Reflections on Some Aspects of Jewish Self-Deception: Part 4. Self-Deception in Jewish Participation in Secular Culture

Andrew Joyce


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

4. Self-Deception in Jewish Participation in Secular Culture

Germany Jewry was a community invisible to itself.”
David Sorkin[1]

That the mass media and entertainment industry has long been dominated by Jews is a matter of fact and not one of belief. Nor is it empirically debatable that while a host of Jewish productions have critiqued all aspects of gentile society, the same productions have been notable for the marked absence of Jews or Judaism. No less an authority than noted Columbia sociologist Herbert J. Gans has affirmed that “the mass media, like other entertainment industries, continues to be dominated by Jews but … they have generally leaned over backwards to keep Jewish characters and Jewish fare out of their offerings.”[2] The aim here is not to go about arguing the case for these already well-established facts, but to probe deeper into the role of self-deception in Jewish involvement in secular culture, and in Jewish beliefs and assertions about the extent and implications of that involvement.

The first major point argued here is that Jews involved in the media and the entertainment industries have to a marked degree engaged in self-deception about the influence of their Jewish identity on their activities in these fields. For example, David Dresser and Lester Friedman have pointed out that literary critics are often perplexed by the denials of Jewish authors that their works have been influenced by their ethnicity, even when such influences are obvious. Dresser and Friedman note that such flagrant, yet apparently earnest, denials have been attributed by experts to “conscious evasion, a personal blind spot, or a psychological problem.”[3]

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The second argument here is that Jews have engaged in self-deception about the extent and nature of that involvement. Self-deceptions regarding the extent of Jewish influence in the media are principally facilitated by two enablers: lies of omission, and the employment of language euphemisms. A typical example would be the fact that, even discounting the presence of Jews in the most influential positions, the enormous over-representation of Jews in the media professions is down-played to a truly remarkable degree. The most popular expression of Jewish self-deception in this respect is the concession that there is, as stated in the ADL-sponsored Anti-Semitism in America, only a “grain of truth” to assertions that this over-representation is vast and amounts to domination.[4]

Even a cursory glance over the relevant literature reveals that self-deception has been a feature of Jewish participation in secular culture since the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto. David Sorkin’s The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780–1840 has a particularly interesting case study on the Jewish author Berthold Auerbach (1812–1882). Sorkin essentially argues that as Jews sought to formulate responses to emancipation, Auerbach became a model for those who sought a middle ground between outright secularism and neo-Orthodoxy. Auerbach was an intellectual who hadn’t renounced his Judaism and yet appeared to manifest all the hallmarks of assimilation. Auerbach perceived secular culture as a neutral arena in which Jews could play an equal role with non-Jews in the life of the state.

Crucially however, Sorkin notes that Auerbach, and other contemporary Jewish intellectuals, couldn’t see that their contributions to the secular cultural arena remained heavily tainted by their Jewishness. For all his pretensions to full assimilation, and the fact that his works had come to focus heavily on rural life in the Black Forest, he “belonged” to the urban intellectual German-Jewish community.[5] Auerbach married a Jewess and “participated in the German-Jewish associational life of the period.”[6] He socialized almost exclusively with other secular Jews, and together they formed an intellectual, non-religious grouping which constituted a “subculture.”

This subculture permitted a more chimerical existence of ideological and racial Judaism. It also contained at its core a strongly self-deceptive ideology — that these individuals were no longer Jews and that they had been freed from ‘Jewishness.’ In essence, they became a community “invisible” to itself.[7] Sorkin writes that, for Auerbach, this ideology “did not allow him to recognize either the existence of the subculture or his own membership in it. The role the subculture played in both his life and his work remained invisible to him. Auerbach could not see how even the production of secular culture could be conditioned by the subculture.

His life therefore presents an exemplary case of how participation in secular culture did not lead to assimilation but to the confirmation, however unwitting, of a new sort of Jewish identity. Thus when toward the end of the century the historian Heinrich von Treitschke accused Auerbach of having created peasants who were little more than ‘disguised Jews,’ Auerbach thought he was merely casting another anti-Semitic aspersion. In fact, he revealed a significant truth not only about Auerbach’s literary vision, but also about the nature of German Jewry.”[8]

Overwhelmingly, Jewish-authored scholarship on the ‘moguls’ who came to dominate Hollywood, along with other Jewish shapers of popular culture, lacks the understanding provided by the concept of the ‘subculture’ and the ideology of self-deception which underpinned it. Instead, these Jewish academics see a straightforward tale of peripheral, non-religious Jews seeking a means to assimilation and wealth into gentile society that was denied to them in other walks of life. For example, Glenda Abramson writes simplistically that “aspirations of assimilation attracted these Jews to Hollywood. The film industry provided, both literally and figuratively, a blank screen upon which the Jewish moguls’ visions of America could be created and projected.”[9] These scholars take at face-value statements like that of David O. Selznick, Jewish producer of Gone with the Wind, who gained fame for an almost aggressive outward assimilationist stance, proclaiming “I am an American, not a Jew.”[10]

This was despite the fact that Selznick had previously contributed to the work of the American Jewish Congress,[11] and was strongly attached to the Jewish causes like the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews during the 1940s — along with other ‘assimilated’ secular media Jews like Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and Harry Cohn.[12] That Selznick was embedded in a non-religious Judaic subculture is further evidenced by the fact he was involved in one of its most popular fads — he had a “preoccupation with psychoanalysis on both an individual and a social level,” which led to his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound.[13] Selznick was “zealous in fighting anti-Semitism,” made personal financial contributions to Jewish charities, and also used some of his influence to ensure the subtle but steady presence of Jews in war films during the 1940s, in what Steven Carr describes as an “attempt to sell a pluralistic American ideal.”[14]

When asked to review the 1936 French biblical film Golgotha, Selznick found the picture to be anti-Semitic. He subsequently wrote to the head of the board of directors at his production company: “It is my duty as a Jew to do everything in my power to keep the picture from being distributed or exhibited in this country, and I will stop at nothing to achieve this end.”[15] Selznick even worked directly with the AJC on movie production. Carr writes that both Selznick and Irving Thalberg (producer of The Good Earth and Ben Hur) attended a meeting with the American Jewish Congress in 1936, during which they were given “story outlines for films” that would “promote a positive vision of the Jew.”[16]

It is therefore abundantly clear that there is more than a little deception and self-deception in Selznick’s claim “I am an American, not a Jew.”

Paul Buhle, a non-Jewish scholar of Jewish involvement in the media and entertainment industries, acknowledges the complex story of Jewish identity and the production of secular culture. Buhle notes a “remarkable pretence or convention” which persisted until the 1950s, whereby “Hollywood Jews in writing and production” lived under altered names and convinced themselves with a “self-constructed” identity that they were “merely one group within the great human melting pot of the burgeoning film industry.”[17] Buhle notes that, although not religious, moguls like Carl Laemmle, Louis Mayer, Harry Cohn, Irving Thalberg, and the Warner brothers moved in an almost exclusively Jewish social milieu. On a larger scale, ethnic “connections and sympathies opened the flourishing Hollywood commerce to thousands of transplanted New Yorkers, in turn offering possible escape routes to Jewish filmmakers in Europe.”[18] There were so many Jews working for Mayer’s MGM that the company was known in Jewish circles as “Mayer’s Ganze Mishpokhe” (“Mayer’s entire family).[19] RCA founder David Sarnoff struggled “to maintain Jewish cultural identity.”[20] Almost all of the moguls maintained links with Jewish organized crime, particularly with Chicago’s Jewish mobster and former pimp, Willie Bioff.[21] Although outwardly, and perhaps even inwardly, maintaining the pretence of an assimilated citizen of the world, Mayer himself was notorious for interfering on the set of the Andy Hardy series by issuing pronouncements on “how the Gentiles behave.”[22]

Despite these realities, there appears to have been a great deal of self-deception and hypocrisy at work in the group. Buhle notes that, despite the fact that these moguls operated in an almost exclusively Jewish world, they were at pains to present the image of “the benevolent melting pot, usually exaggerating its virtues on the screen.”[23]

It is fascinating that one finds similar striking contradictions even in scholarship on the subject. In American Jewish Filmmakers, David Dresser and Lester Friedman consistently maintain the position that Jewish filmmakers have a unique, untainted objectivity because of their Jewishness. They write that “Jewish artists’ marginality allows them a vantage point denied other, more culturally absorbed, creative thinkers.”[24]

This statement is interesting for two reasons. The first is that it is a very obvious admission that “Jewish artists” are not fully “culturally absorbed.” The second is that it features a very standard enabler of self-deception — an inability to acknowledge the constrained representation of the Self. Or, to put it more simply, their statement is typical of the avoidance of the reality of Jewish bias in the perception and representation of reality.

The strangest part of all this is that in other parts of Dresser and Friedman’s work one finds evidence of the ‘subculture’ hiding under the outward ‘objectivity’ and ‘assimilation’ of Jewish writers and producers.

In some cases the slipping of the ‘mask’ of assimilation is explicit and at least semi-conscious. The authors describe in-jokes, which feature regularly in Jewish media and entertainment productions which go under the ‘radar’ of non-Jews. They write that “these in-jokes spontaneously reference shared experiences; they enable hiding from ‘them’ while at the same time acknowledging oneself to one’s own.”[25] So, according to Dresser and Friedman, these ‘artists’ are infusing their work with ‘Jewishness’ based clearly on the idea of an insular group, but their work remains entirely objective. It’s a bizarre position to maintain.

Flux between the conscious and unconscious influence of ‘Jewishness’ on the productions of Jewish contributors to secular culture is a topic discussed to some extent by Paul Buhle. Buhle describes a slightly subversive “unconscious (but also occasionally conscious) dream of certain kinds of Jews involved in the creation of popular culture.”[26] Reflecting on the fact that, like the work of Auerbach, more modern Jewish cultural productions have an undeniably Jewish perspective or agenda running through them, Buhle ponders that “perhaps those Jewish semi-Communists who did so much to create the audience for folk music and jazz during the 1930s–50s really were consciously or semi-consciously seeking to subvert an America that wouldn’t let them in.”[27]

As a contribution to the discussion of Jewish self-deception in the production of culture, Buhle’s comments are interesting, but an important qualifying question here would be: did these Jews actually want to be let in? In the context of our discussion, we may find that leads us on to another, even more complex question: did these Jews deceive themselves into believing that they wanted to be let in? These questions are rhetorical, and answering them empirically would be next to impossible, but they are interesting nonetheless.

It’s really very clear that allusions to the secularity of Jewish-produced media and the importance of non-observance in religious matters should be treated with a great deal of caution. Indeed, as an indicator of the Jewishness of a particular individual, religious adherence isn’t worth much at all.

But what of the impact of this cryptic Judaic subculture on the production of secular culture for the masses? It’s evident that in many cases the resultant cultural production is incredibly hostile towards the behaviors and traditions of non-Jews, and that the impartial objectivity of “Jewish artists” claimed by Dresser and Friedman is itself a self-deception. Buhle uses the example of the 1930s Jewish “funny pages cartoonist” Al Capp. Covering a range of subjects up until the 1930s, Capp reacted against the folkish art honored by the New Deal by turning his attention to and “disparaging” “the supposed Appalachian culture of Dogpatch and its inhabitants.”[28] Capp, described by Buhle as a “vicious old man,” “displayed a meanness” in his visuals and dialogue, “ridiculing familiar gendered elements of rural (i.e. American) culture.”[29] Capp was really an early example of what would become a more widespread and potent phenomenon with the rise of television and the motion picture industry: as Jewish dominance over the media and communications became stronger, so too did the “disparaging” of non-urban America.

Dresser and Friedman present a very benign picture of Jewish attachment to the American urban environment, stating that “Jewish chroniclers of metropolitan life saw an urban existence as one in which Jews, as outsiders among other outsiders, could somehow fit.”[30] What they fail to address is the other side of that particular coin – how Jewishness has affected the cultural productions of “Jewish artists” in relation to the rural, or small town environment. Kevin MacDonald notes the media tendency to “portray small towns as filled with bigots and anti-Semites.”[31] Media commentator Ben Stein argues that

Feelings of affection for small towns run deep in America, and small-town life is treasured by millions of people. But in the mass culture of the country, a hatred for the small town is spewed out on television screens and movie screens every day…Television and the movies are America’s folk culture, and they have nothing but contempt for the way of life of a very large part of the folk…People are told that their culture is, at its root, sick, violent, and depraved, and this message gives them little confidence in the future of that culture. It also leads them to feel ashamed of their country and to believe that if their society is in decline, it deserves to be.[32]

Similarly, Carla Johnston, a former Loeb Fellow at Harvard, wrote in 2000 that “the media distorts coverage of rural America…It portrays it as a place where only ‘hillbillies’ live, or people who are simple, likely bigoted, and probably stupid….There’s a dark unspoken personal evil attached to rural stereotypes.”[33]

Such attitudes were entirely mainstream in the American Jewish community. Consider the comment of Terry A. Cooney on the New York Intellectuals, an influential Jewish intellectual movement. They associated rural America with

nativism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and fascism as well as with anti-intellectualism and provincialism; the urban was associated antithetically with ethnic and cultural tolerance, with internationalism, and with advanced ideas. . . . The New York Intellectuals simply began with the assumption that the rural—with which they associated much of American tradition and most of the territory beyond New York—had little to contribute to a cosmopolitan culture. . . . By interpreting cultural and political issues through the urban-rural lens, writers could even mask assertions of superiority and expressions of anti-democratic sentiments as the judgments of an objective expertise. (The Rise of the New York Intellectuals, 1986, 267–268; italics in text)

There’s really no doubt that the development and reinforcement of such stereotypes is directly linked to the anxieties and animosities, conscious or unconscious, of those Jews who dominate the media professions. Jewish influence in these positions also cuts the other way. Vincent Brook describes the history of “Jewish image surveillance,” where B’nai B’rith, forerunner to the ADL, has been monitoring, boycotting, and interfering in motion picture production since at least 1916 in order to keep Jews out of film, or to at the very least ensure sympathetic portrayals.[34]

There is a considerable amount of self-deception about how and why Jews came to dominate the media, particularly in the United States. Most accounts of the earliest Jewish involvement in the motion picture industry attribute Jewish concentration in the field as a kind of accident. In this reading, Jews were simply looking for a way to assimilate into American culture and, ‘locked out’ of so many established industries, they could find such an avenue only in the new film industry. Indeed, some Jewish scholars even argue that Jews were reluctant to get involved in the film industry. All the components of this fallacy are present in American Jewish Films: The Search for Identity, in which Lawrence Epstein writes that

these Jewish immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe precisely at the time when film technology was just developing. Others may have been reluctant to enter the new business that some found morally questionable and financially uncertain. But, Jews were willing to take a chance….Most of these creators of the film industry were eager to discard their Jewish specificity, to be assimilated, and to be seen as assimilated.”[35]

Yes, of course, they were so eager to discard their Jewish specificity that they formed what Stephen Birmingham has called “the Jewish fraternity of motion picture producers.”[36]

The ‘accident’ theory is simply unsustainable, not least because a great deal of similar ‘accidents’ seem to have taken place elsewhere. Jews dominated Weimer cinema,[37] early Soviet film,[38] and in relation to early twentieth-century French stage and screen Eugen Weber has stated that the scene was “dominated by Jewish managers to such an extent that Christians adopted Jewish names the better to compete.”[39]

A more valid theory for the early near-monopolization of the media is the fact that Jews have a tendency to form monopolies in almost any industry, and that Jews also had the insight that media would offer an alternate, and perhaps superior, route to power and influence than some of the more traditional avenues to power, such as politics and the military. Daniel Judah Elazar describes as Jewish “instinct for being at the centre of every communications network in which they have found themselves. This instinct, a recurring phenomenon in Jewish history, has given the Jews their disproportionate influence in human affairs.”[40]

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

End of Part 4 of 5.


[1] D. Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840 (Oxford University Press, 1987), p.140.
[2] H.J. Gans, “Symbolic ethnicity: The Future of ethnic groups and cultures in America,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2:1, Jan 1979, p.12.
[3] D. Dresser and L. Friedman, American Jewish Filmmakers, (University of Illinois, 2004), p.4.
[4] H. E . Quinley & C. Y. Glock, Anti-Semitism in America (New York: The Free Press, 1979), p.197.
[5] Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840, p.155.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid, p.140.
[8] Ibid, p.155.
[9] G. Abramson, Encyclopaedia of Modern Jewish Culture: Vol.1 (Routledge, 2004), p.150.
[10] Ibid.
[11] W.L. Wall, Inventing the American Way: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford
University Press, 2008), p.82.
[12] A.S. Berg, Goldwyn: A Biography, (Alfred Knopf, 1989), p.189
[13] E. A . Kaplan, Trauma Culture: The Politics of Terror and Loss in Media and Literature, (Rutgers University Press, 2005)  p.75.
Apparently Hitchcock never warmed to Freud.
[14] S.A. Carr, Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History Up to World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2001),  p.281.
[15] Ibid, p.198.
[16] Ibid, p.200.
[17] P. Buhle, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture (Verso, 2004), p.51.
[18] Ibid, p.65.
[19] Ibid, p.67.
[20] L.S. Maisel, Jews in American Politics, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), p.122.
[21] Buhle, p.65.
[22] Ibid, p.68.
[23] Ibid, p.65.
[24] Dresser and Friedman, American Jewish Filmmakers, p.7.
[25] Ibid, p.18.
[26] Buhle, p.45.
[27] Ibid, p.17.
[28] Buhle, p.99.
[29] Ibid, p.99.
[30] Dresser and Friedman, American Jewish Filmmakers, p.6.
[31] MacDonald, CofC, p.lix.
[32] Quoted in MacDonald, CofC, p.lx.
[33] C.B. Johnston, Screened Out: How the Media Controls Us and what we can do about it (M.E. Sharpe, 2000), p.101.
[34] V. Brook, Something ain’t Kosher here: The Rise of the Jewish Sitcom (Rutgers University Press, 2003), p.53.
[35] L. Epstein, American Jewish Films: The Search for Identity (MacFarland & Co, 2013), p.9.
[36] S. Birmingham, ‘The Rest of Us’: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews, (Syracuse University Press, 1999), p.256.
[37] V.K. Fast, Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport (I.B. Taurus, 2011), p.2.
[38] B. Frank, A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, (Pelican, 2000), p.48.
39] E. Weber, France: Fin de Siecle, (Belknap Press, 1988), p.131.[40] D.J. Elazar, Community and Polity: The Organizational
ynamics of American Jewry
, (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), p.48.

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