Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History Up to World War II
by Steven Alan Carr
Cambridge. 342 pp. $69.95
One day in the early 20th century, a young man named Adolph Zukor looked around at the “moving pictures” in his Manhattan penny arcade and said to himself: “A Jew could make a lot of money at this.” Other aspiring entrepreneurs, with names like Goldwyn, Fox, Loew, Mayer, and Warner, had the same idea. Lengthening those early shorts, adding stories and recognizable actors, eventually adding sound, these men transformed a faddish novelty amusement into a lasting, wildly popular form of entertainment. They became wealthy and powerful.
Too powerful, some believed. In Hollywood and Anti-Semitism, Steven Alan Carr, a professor at Indiana University, traces the rise and eventual fall of the idea that Jews not only dominated the movie business but were exploiting their control for nefarious purposes. This idea emerged, he shows, in the years before the Great Depression, just as the film industry was being born, when ancient stereotypes of Jews as Judas and Shylock converged with a growing antipathy toward immigrants, making “Jewish influence” seem a logical explanation for unwelcome changes that were taking place in American society.
Among the pieces of evidence Carr adduces are vicious cartoon caricatures of Jews in Life, a humor magazine of the era (no relation to the later weekly of the same name), and a boys’ novel, Tom Swift and His Talking Pictures (1928), whose hero battles sinister Jewish film moguls and their agent—an anarchist by the name of Jacob Greenbaum—for control of a futuristic invention: television. Carr also discusses the most important anti-Semitic voice of the period, the automobile magnate Henry Ford, whose newspaper, the Dearborn Independent (which Ford dealers were required to stock), carried allegations of Jewish conspiracy and quotations from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to every corner of America.
By the 1930’s, the volume of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the U.S. had assumed alarming proportions, and much of it centered on Jewish influence in Hollywood. The venom spouted over the airwaves by the likes of Father Charles E. Coughlin is only the most familiar part of the story. Lesser known figures included the embittered ex-screenwriter William Pelley, who founded a Nazi-style organization called the Silver Shirts and edited Liberation, a magazine that raved against Jews and supported Hitler.
As Carr recounts, Jewish film producers responded to the various attacks on them—among their critics, by now, were also citizens’ groups up in arms about the salaciousness and/or the irreligiosity of Hollywood products—by trying to address the substance of the complaints while ignoring the anti-Semitic language in which they were frequently couched. Where possible, the producers also sought compromise with their critics, most notably by agreeing to a system of self-censorship, formalized in the 1930 Production Code, which set guidelines for handling sensitive matters. On occasion they also took the offensive, for instance by sponsoring the infiltration of organizations like the Silver Shirts.
With the eruption of World War II, the conflict between Hollywood and its various critics reached its climax. In September 1941, the aviator and leading isolationist Charles Lindbergh could still feel free to declare that the “greatest danger to this country lies in [the Jews’] large ownership and influence in our motion pictures.” But three months later came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s entry into the war, and Lindbergh’s final fall from grace. Similarly, as more and more Americans became aware of what was happening in Hitler’s Europe, an initiative like Senator Gerald P. Nye’s investigation into “motion-picture propaganda” turned into a severe political liability.
Though Carr’s book is subtitled “a cultural history up to World War II,” he closes his account by examining various governmental actions involving Hollywood both during the war itself and in the postwar years. These ranged from the Justice Department’s antitrust suits that commenced in 1939 through the postwar hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) into Communist infiltration of the movie industry. Both at the time and since, these hearings were denounced as nothing more than anti-Semitism in disguise.
Hollywood and Anti-Semitism is replete with fascinating material from over a half-century of American history. It is also replete with references on virtually every page to an unfortunate explanatory device that Carr calls the “Hollywood Question.” This he identifies as an updated version of the question posed by some Europeans in the wake of the emancipation of the Jews in the 19th century:
Instead of overtly asking whether Jews can participate in the regular affairs of daily life, the Hollywood Question asks whether Jews, given their quasi-racialized difference, should participate in the regular affairs of mediated life.
Carr himself describes his concept as “incredibly protean” and “uniquely versatile”—so protean, and so versatile, one might say, that it manages to explain next to nothing while blurring almost every important distinction. Thus, to Carr, both the isolationist rhetoric of Lindbergh and the anti-Communist rhetoric of HUAC were manifestations of the same “Hollywood Question”—that is, of anti-Semitism—with HUAC’s hearings merely venting the poison in a socially acceptable form. In fact, however, anti-Semitism and anti-Communism were different phenomena, with different roots.
HUAC, whatever one might think about its methods, investigated the real activities of individuals thought to be loyal to a foreign power, not imaginary “conspiracies” conjured up by anti-Semites like Henry Ford and Father Coughlin. It is true that when the group of screenwriters known as the “Hollywood Ten” were summoned before the committee in 1947, a number of them seemed eager to draw attention to their Jewishness. One, Arthur Maltz, refused to answer whether he belonged to the Communist-linked Screen Writers Guild, saying: “Next you are going to ask me what religion I belong to.” Another, Sam Ornitz, led off with: “I wish to address this committee as a Jew.”
To much of the public, however, it seemed plain that the Ten were merely being evasive, and probably because they were Communists, followers of a political line set by Stalin, a fact they were trying to hide by “exposing” the hearings as tainted by anti-Semitism. The strategy was a PR disaster, and in time most liberal support for the Hollywood Ten dissipated.
Another important distinction erased by Hollywood and Anti-Semitism is the one between criticism of films for their content and criticism of film producers for their ethnicity. In discussing the industry’s self-imposed Production Code Administration (PCA), Carr writes that Hollywood “relinquish[ed] control of film content to religious anti-Semitism.” This is wildly off the mark. To modern ears, the PCA rules often sound priggish, and they may even evince a Catholic sensibility. But however problematic they may have been, Americans were right to think then (as many do now) that movies were a powerful cultural force, shaping as well as being shaped by public attitudes, and hence legitimate objects of public criticism. Although anti-Semites were among those protesting, protesting itself was, and is, hardly anti-Semitic.
These days, Americans debate the issue of cultural standards and norms of public decency without being distracted by the pseudo-issue of “Jewish control” over the movies. That is assuredly all to the good, both for Jews and for everyone else. But the problems that the more honest critics of Hollywood pointed to back then also became much more severe over the decades, raising the question of whether it is possible to maintain any kind of public standard of decency in a commercial society like ours. If the answer to this question is no, that is assuredly all to the bad, for Jews and everyone else.
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Hollywood and Anti-Semitism by Steven Alan Carr
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.