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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 622-630
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Hollywood, Jews, and America
Steven J. Ross
Steven Alan Carr. Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History Up to World War. II New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xv + 342 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $70.00 (cloth); $26.00 (paper).
Americans believe in democracy and religious tolerance—up to a point. When Jewish movie stars called on Congress in December 1938 to boycott German products until Hitler stopped persecuting Jews and other minorities, they were barraged with scores of anti-Semitic letters. "Pray tell me," I. E. Schoening, a self-proclaimed "Bible Christian" wrote to Edward G. Robinson, "who is the greater sinner, Hitler in his treatment of the Jews and Christians or the movie industry producers whose rotten movie-plays are corrupting the minds of American boys and girls and turning them into criminals and sex perverts." 1 J. P. Thompson of St. Louis denounced Warner Brothers' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) as "'gross Jewish propaganda'" and told the brothers their film "'will have more people hating the Jew because a Jew produced it to show his hatred'" (p. 197). A decade later, Hollywood moguls were subject to anti-Semitic diatribes by FBI informants who insisted that the "junk dealers, fur traders, push cart operators and their like" who run the studios "have never learned that there is a moral code in America against which you cannot buck. They still feel that the man with the dollar can do anything he likes." 2
In Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History Up to World War II, Steven Alan Carr argues that such attacks were not peculiar to the 1930s and 1940s, but were part of a long tradition of anti-Semitism and fear of Jewish control over a wide array of American institutions: banks, newspapers, theaters, and especially movies. Much broader than the title suggests, Carr's book surveys the history of anti-Semitism from 1880 until the emergence of the Cold War in the 1940s. In the wake of recent outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence throughout the world, Hollywood and Anti-Semitism, though marred by awkward organization and repetitive themes, offers valuable historical insights into the causes of American anti-Semitism and the ways in which its practitioners directed their anger toward Jews in the nation's culture industries.
Carr's narrative revolves around what he calls the "Hollywood Question," [End Page 622] an updated version of the older "Jewish Question." Prominent in Europe and America at the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish Question "articulated a problem: given their cultural and religious difference, should Jews enjoy the same basic rights as everyone else?" (p. 8). The Hollywood Question went a step further and asked "whether Jews, given their quasi-racialized difference, should particulate in the regular affairs of mediated life"—or put another way, should Jews be allowed to control institutions that shaped the course of American life (p. 9)? Carr develops two themes that run throughout his book. The first is that we need to see anti-Semitism as a response to what might be called the crisis of modernity—specifically, the trend toward urbanization, industrialization, mass migration, and mass culture that marked turn-of-the-century America. Sounding like an updated Richard Hofstadter, Carr argues that opposition to these developments was most pronounced among rural Americans and WASP elites who felt out of place in the rapidly changing nation. "Having lost control of the American small town to the invading marauders of mass immigrant-Jewish counterculture," Carr explains, "Protestant elites hoped to refashion America into the vision of the small town these elites saw themselves as once having controlled"(p. 4).
Carr's second leitmotiv is that anti-Semitism directed against Hollywood was rooted in the fear that movies could be used to manipulate mass consciousness and persuade Americans to do things—as individuals and as a nation—that were not in their best interest. Critics were also concerned that suspect foreign-born Jews would use the medium to debase Christian values.
The Hollywood Question, then...