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Jewish World Review August 20, 2007 / 6 Elul, 5767

Does ‘Law and Order’ have a Jewish problem?

By Elliot B. Gertel


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With the new TV season starting, a look back at one of the most successful franchises on the air. Will this season be different?


JewishWorldReview.com | It's amazing how many Law and Order episodes of 2006-2007, some within weeks of the start of that TV season, could be interpreted as offering very shady Jewish characters. Consider these broadcasts and decide for yourself.


I. When a policeman is killed in his own building while responding to a burglary in the basement apartment, investigations yield the possibility that the murder, which left a young, pregnant widow, was committed to protect the reputation of a celebrity.


A gossip columnist named Adam Stein (a Gentile, maybe?), played by Geoffrey Cantor, has some information that may explain the robbery, but refuses to reveal his source. The prosecutors warn him that he is a gossip columnist and not a reporter, but he will not budge, at least for a day or so. Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) sees that Stein is jailed for contempt. Yet Molloy is certain that Stein will not remain loyal to his principles. Hours later Molloy tells a contrite Stein: "I bet you'd hold out six hours, yet here we are at four." Stein gives up the name right away of someone who tipped him off to the existence of a photo of the actress snorting cocaine when she was nine months pregnant. It was that photo for which the robber had been ransacking the basement apartment when confronted by the policeman.


In addition to his low threshold for standing up for principle, Stein makes inappropriate cracks about Latinas to a policewoman of Hispanic background and attempts to bribe and to taunt Molloy with photographs of his estranged daughter, with whom Molloy has had no contact in nine years. What is writer Nicholas Wootton trying to tell us about this "Jewish" columnist?


II. On Law and Order: Criminal Intent, it looks like a married man, a fireman, has been stabbed multiple times in a "gay rage murder" by his homosexual lover. When detectives Mike Logan (Chris Noth) and Megan Wheeler (Julianne Nicholson) relate their suspicions to their firefighting colleagues, an ugly, violent brawl erupts between the police and the firemen.


A similar murder that occurred several years before is discovered. The victim was a John T. Hoffman who visited Manhattan frequently from Philadelphia, also a married man. "Hoffman" may or may not have been intended to be a Jewish name, but what about "Steven Grubman" (Dennis Paladino)? Grubman is an "old school" cop living in comfortable retirement in quiet Rockland County, for whom the captain has no respect and of whom he says, "Don't tell him I say 'hi.'"


Detective Logan tells his young female partner to "play young." He knows that Grubman will feel superior to her because she is young and a woman, and that he will thus be more likely to spill the beans about classifying a case as solved without making an arrest and then relying on a baseless jail house confession to remove the case from investigation.


Writers Dick Wolf, Rene Balcer, and Jacquelyn Reingold let Grubman describe his "policing" methods: "We opened a drawer, pulled out an old case, and we solved it." After all, he rationalizes, in the early 90s they had a load of 200 homicide cases a year, so why give extra time to "some guy" who "gets stabbed on a pier." As the detectives leave Grubman, the female rookie protests, "This bum is sitting on a pension for life." Is he intended to be a Jewish bum?


III. In an obvious case of art imitating life, Law and Order dedicated itself to the saga of an exploding townhouse in Manhattan that points to the ire of an ex-husband unwilling to fulfill court-ordered payments to the woman to whom he was married for twenty years. Based on a 2006 news event, this episode introduces an added element, and an unsettling one at that, namely, the death of an eight-year-old named Jenna Wechsler (a Jewish name?) The man who, as is gradually discovered, set off the explosion, also has a Jewish name, Miles Schaffner.


We learn that until he planned the explosion, Mr. Schaffner (Emmet Lunney) was one of the idle rich, living off family money and comfortable doing so until divorce expenses severely depleted his funds. The ex-wife, Rosalie complains to the police, "He was born a spoiled, selfish kid and he stayed that way." It is clear that Rosalie is Jewish. Her father, a Mr. Kaskell (Frank Biancamano) refers to his ex-son-in-law as a "putz," and that is as deep as the "Jewish" language and vocabulary get, except for a later reference to acquiring incriminating information in a way that is "not kosher." The ex father-in-law does say that he admired Schaffner's father, "a real get your hands dirty kind of guy." So at least there are dead Jews here who are admired, if even in a (literally) backhanded way.


For a while it looks like a disgruntled environmentalist may have wanted to fry Schaffner after hearing that the latter might sell some rare pristine Brooklyn land to developers in order to pay his wife's alimony. The president of the Brooklyn Chapter of "Green People" is another Jew, Michael Kaplan (Michael Tisdale), who is angry and erratic and even throws a bucket of dirt on a construction worker. Kaplan is condescending to the police officer: "O.K. I'm going to use really simple sentences for you. No earth, no people." When the latter tells him that "murder is also an offense against nature, Kaplan responds, "That depends on who's getting murdered."


In this episode written by Michael S. Chernuchin, the Jews who don't commit murder are even more obnoxious than those that do and their ex wives.


IV. In an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit about a young girl and her mother being raped and murdered, Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) is shocked to find that a homeless man picked up as a suspect is his own uncle, Andrew Munch (Jerry Lewis), whom he believed to be safe in a Florida independent living condo. It seems that Uncle Andrew set off from his condo four months before to visit his crime-solving nephew. But beset by a rare dementia due to depression, Uncle Andrew became a homeless man in a park who was one of the last to see the little girl, a sweet and kind child who would bring him food.


We quickly learn that Uncle Andrew is not the killer. While on prescribed medicines that control his dementia but induce in him a manic state, he goes after the prime murder suspect and disposes of him in a most shocking way. Though not charged with the crime because of his condition, which precipitated a "psychotic break," and despite promising opportunities for drug treatment and for resuming a productive life, Andrew Munch allows himself to be overwhelmed by some excessive guilt ("Jewish" guilt?) which is annoying to the viewers and to his nephew. He is described by one of the characters as a prisoner within his own mind. "I was responsible," writer Dawn DeNoon has him say. "I gotta pay for what I did." So this Jewish character becomes, at least for now, prime time's Father Guilt. Worse yet, Jerry Lewis imitates Jackie Gleason's "Gigot" character and the "I donno" man on the old Jack Benny Program in a pedestrian performance.


V. In an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent, a Pakistani American young woman, a college filmmaker, witnesses angry New Yorkers attacking (probably illegal) Hispanic workers with bats and even a chain saw. She captures this on film and later turns up dead. Our police investigators track down the angry young men. They turn out to be Orthodox Jews who blame illegal workers for running down a Jewish woman and her baby on the way to the synagogue. These Orthodox youth appear to be quite racist in their hatreds; the illegal workers, in contrast, speak of "three white boys," not of "three Jews" (but maybe because their attackers wore baseball and ski caps).


These Jews are liars. A young man wearing a kippah falsely denies recognizing the slain college student. Then he admits that they chased her before rushing to the J.C.C. (The Jewish Community Center is gratuitously brought into this.) After all, "We teach Hebrew." The officer pipes in, "Your rabbi gonna back you up." The response is, "Of course." The young Orthodox man protests, "We didn't hurt the Mexicans or that Arab girl. [Actually, she was Pakistani, but the writer wants us to think that to these Jews, "they" are all Arabs.] We just want these people out of our neighborhood before they kill more of our children."


Our officers must admit that these Jewish boys have "no priors" and "even pay their parking tickets on time." Still, Detective Mike Logan (Chris Noth) remarks, "Three upstanding racist Orthodox Jews." This labeling is not his only unprofessional behavior. He intimidates the young man physically by smashing down his fist near the latter's fingers. The police captain, Danny Ross (Eric Bogosian), who is Jewish, is not the least bit indignant over such behavior. He chimes in, "In Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the country." Another officer, a female adds, "I guess that makes them even more xenophobic." The captain makes a point of adding that the place of the murder, the Unisphere, was built for the 1964 World's Fair to symbolize the theme of peace through understanding.


Here, the "them" are Orthodox Jews. One wonders what writers Jacquelyn Reingold, Warren Leight and Julie Martin were thinking. If this were not such a gratuitous and serious defamation, the episode could be a joke: How many Jewish writers does it take to depict young Orthodox Jews as the biggest hate-mongers among Archie Bunkers of other ethnic groups? Granted, there are Pakistani and Italian Archie Bunkers depicted here, one of them murderous. Even if this were "fact-based" (and I recall no such headlines), our writers have gone out of their way to demonize young Orthodox Jews and even to jeopardize the good relations that are essential between the Jewish and Hispanic communities.


VI. Law and Order did not stop at fomenting tensions between Jews and Hispanics. It had to set Jews against young African Americans. In an episode written by Matthew McGough, an African American rapper named Clarisse James ("Sweet Clarisse") is found dead. At first the police suspect her record producer, Andre Blair (Ato Essandoh), a man with a history of violence, with whom she had a dispute over $200,000 in unpaid royalties. Then the suspicion shifts to a Jewish guy, Isaac Krantz (Nicky Katt), who provides jewelry to the rap world. Whoever shot Clarisse was particularly heartless. She died at 5:00 a.m., but bled to death, paralyzed and mute, for a few hours before. After noting this, the coroner points out that she was pregnant.


A Dr. Rubin (Tari Signor) at the abortion center says that Clarisse had backed out of terminating the pregnancy, and tells the police that the father was married. This throws suspicion back on Ike Krantz, who is married to a beautiful doctor's daughter, has two beautiful children, and a beautiful home in Westchester as well as a Park Avenue getaway. A cell phone signal puts him near the crime scene, and the Park Avenue doorman describes him as "cagey, stiffed me every holiday" (no stereotypes of Jews intended?). Ike is arrested and remanded to prison by a black judge, who deems him a flight risk because of his "home in South Africa, access to a plane, and millions in cash."


Ike quickly agrees to admit to murder for a fifteen year sentence. Yet in court he changes his story and indicates that he wants to confess for the sake of confessing. Under further questioning he says that he has been afraid that Andre Blair has threatened him and his family because he witnessed Blair kill Clarisse when they all had a meeting about jewelry, drugs, withheld royalties, and other hot topics. When the district attorneys come to see Andre, he describes their approach as "lynch the black man for a murder he didn't commit and give…the white Jew a free pass."


After Ike is stabbed in the men's room at Reiker's, Andre Blair is put on trial with Ike as chief witness. Again, Blair protests, "I'm the perfect fall guy-big black and tattoos," "bad ass black gang banger versus nice little Jewish boy from Westchester." The assistant D.A. thinks that there might be something to Blair's concerns, and she finds that Ike did transfer funds to the wife who soon admits that Krantz wanted to stage a prison stabbing. So the "nice Jewish boy" manipulated a nasty, but innocent (this time) African American entrepreneur, exploiting every anti-black stereotype from violence to drug dealing in order to avoid punishment for murder. After all, Isaac reasons at the end, "She attacked me. She was ghetto trash. That's how these people behave." Writer McGough had foreshadowed such racism and racist rhetoric on Ike's part early in the episode when he remarked, "It's their game. I just go with the flow."


Yes, there are racist Jews, and it is legitimate to depict them. But is it right to take up the cause of the black man by painting such a "crafty," vile racist Jew? What does this say about the writer's biases?


VII. On Law and Order, a sexual predator has just abducted a young boy, and brought him home to live with the teenager he abducted five years before. The young boy is found dead within a couple of days. While there is much talk in this episode by Richard Sweren about "Stockholm Syndrome," the child molester's name is Roger Kraslow. The people named Kraslow whom I know are Jews. Why that name here?


Is there a pattern here in a season's depiction of Jews on the Law and Order franchises?

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Contributing writer Elliot B. Gertel, JWR's resident media maven, is a Conservative rabbi based in Chicago. His latest book is "Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television". (Click HERE to purchase.)

© 2007, ELLIOT B. GERTEL