“Quantico” is sleek and suspenseful. On its soapy surface, it’s a show about fighting terrorism while looking hot. Dig a little deeper, though, and the show teaches us something about lingering stereotypes, including those about American Jews and Israelis.
Pop culture can influence viewers’ opinions and even spur social changes, for good or ill. For that reason, the images “Quantico’s” 11 million-plus viewers consume weekly should matter to anyone who believes tolerance is an American virtue.
Growing up in New York, I lived through Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” remark in 1984, 1991’s Crown Heights riots, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which the perpetrators justified by citing American foreign policy, including U.S. “diplomatic relations with Israel.” Still, the most unsettling time to be an American Jew in my lifetime is today.
On the Right, this presidential primary season has emboldened anti-Semitic speech on social media that had previously been marginalized. More disturbingly, on the Left, we have a president who treats American Jewish leaders opposed to his Iran deal like enemies and a party that is increasingly hostile to the United States’ only democratic ally in the Middle East. If you’re an American Jew, these developments may be in the back of your mind as you tune in to “Quantico,” ready to relax for the evening.
Playing Into Negative Racial Stereotypes
“Quantico” is a whodunit, punctuated by romance. Each episode offers insights into the various Quantico trainees — now NATs, or full-fledged FBI agents — all of whom have secrets. Unlike “Homeland,” “Quantico” generally keeps a safe distance from reality, which ripped storylines from the headlines this season, including the rise of ISIS and Edward Snowden’s leaks.
Its central bomb plot, for example, is executed at a present-day Democratic convention in deep-blue New York — an unlikely setting, given the recent trend of holding conventions in battleground states.
“Quantico’s” writers deserve credit for maintaining suspense by plausibly hinting at each character’s guilt. However, some of the writing makes for mighty uncomfortable viewing.
Mormons didn’t feel they got a fair shake with their character. Others have expressed concerns about South Asian and Arab stereotypes, as well as Islamophobia. As a politically conservative Jew, I haven’t always enjoyed watching Simon Asher, the character most closely identified with my religious and political beliefs.
Simon certainly isn’t the only bombing suspect. However, the show repeatedly portrays the brilliant trainee as shifty and untrustworthy. At Quantico, many questions are raised about Simon’s previous stint with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). While one could reasonably ask why any American citizen would feel called to serve in a foreign (ally’s) army and join the FBI, the show’s critiques are rather specific to Israel.
A Difference Between Character and Caricature
Simon’s confessions about what he supposedly saw and did for the IDF in Gaza have also made no sense at various points. Writing in The Jewish Daily Forward, J.E. Reich posits that it results from “the writers’ shoddy research: Apparently, no one bothered to inform them that the Mossad — or its counterterrorist unit, Kidon — is not the same thing as the IDF.”
This is only one of several problems with Simon, though. Beyond the aforementioned question of why any American would join the IDF, we’ve never learned what specifically compelled Simon, the show’s only American Jewish character, to volunteer. Further, on the first day at Quantico, when everyone participates in an exercise to uncover fellow trainees’ secrets, one of the Lebanese-born twins is paired with Simon. She tries to rattle him by charging that he is “a conservative Jew from a strict Zionist family.” Is that as opposed to a lax Zionist family?
Jewish viewers may also feel unsettled by Simon’s ongoing, muddied plot line:
After being kicked out of the NAT program, Simon, along with his [Hebrew speaking] Hasidic associate, do indeed create a step-by-step blueprint to destroy Grand Central in a fit of revenge (cue Shylock’s ‘pound of flesh’ quote and pair it with a shaking, raised fist), but they never end up executing it.
This is undoubtedly problematic. I wouldn’t go quite as far as Reich, who believes that Simon’s “double-dealing and deceitful habits are the latest iteration of a tradition that delights in depicting Uriah Heeps, Fagins and Shylocks in terms of anti-Semitic canards and pogrom-inciting blood libels.” However, the show’s characterization of Simon is more likely to confirm existing anti-Zionist sentiments than promote philo-Semitism, even if the writers didn’t set out to caricature or vilify American Jews.
Treating Jews as Enemies Is Happening in Real Life
This is where the otherwise soapy show inadvertently stumbled into our current political reality. Just before the new year, The Wall Street Journal reported that even after Snowden’s revelations about U.S. spying on allies prompted the United States to “curtail eavesdropping on friendly heads of state,” the White House continued to keep close tabs on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Shockingly, the National Security Agency also monitored the communications of members of Congress — seemingly disregarding the Constitution’s separation of powers — and American Jewish leaders, who opposed President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
In the words of a former American intelligence official: “The order to use this kind of spying power against Israel, even after Snowden’s leaks and the knowledge that continuing this kind of activity includes a significant political risk, illustrates just how the White House regards the Israeli government. This is not how you treat friends. This is how you spy against enemies.”
Welcome home, Simon.