the (real) history of Jews in Hollywood

JEWISH MIGRATION 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews migrated en masse from Europe to the United States. In 1820, only ~3000 Jews lived in the US; by 1880, the population swelled to 300,000. Between 1900-1924, another 1.75 million Jews migrated from Europe to the US. 

While the conditions in the US were much better than the persecution they’d left behind, Jews still faced economic and employment discrimination. One of the biggest obstacles for Jews were university quotas that prevented them from receiving the education necessary to pursue professional careers such as medicine.

To make ends meet, Jews resorted to creating their own opportunities. Many started as peddlers and later became shopkeepers, for example. Others went to Hollywood. 

 

EARLY DAYS  

Hollywood was “born” when a Jewish man, Sam Goldwyn (Shmuel Gelbfisz), joined his brother to make the one of the very first (definitely very racist) feature films: The Squaw Man. 

While many Jews joined Hollywood thereafter in search of job opportunities they couldn’t find elsewhere, there was a concerted effort to diminish the Jewishness of the early film industry. 

From then on stereotypes that the Jews “controlled” Hollywood started to spread. However, not all of the earliest Hollywood moguls were Jewish. Those that were were generally quite removed from Judaism and sought to assimilate. 

Despite the so-called Jewish “power” of Hollywood, when many Jewish actors in the 1930s asked Congress to boycott German goods, they were attacked with antisemitism. 

 

WALT DISNEY

Walt Disney has long been accused of being an antisemite. While scholars still debate this, there is no doubt that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He hosted Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and gave her a tour of his studio. He also attended American Bund (the American Nazi Party) meetings. 

Many of the early Walt Disney films employ a multitude of antisemitic tropes and stereotypes. Witches (such as the witch in Snow White) resemble antisemitic caricatures of the time, for example. 

 

HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST

In the late 1940s to mid-1950s, a governmental anti-communist campaign known as “McCarthyism” took place. While openly anti-communist, the campaign was also antisemitic as Jews were disproportionately targeted.

Ten Hollywood personalities, known as “the Hollywood Ten,” were cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted from Hollywood. 6 out of the Hollywood Ten were Jewish. 

That’s because the proponents of McCarthyism wanted to make an example of “Jewish Hollywood.” Many Jews in the industry were sent explicitly antisemitic letters.

The Hollywood Ten blacklist lasted 12 years. The Jews that stayed in Hollywood did so under non-Jewish pen names. 

 

"JEW-FACE"

Since the earliest days of theater, non-Jewish actors have played Jewish roles, a phenomenon that has been called “Jew-face.” For example, during Shakespeare’s time, gentiles would portray Jews, showing them in an unfavorable light and reinforcing antisemitic tropes. In the 1910s, “Jew movies,” which portrayed Jews as evil, conspiring, unlikable characters, were produced every two weeks. 

Today Jewish characters are often also played by gentiles. For example, in the show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the main character — who is explicitly Jewish — is played by a non-Jewish actor. While the depictions today usually aren’t as outwardly antisemitic, this can be problematic for several reasons: (1) Jewish representation in Hollywood is still incredibly white-washed (see next slide), (2) Jewish characters are often relegated to stereotypes (e.g. the whiny Jew) or they are the butt of the joke. 

 

PROBLEMATIC REPRESENTATION 

While from the outside it might seem that there is plenty of Jewish representation in Hollywood, this representation is often very whitewashed, American-centric, secular, and Ashkenormative. Since the earliest days of silent film, Jewish Hollywood producers sought to make the Jewishness of Hollywood more “palatable” to the general American public. Unfortunately, this means that the diversity of the Jewish experience is often missing from the entertainment industry. 

For instance, we rarely see Sephardic, Mizrahi, or Ethiopian Jewish stories. Sometimes, even Jewish actors from different backgrounds are “whitewashed” to fit the American Jewish norm (e.g. Jerry Seinfeld, who is a Syrian Jew, was never portrayed as such). Orthodox representation is almost always negative. 

Thankfully today there are actors such as Tiffany Haddish who are changing the landscape. 

 

ANTISEMITIC TROPES 

Tropes about Jews controlling the world are almost as old as time. A relatively modern iteration is that Jews not only run Hollywood, but that they do so for their own sinister purposes. One of the biggest proponents of this conspiracy was Henry Ford. 

One of the most persistent tropes is that Jews (or Zionists) use Hollywood to turn people LGBTQ. This particular conspiracy has been spread by far right antisemites and is popular in the Arab world. Louis Farrakhan has also made similar claims. 

It’s important to be mindful of the language that we use when we talk about Jews and Hollywood. Even saying that “Jews invented Hollywood” is problematic because (1) the actions of Jewish individuals aren’t representative of all Jews, and (2) such language lends itself to antisemitic tropes.