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Long desired by the film industry and the city of Los Angeles, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened its doors in Los Angeles on Sept. 30, 2021. The largest museum in the United States devoted to the arts, sciences and artists of moviemaking, the museum’s opening exhibitions include moments devoted to The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Spike Lee, Hayao Miyazaki, costume design, visual effects, sound design, pre-cinematic storytelling and so much more. Designed to rotate to ensure that a multiplicity of cinematic stories are told, these exhibitions — and the museum itself — were widely praised.
However, some rightfully noted the absence of an exhibition focused on Hollywood’s largely Jewish immigrant founders. Others put it more bluntly: “Where are the Jews?”
And they weren’t wrong in asking the question.
They were referring to the Jewish filmmaking giants who had a profound impact on the creation of the Hollywood studios — such legendary figures as William Fox, Harry and Jack Warner, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Harry Cohn. Many expressed concern that this was a missed opportunity to tell an important story about how the antisemitism that was so pervasive in America at the time played an important role in the development of the industry itself. And this question was being asked in current context of, once again, surging antisemitism and a sense by many in the Jewish community that they are being erased.
Representation and equity are core values of the museum. An exhibition on the creation of Hollywood — highlighting the Jewish founders — long had been planned by the museum for a 2023 opening. And the museum opened with a two-month screening and panel series on Viennese émigrés, many of whom were Jewish, who helped to define the classical Hollywood era, including Max Steiner, Billy Wilder, and Hedy Lamarr. However, after many conversations and consultations with important stakeholders and a process of self-reflection, the museum has decided that this vital exhibition on the founding of Hollywood needs to be a permanent part of the museum.
The exhibition — with the working title “Hollywoodland” — will trace the history of filmmaking in Los Angeles back to its roots at the beginning of the 20th century, illustrating how and why this city became the world capital of cinema that it still is today. The exhibition will devote emphasis to the predominantly Jewish founders of the early Hollywood studio system, delving into how their personal narratives shaped the distinct characteristics of the movies their respective studios produced, and foregrounding the ways in which the birth of the American film industry — and therefore the depiction of the American dream projected to audiences across the country and around the world — is truly an immigrant story.
Some may ask, why is it so important to focus on the Jewish trailblazers who founded Hollywood? After all, they were not creating the industry just because they were Jewish, but because they saw an incredible opportunity in the nascent and growing film industry to entertain and thrive. And the antisemitic, and patently false, charge that “the Jews control Hollywood” is one that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has worked hard to combat over many, many years.
On the contrary, we believe there is in fact no better time to tell this story, as America is experiencing a resurgence in violent antisemitic attacks, from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh to Colleyville to right here in Los Angeles. The Jewish moguls and film professionals who played a seminal role in the development of the industry rose to heights of prominence at a time when most Jews in America were excluded from leadership in all other businesses due to antisemitic quotas across industries, private clubs, hotels and universities. These barriers did not exist for the Jewish studio founders in the emerging film industry at the time, in part because the industry was considered by some as disreputable.
The irony, though, is that these Jewish founders helped to create the Hollywood version of the American dream — a vision that often excluded Jews and many other societally oppressed communities. And many Jewish film artists became victims of hatred once again, as antisemitism was directed back at the industry. There were antisemitic leanings running throughout the vindictive investigations of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
There is a deep connectivity between Jewish film artists and the fight against antisemitism. Take screenwriter and producer Dore Schary, for example. In the late 1950s, after experiencing antisemitism in his own life and seeing its deleterious impact on society, Schary went on to become national chairman of ADL. Most Americans may not remember his name, but Schary was a pioneer both in the industry itself and in standing up for the rights of leftist filmmakers during the anti-communist Red Scare. He paid an incredible price for his activism, but nevertheless became a courageous and valiant leader against antisemitism in the U.S. His name is largely forgotten by the American public — and shouldn’t be.
Another important element of this Hollywood story is the role the movies themselves played in exposing the effects of antisemitism in society. Take Gentleman’s Agreement, the groundbreaking 1947 film starring Gregory Peck. The story follows a journalist who decides to write an exposé about antisemitism by pretending to be a Jew himself. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including best picture. Films like this helped to raise public awareness about the detrimental impacts of casual antisemitism in society.
As a cultural institution that seeks to elevate underrepresented and untold stories of the film industry, the Academy Museum has a responsibility to examine and explore the experiences of oppressed and marginalized groups in cinema, including the Jewish community. This is a unique responsibility, not only to the entertainment industry, but also to the hundreds of thousands of people who will be engaging with the Academy Museum each year. The actions that we take to more completely tell Hollywood’s story — truthfully and clearly — have significance that goes far beyond the Academy Museum campus.
It is our intent that the Academy Museum and ADL will partner and work together on public programming that will present the Jewish immigrant story as a central part of Hollywood’s history and that the Jewish experience, as well as the experiences of all marginalized peoples, continue to be reflected in the Academy Museum’s exhibitions, screenings and programs.
Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO of ADL (Anti-Defamation League) and the author of It Could Happen Here. Bill Kramer is the director and president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.
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