Modern Judaism 20.1 (2000) 1-19
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The Attack on "Jewish Hollywood":
A Chapter in the History of Modern American Anti-Semitism
As the United States became a magnet for mass Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe, the imprecation was born: "New York is not America." A continent away, with the advent of the movies a few decades later, the coda was added: "Neither is Hollywood." In tandem with the entry of emancipated Jews into the mainstream of modernity, traditional anti-Semitic images of Jews as economic parasites and moral polluters were complemented by a new image of Jews as corrupters of popular culture. First, in the nineteenth century, the new popular journalism was anointed as what Sander Gilman calls the "the secret language of the Jews." Then, in the twentieth century, the cinema supplanted the newspaper in the popular imagination as the magical source of the Jews' insidious power over culture. The Nazi purge of the Weimar film industry, deemed corrupted by "Jewish-Syrian influence"; Stalin's persecution of Yiddish filmmakers, pilloried for "the bourgeois cosmopolitanism in the motion picture arts," and Jewish performers, whose "Semitic features are blatantly obvious in close-ups"; and the more recent Muslim Fundamentalist assault on "satanic" American moviemakers, who are viewed as modern-day, secular "Crusaders" out to destroy Islamic culture as well as to promote Zionism--all are variations on the same theme. So, too, is America's own attack on "Jewish Hollywood." 1
A vituperative ethnocultural critique of alleged Jewish domination and degradation of the entertainment industry has been a constant on the modern American scene. As we shall see, however, this attack on Jewish Hollywood has ebbed and flowed and evolved significantly over time. It began predominantly among old-stock white Protestants as a right-wing reflex that targeted African Americans as well as Jews. But in recent decades it has mutated increasingly among white leftists and black radicals into an enthusiasm that symptomizes deepening Black-Jewish estrangement.
The first of three waves of anti-Semitic-tinged animus against the film industry peaked in the 1920s. Virtually all European observers have viewed the Hollywood "dream factory" as quintessentially American since its inception. But this is not the way it looked early in this century to culturally [End Page 1] conservative Americans. They saw instead a nightmarish undermining of Victorian religious, racial, and sexual hierarchies. In their vision of American decline, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were victims of typically Jewish popular-cultural entrepreneurs. Not least among the perceived sins of these Jewish entertainment merchants was their responsibility for unleashing libidinal impulses imagined as synonymous with African Americans. After World War I, former Progressives fearful that the movies were corrupting American youth shared anxieties with Ku Klux Klansmen who equated Jewish producers with big-city brothel owners. Ironically, American Catholics demonized by the Klan shared some of its concerns over moviedom's decadence. When in 1922 the New York Civic League's William Sheafe Chase asked, "What ground is there for thinking that the motion picture industry is in the despotic control of four or five Hebrews, such as Messrs. Lasky, Loew, Fox, Zukor and Laemmle?" his question answered itself in the minds of millions of anxious Americans. 2
Characterizing Prohibition-era whiskey as "nigger gin" and jazz as "Yiddish moron music," Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent fused, crudely but effectively, the racism and anti-Semitism animating this antimodern critique. "As soon as the Jews gained control of the 'movies'," Ford observed, "we had a problem . . . . It is the peculiar genius of that race to create problems of a moral character in whatever business they achieve a majority." About producers "of Semitic origin," Ford's newspaper also observed that "many . . . don't know how filthy their stuff is--it is so natural to them." The movies deployed Jewish "cleverness" to "camouflage the moral filth" of "the monkey talk, jungle squeals, grunts and squeaks and gasps" of African American popular culture. 3
During the 1920s Hollywood embraced the new liberated morality of the Jazz Age. Permissive...