Why Are There So Few Jews on British TV?

American representation of Jews on TV isn't perfect, but at least it exists.

I watch a lot of TV. According to my friends and family, probably too much. Most of the shows I watch are either British (I’ve lived in the U.K. my whole life) or American (you can’t avoid it, even if you don’t live in the U.S.). But while I’ve always been a TV devotee, my connection to Judaism and what it means to me is newer, one that is growing every day. And as I progress in my journey of exploring my own Jewish heritage, I’ve started to notice a very peculiar trend: There are no Jews on British TV screens.

Okay, no Jews might be a bit of a stretch, but there are certainly very few. In fact, when you compare major sitcoms that have been produced in the US to ones in the UK, representation of Jews and Jewish culture is majorly skewed. Specifically, I’m referring to the lack of Jewish characters and representation of Jewish culture — there are plenty of British Jewish actors, they just rarely actually play Jews.

Let’s take the example of probably one of the biggest sitcoms in America (and worldwide): “Friends.” Although it isn’t always explicitly talked about, Monica and Ross’ Jewishness isn’t hidden either. It’s just an element to their characters, and the setup for a great holiday episode. In fact, most American comedies that center around a group usually includes at least one Jew: “New Girl,” “The Big Bang Theory,” “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Girls”… the list is endless. You can feel however you’d like about these shows, but it’s undeniable that they all in some way acknowledge Judaism and Jewish living. It may not be explicit or super educational, but it’s there as a part of those characters’ lives and makes up some of their identity.

When thinking about British shows that have anything near equivalent representation — i.e., having at least one explicitly Jewish character — and are equally well-known, only one show comes to mind. “Friday Night Dinner” is hugely popular in the U.K., and its premise is of a family meeting every (you guessed it) Friday night for their Shabbat dinner in suburban North London. “Friday Night Dinner” is an outlier in British TV because it has explicitly Jewish characters and is centered around an important Jewish cultural tradition. Phrases from the show like “Shalommm Jackie” may have entered the British cultural consciousness, but it’s debatable how many British people could define the word “shalom.” In American shows the representation of Jewishness is quiet and understated but still consistent; their premise and comedy is not fixated on Jewish culture itself, it’s just that this culture is frequently part of the general mix of characters. Without “Friday Night Dinner” here in the U.K., there would basically be no explicit representation of Jews on popular mainstream TV at all.

But maybe this just reflects population differences? The estimated Jewish community is around 0.5% of the U.K.’s 67 million people, compared to America’s 2.4% of 333 million. However, this U.K. percentage is calculated based on the 2021 census, in which the only option for identifying as Jewish was under “religion.” There was no option for Jewish as a specific ethnic identity and because of this, nuances were inevitably overlooked both by people taking the census and people analyzing its results. Using myself as an example, I identify as being partly ethnically Jewish, and yet there are no categories that cover this, and so to the census this part of my identity is simply invisible. It doesn’t matter how much of an active part they play in local and wider British Jewish communities; in the census data, atheist Jews are not considered part of that 0.5%. There are many people who acknowledge their Jewish heritage or who participate in some aspect of Jewish culture but self-exclude from the census based on the assumption that Jewishness is purely religion-based. This inevitably means that when producers and creators sit in writers’ rooms and look at the general population, deciding who to represent, British Jews can be overlooked.

Representation matters: For Jews, it gives the opportunity to see characters in light, sitcom situations wherein their Jewishness forms, just as in real life, one important part of their identity. For non-Jews, it shows what being Jewish in today’s society actually looks like.

The impact of representation cuts deeper than just the characters we see on TV. It informs our awareness of other cultures and our ability to discuss issues and see people from these cultures as being real, whole beings with identities and opinions. Americans who grew up with “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Friends” or “New Girl” are used to Jews being common characters, with Jewishness being so present it’s not even really noteworthy. In British popular culture, Jews have such a minimal presence that the community isn’t really seen. With recorded antisemitic incidents in the U.K. in 2023 being almost double the number recorded in 2021, the need for better representation is clear. In times where hatred is generally motivated by fear and lack of knowledge, more Jewish characters and culture on screen is beneficial. Better representation also leads to better storytelling, with more nuanced characters being able to contribute to more poignant, impactful storylines. When Jews are in the population, but not on the screens, it makes it difficult for understanding and appreciation to flourish.

Is the American representation of Jews on TV perfect? Of course it isn’t, but it’s there, which is the first, very belated step British TV is still yet to take. Is U.K. popular culture’s lack of Jewish representation undermining its integrity? Well, I believe that it’s definitely limiting it — there’s no shortage of British Jewish actors, or British Jews in general, and diversity in all sectors of TV can only push it further. Am I still watching too much TV? Absolutely, but writing this has been a great excuse to do so, and until Jews are given a place on British televisions as rounded, whole characters that are unapologetically Jewish, I will carry on trawling through everything there is to watch, waiting for that day.

Jess Clayton

Jess Clayton (she/her) is a politics and international relations student at the University of Sheffield (in the UK). Her favorite Jewish icons include Adam Sandler, the movie “Shiva Baby” and cream cheese bagels (she’s lactose intolerant). She's a 2023-2024 Hey Alma College Writing Fellow.

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