Positive representation matters

Hollywood, Jews, and antisemitism in America: An intertwined history and a path forward

In Short

Given the profound influence of film and television in American life, ADL is committed to helping the entertainment industry play a larger role in combating antisemitism through its new Media & Entertainment Institute.

The late film critic Roger Ebert said, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Indeed, films over the decades have told the stories of underdogs and marginalized peoples who overcame incredible adversity to achieve a piece of the American dream. 

All of us who love great films look to them for escape, adventure or the experience of following along with the stories of other people to appreciate a different point of view. 

The film industry is one that is deeply personal to American Jews in particular. Over the decades, films starring Jewish performers made their way to the small-town movie theaters and home television sets of adults and children who had never met any Jewish people in their lives. Since the earliest days of motion pictures, films became an avenue for Jews to find mainstream acceptance and success, and these Jews came to shape the culture in the process. 

When the Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913, about 10 million Americans were going to motion pictures every day. The rapidly growing industry was exciting and innovative, but it provided another toxic avenue for familiar allegations of Jewish “control” raised by antisemites. 

The films made to satisfy this rising market included many so-called “Jew movies,” which were produced at the rate of one every two weeks. Major production companies were turning out productions that portrayed Jews as carnal, criminal, usurious, miserly and sly, just as Hollywood churned out blackface movies that promoted hateful stereotypes of Blacks. It was because of this that ADL and other Jewish organizations began engaging with film industry leadership.

In 1916, a breakthrough occurred when Carl Laemmle, founder and president of Universal Pictures Studios, said that his company would no longer produce films that held Jews up to ridicule or contempt. Laemmle was followed by others: Adolph Zukor, founder of Paramount, and Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, who started MGM. These executives and others played a vital role in shaping Hollywood’s landscape. 

The other breakthrough was vaudeville, where many Jewish performers transitioned from stage to screen throughout the 1920s and ’30s. Films with the Marx Brothers, Al Jolson, Mel Blanc and Fanny Brice inspired the next generation; then Mel Brooks, Kirk Douglas, Joan Rivers and others who arose from the Borscht Belt inspired the next generation of performers and filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Billy Crystal, Adam Sandler – the list goes on and on. 

With Jewish names and personalities on the big screen, suddenly the entertainment industry in Hollywood became the new avenue for Jews to be celebrated and seen for our gifts, our culture, our humor – and most importantly, our humanity. 

Despite all the success, the specter of antisemitism never entirely vanished from American society, nor from the industry itself. Rather than diminishing in society, as many had thought would happen as Jews became more familiar to Americans (at least on screen), antisemitism has increased measurably in several key indicators. Today, 53% of Americans say they have heard anti-Jewish comments from TV, movies and pop culture. ADL’s latest polling has also found that the number of Americans who harbor antisemitic attitudes jumped to 20% in 2022, up from 11% in 2019. 

Aggravated by numerous factors – including economic frustrations, the pandemic, the political polarization of American society and the rampant proliferation of hate speech on social media platforms – 2022 was the worst year for antisemitic incidents since ADL began recording more than four decades ago. One of the most alarming trends is the mainstreaming of blatant antisemitism that has found its way into American society. Just this past year alone, we have seen comments by celebrities with millions of followers  giving classic antisemitic tropes new life. (Case in point: Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West).

Film and television both hold profound influences in American life. One need look no further than the recent controversy over Bradley Cooper’s use of a prosthetic nose in portraying Leonard Bernstein as an example of the passions and controversies that can be roused by cinematic portrayals of legendary figures. (At ADL, we didn’t see an issue with this portrayal, which was clearly not antisemitic). As such, there’s still an opportunity to facilitate necessary conversations and programs to combat antisemitism more broadly within the entertainment industry. 

On Wednesday, eJewishPhilanthropy reported on ADL’s launch of a new Media & Entertainment Institute to engage Hollywood insiders on antisemitism and portrayals of Jews and Jewish communities in film and television. Working alongside our partner organizations, this institute will engage, instruct and dialogue with entertainment, media and related industries to promote more diverse and nuanced representations of Jewish people and strengthen understanding of the insidious impacts of antisemitism and hate in our society. 

The timing is particularly ripe for the industry to step up, given that the U.S. National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism, released by the White House in May, explicitly calls on the entertainment industry to play a larger role in combating antisemitism. 

ADL has long advocated for a whole-of-society approach in pushing back against anti-Jewish hate. We are also looking for ways to lift up positive representations of Jews. This is why, as our Institute’s first project, we will be working closely with the team at Common Sense Media – one of the leaders in providing entertainment recommendations to families, parents and students – on a project to identify recommended films and movies that showcase Jewish people, culture and history. 

The film industry was founded by those who dared to break barriers, who faced rampant discrimination and who came to the United States, found acceptance in their chosen callings and lifted up an entire community. There’s perhaps no better way to celebrate their legacy than ensuring we continue their work towards a just, more equitable future. 

Jeffrey I. Abrams is the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Los Angeles Regional Office.