Hollywood's Jewish History: An Oblogatory Deep Dive

Parts of this article first appeared in July and October, focusing mainly on Thomas Edison’s attempt to control the distribution of all motion pictures and his flirtation with antisemitism, respectively. Since then, multiple readers have asked me to do a deeper, more comprehensive dive on the subject. Some parts of the old article have been reused or altered while much has been added. I’m honored to have been asked to participate in this conversation, and I’m humbled by the constructive and supportive feedback I’ve received from not only my readers, but also my dear friends affected by this issue.

Dave Chappelle's recent monologue was largely a hit... piece about Jewish stereotypes.

Why are there so many Jewish people in Hollywood? Do they really control the media?

Unlike other posts, a reader didn’t ask this question. Rather, certain celebrities have made antisemitic remarks, and readers have asked me to respond to them with a historical explanation. Without knowing the history, after all, it seems strange that Los Angeles has a high Jewish population, just as their lack of population in Central Europe would seem strange to someone who’d never learned about World War II. The answer is the same as many other ethnic blocs in cities across the United States–the Irish in Boston, the Cubans in Miami, the Somali in Minneapolis–they had nowhere else to go. After a group of immigrants does find a home, they send word to families that the place they’ve found is safe. A generation passes, and a cultural hub is formed. For Jewish people, one such hub was Hollywood.


The Traditional Stereotype

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish people were either barred outright from certain jobs or given low-level, token roles. This discrimination stems from a medieval, European belief that Jews were lesser for not being Christian. Ironically, these same discriminators relied on Jewish people to handle their money due to a surface-level understanding of the Bible. (Jesus said mammon [money] is bad, so don’t work a job that handles money.) This is where the age-old antisemitic depiction of the miserly, money-grubbing Jew comes from.

So, when Jewish immigrants came to America in the late 19th century, the Christians who skipped all the “love thy neighbor” sections of The Good Book blamed the ebb and flow of money markets on Jewish people. Among these fanatics was famed automobile industrialist Henry Ford. Ford so believed that Jews were responsible for the world’s problems that he openly supported Adolf Hitler for nearly a decade before WWII! Ford was also an avid outdoorsman, going on road and camping trips with his good friend Thomas Edison.

Shylock, the titular character from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, epitomizes Elizabethan sentiment towards Jewish people.


"So my team invented this 'light bulb.' What am I supposed to do with it?"

Edison’s Bright Idea

To be more than fair to Edison, the famed inventor DID employ Jewish people in his lab, some of whom provided key breakthroughs in inventions (for which Edison then took credit). But Edison’s friends rightfully made Jewish entertainers wary. Also disconcerting was Edison’s patent trust, a coalition of ten filmmaking pioneers that entered an exclusive contract with Kodak films and claimed complete control over both who could use camera and film equipment as well as who could exhibit films in theaters and traveling shows.

Edison’s ruthless business practices and fascist friends were enough for Jewish entertainers to stay far away. This decision was a heavy blow, too, because entertainment was one of the only industries in which Jews could find work. As such, they became skilled performers, stage managers, producers, costume designers, and make-up artists.

Simultaneously, Jewish immigrants were finding success in business and distribution jobs that didn’t rely on a public face. These roles were often in fur trade or outdoor attire since no one cared which brand of fox fur was hanging around a person’s neck nor was anyone going to pay close attention to the tag inside a hat or pair of gloves.


Ugh, Paramount, you're profile pic is so dramatic!

The Founding of Hollywood

Therefore, many Jewish distributors teamed up with Jewish entertainers in a town that was far removed from The East Coast’s established ways. Six of the original eight big-named studios were founded or co-founded by Jewish entrepreneurs, and they used their business know-how to devise a linear product pipeline. For instance, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movies would only be shot using MGM talent and crew on the MGM lot. MGM would then export their films to MGM movie theaters, cinemas that could ONLY show MGM films (much like Apple does with its apps and services today).

Meanwhile, Edison’s patent trust fell into shambles with The Supreme Court’s 1915 decision, and Edison’s studios closed their doors in 1918. New York filmmakers were then not only a decade behind Hollywood, but they also didn’t have the affiliated movie-theater chains. As far as film went, Hollywood movie studios were the only game in the only town that mattered.


Ethnically Jewish or Religiously Jewish?

As a result, the town surged practically overnight, and the established studios at that time became monolithic machines, making movies almost as fast as the public demanded them. Since Jewish people were in charge of many of these studios, and these movies needed crew workers, who better to employ than trusted family members? Compounding Hollywood’s gains was The Great Depression. The escapist nature of film proved to be immune to economic slumps, so even more people, keen on any kind of employment, flocked to town.

So yes, in the 1930’s, Jewish people made up a majority of film’s top positions. They held sway and financial power as well. They did not, however, control Hollywood nor did they forward a Jewish agenda, much less their own ethnic representation. Why? Because the people watching their movies were NOT Jewish, nor was the government, which harbored a growing sect of fascist sympathizers.

For a so-called "Great Depression," this man looks quite happy.
If the media actually did brainwash us, this billboard would've taken care of the problem 80 years ago!

Let’s rewind to the Hollywood founders’ objective: to make a safe haven and industry for their people. To achieve this, they faced three challenges: their immigrant status, their genetic makeup, and their religious beliefs. Since “Jewish” can refer to either a person’s ethnicity or their creed, many Semitic people in Hollywood were only culturally Jewish. Therefore, Jewish Hollywood leaders decided to assimilate, pushing product that they believed would appeal to the average American. Had they gone the religious route, Christian moral hardliners would have petitioned the government to stamp out the motion picture industry for good.

How can I claim this with such certainty? Because Christian moral hardliners petitioned the government to stamp out the motion picture industry anyway.


Quigley & Lord: Censorship BFFs

Throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s, various states invoked censorship codes, which forced nonsensical edits on or outright banned films entering their borders. Even more confusing, different states adopted different standards for different reasons. Instead of tailoring films to 48 different state codes, movie studios opted for one universal set of morality guidelines. To achieve this, the studio heads turned to a Catholic layman named Martin Quigley and a Jesuit priest named Daniel Lord. Together, the two modified and coalesced a moral code conceived by Will H. Hayes a decade beforehand. After further amendments, The Hayes Code was implemented through the Production Code Administration, led by Joseph Breen. Breen had formerly held a position with the National League of Decency, a Catholic layman organization that frequently partnered with multiple Protestant morality watchdog groups, some of which had ties to the KKK among other antiemetic hate groups. Upon his arrival to Hollywood, Breen lamented the lax moral standards of the town (standards he would find in any major city at the end of The Roaring 20’s).

Because Breen didn’t have the benefit of history and perspective, he became convinced the Jewish studio heads were responsible for this behavior and were willingly putting it on screen for propaganda in order to defile good Christian Americans. Hence the age-old witticism “Hollywood is a Jewish-owned business selling Catholic theology to Protestant America.”

One of the most infamous examples of Production Code censorship is Betty Boop's abrupt wardrobe change.


Used for Oblogatory's "Why are old PG-rated movies from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s More Graphic?" A Why Does Hollywood post on S4Screenplay.com
Joseph Breen's face (I imagine) upon learning he'd have to flip his opinions on Jewish people overnight.

Breer’s Unwavering Viewpoint

One might imagine that Hitler’s growing power and genocidal practices would have garnered American sympathy for Jews, especially those in Hollywood. Jewish actors thought the same thing when, in 1938, they petitioned Washington D.C. to ban imports to and exports from Germany. One notable response read, “Pray tell me, who is the greater sinner, Hitler and his treatment of Jews and Christians or the movie industry’s producers whose rotten movie-plays are corrupting the minds of American boys and girls and turning them into criminals and sex perverts.” The following year, Warner Bros., a gentile-owned studio at the time, release Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which sympathized with the Jewish persecution in Europe. A typical hate-mail response to the studio denounced the film as “gross Jewish propaganda” which would “have more people hating the Jew…”

So, while Jewish studio moguls certainly held positions of leadership during this time, their power was neutered by a desire to assimilate, a ferocious morality code, and fascistic sentiment within the country.

So why did American film go from Nazi neutral to hating Hitler? Ironically, because The Pope encouraged it! Pope Pius XI publicly denounced antisemitism in 1939 just before WWII began. He also called for Catholics to protect Jewish communities from fascistic aggressors. Breen, upon hearing this, reversed Production Code attitudes and policy, encouraging Hollywood studios to promote anti-Hitler stances in their films. Jewish studio heads eagerly agreed, their views aligned with mainstream America at last…


Red Scares and Censorship Tears

…until the 1950’s, when fascism was defeated, and communism became the new enemy. Because prominent leaders in Hollywood were not religiously Jewish, merely culturally, their views were deemed too liberal, so they became a target for Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red Scare. Anyone even suspected of attending a pro-communist meeting was blacklisted from Hollywood for fear that the government would stamp out the film business for promoting godless communist propaganda. Many of those targeted were “coincidentally” Jewish, which worked doubly well for McCarthy, since doing so gained him the support of Christian nationalists who encouraged rooting out the immoral establishment centered in Los Angeles.

As McCarthy became censured and The Red Scare ebbed in Hollywood, The Production Code overstepped its boundaries, denying approval to films for reasons as simple as language implications or an actress shown in a bathing suit (a common sight for men stationed in Europe). Frustrated by the inconsistent application, Samuel Goldwyn publicly asked for production-code revision. American soldiers returning from the more relaxed vistas of France, Italy, and Germany agreed. More and more concessions were made, and The Hayes Code had receeded to impotence by the mid-1960’s.

And you thought the guy in the LAST picture had a punchable face...


Why were we worried about Jewish identity corrupting America? The oversized hat agenda is clearly more pernicious!

End of the System, Start of the Star

Now the Jews could wantonly spew their propaganda to the masses, right? Even if that tired conspiracy held any truth, theater owners, actors, and crew members, tired of the exclusive contracts they were forced to sign, raised a stink, bringing in the U.S. Government for the same reason Thomas Edison was scrutinized 50 years prior. The Supreme Court’s ultimatum was this: Disband the studios, or release sections of the work pipeline. As such, the Hollywood studios relinquished control over movie-theater ownership. Since theaters could consequently show whatever they wanted, foreign and independent films surged in American popularity during the 60’s and 70’s. The studios even began distributing those films under their banners alongside the ones they produced themselves. If the Jewish Hollywood moguls ever did have control over the media, it was gone now.

Ironically, because those in charge of studios were determined not to promote a distinct Jewish identity, their absence allowed Jewish movie stars to become visible. Barbara Streisand became one of the most bankable stars of the 60’s and 70’s while Steven Spielberg made some of his greatest hits, becoming a celebrity director. Woody Allen, meanwhile, cornered the rom-com market with entries like Annie Hall and Manhattan.


First America, Then the World!

By this point, Hollywood had become so well established, it had become the entertainment capital of the world. Make no mistake, Jewish people still make up a significant percentage of the town, but only because their ancestors founded it, not because they wield a secret cabal of power. Besides, even if this now century-old, easily disproven cliché were true, producing brainwashing propaganda would be once again impossible because of the blockbuster.

Blockbusters are movies so expensive that they can make or break studios. Spectacular by nature, these films attract eyes and fill theater seats. Ever since Hollywood studios (increasingly headed by Reaganomic-worshipping mega-corporations) saw the kinds of profits pulled in by films like Jaws and Star Wars, they’ve wanted nothing else. Blockbusters began spawning sequels, prequels, threequels, nostalgia-fueled requels, and, finally, cinematic universes. These franchise behemoths need to pull nine-to-ten-digit box-office numbers just to break even! The United States alone isn’t capable of those kinds of grosses. Therefore, studios have begun catering blockbuster franchises to a worldwide audience.

American morality now often plays second fiddle to other large markets, especially China. If large regions of America held antisemetic views, imagine the furor of religious countries/major markets like Brazil, India, or Indonesia if they even suspected Jewish propaganda was present in these films!

Clearly, Jewish people have total control over their image in the media.


Please don't make me talk about this man anymore. He's not current--at least, not directly.

Concession Stand

Clearly, the only true parts of the stereotype that “the Jews control the media” are that many Jewish people live in Los Angeles, and some hold executive positions in entertainment companies. But, as has been true since entertainment’s inception, the audience controls the media. They are the ones that choose to watch.

One salient point present in this resurfacing sludge is West and Chappelle’s callout of ethnic double standards. Hell, Marlon Brando asked the question in 1996: Why is antisemitism the issue where Hollywood “circles the wagons”? The answer is pain. Generational pain. It’s not enough that ethnically Jewish people suffered in Europe, were ostracized as immigrants in America, and silenced by various religious or political zealots, now they must take an ignorant celebrity’s bullying on the chin? My own ancestors and family endured mockery of their ethnicity, heritage, and beliefs when they came to this country, and I know their tolerance for insult was shorter than this.

Thankfully, that dynamic is shifting due to evolving societal attitudes along with tireless work from organizations and lobby groups that champion the rights of the marginalized. Media portrayals globally affect perceptions, so the current onus of those in the entertainment business is to listen, learn, and try to lift up one’s neighbor, making their lives a little brighter.

Figuratively, of course. One should be wary not to emulate the man who took credit for literally making our lives brighter.

To learn more about the history covered in this article, check out these sources:

  • Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies by Gregory D. Black
  • Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History up to World War II by Steven Allen Carr
  • “La-La Land: The Origins” from The New York Times written by Peter Edidin
  • “Jews in Hollywood, 1930-1950: American Jews and the making of the movie industry” by Norman L. Friedman
  • “The origins of the ‘Jews run Hollywood’ trope, echoed by Dave Chappelle” from The Jerusalem Post written by Andrew Lapin


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