Jewish Split Over Mel Gibson Echoes 1930s Debate

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Jewish leaders reacted quickly and vigorously to Mel Gibson’s antisemitic outburst, urging ABC to cancel Gibson’s planned Holocaust miniseries and demanding that Gibson issue a meaningful apology.

But many of Hollywood’s most prominent Jews reacted very differently. Former Columbia Pictures head Peter Guber asserted that any boycott of Gibson would “fly in the face of what free speech is,” and Paramount producer Lynda Obst warned that strong Jewish protest would mean “act[ing] in what anti-Semites consider to be stereotypical ways.”

This division of Jewish opinion echoes an important but forgotten split between Jewish leaders and the Jews of Tinseltown back in the 1930s.

In those years, too, many Jewish film producers in Hollywood were afraid of calling attention to Jewish concerns. Some even consciously refrained from making films critical of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, for fear that antisemites would accuse them of trying to drag America into war with Germany.

But on those occasions when Jewish producers did attempt to venture into those subject areas, it was the Jewish organizations that tried to stop them.

For example, the Anti-Defamation League and the Los Angeles Jewish Community Committee, led by former ADL national secretary Leon Lewis, successfully lobbied against the production of an anti-Hitler film called Mad Dog of Europe. They feared there would be “a very unhappy kick-back ” from the movie –that it would provoke accusations of Jewish war-mongering.

Rabbi William Fineshriber of Philadelphia, who monitored Hollywood for the Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis, campaigned against MGM’s planned film version of Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which predicted the rise of fascism in the United States. “We ought not to thrust the Jew and his problems too much into the limelight,” Fineshriber contended.

The ADL also tried to block the 1934 Twentieth Century Pictures film The House of Rothschild. While vividly depicting anti-Jewish discrimination in Europe –partly embodied by an antisemitic German count played by Boris Karloff– the film also portrayed the Rothschilds in ways that were sometimes less than flattering. Unable to persuade the producers to drop the film, the ADL tried to water down its content and delay its release.

Warner Brothers’ 1937 movie The Life of Emile Zola managed to tell the story of the Dreyfus Trial without any of the characters ever mentioning the word “Jew.” The ADL feared that “unduly favorable” references to Jews might be regarded as “propaganda,” and Joseph Breen of Hollywood’s Production Code Administration (PCA) –an internal self-censorship authority that worked closely with Jewish leaders — pressed Jack Warner to remove explicit references to Jews from the script.

As it turned out, the ADL and other Jewish groups exaggerated the dangers of a backlash to films such as The House of Rothschild and The Life of Emile Zola. Non-Jewish audiences responded positively to Rothschild’s ambiguous, realistic depictions. Many reviewers praised The House of Rothschild and, later, The Life of Emile Zola, for having what they perceived as implicit anti-Nazi messages. “Jewish organizations’ fears were unfounded,” historian Felicia Herman notes. “A film which implicitly condemned Nazism could find both critical and popular success among Jews and non-Jews alike.”

Jewish organizations have evolved considerably in the seventy years since then. Today, most Jewish leaders recognize that it is legitimate to speak out vigorously for Jewish interests, and that they need not make Jewish concerns hostage to fears of an antisemitic backlash. One wonders how long will it take the Jews of Hollywood to recognize this reality.

July 2006