, Michael McCabe engaged in Erasive anti-Jewish racism and prioritised his specific idea of diversity based on the dominant narrative of prejudice over authenticity and diversity in the telling of this Jewish story.

All minorities should be given the platform to creatively express their own stories. Would it be appropriate for a white British woman to play Celie, a Black American, in the Colour Purple? No, it would not. When Emma Stone — a white American — was cast as a character of mixed Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish descent there was outrage. She even apologised for this at the 2019 Golden Globes.

In the 2019 version of Aladdin, it was decided that an Egyptian man — Mena Massoud — would play Aladdin, a character from the Middle East. This was an actual triumph of diverse and authentic casting. Massoud was given the opportunity to tell a story about people from the part of the world where he was born. This same standard of authenticity, diversity and respect should have been applied to the Prince of Egypt: The Musical.

The casting of Prince of Egypt: The Musical could have been a moment of triumph for diversity. It could have been a production that represented Jewish people and diversity, because Jews are a diverse People. Imagine how deeply moving it would have been for Jewish people to see a musical based on our history and founding myths that actually featured a Jew playing of the most significant Jewish figures in history.

The casting of a non-Jewish group of actors to play some of the most important figures in Jewish history is not a triumph of diversity. It is yet another expression of Erasive anti-Jewish racism. All forms of prejudice are oppressive, they’re institutional and do very real damage to those who are persecuted by it. We cannot allow binary ideas of prejudice to lead to the erasure and elimination of minority groups who already suffer at the hands of culturally ingrained bigotry. Jews deserve better. We deserve to be given a platform to authentically tell our own stories. We deserve to be counted in the concept of diversity. We deserve to be seen. We all deserve to be seen.

Ben M. Freeman is a Jewish educator and author of Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People.