Here’s something we are no right to talk about Ye/Kanye Westis recent series of antisemitic tirades: there is a little grain of truth in them.
No, obviously not conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, or outright fascist claims that people who don’t believe in Christ shouldn’t hold public office. Ye has clearly gone into either deep mental illness or hatred or both.
But it’s true that Hollywood there are a lot of jews in there, aren’t there?
It shouldn’t be controversial to admit this. After all, Adam Sandler sang in 1994 that “so many Jews are in showbiz”. And, speaking here as someone who has worked as a rabbi, queer activist and journalist for the past twenty years, I don’t think it’s helpful for us to deny this reality or refuse to discuss it. This only pushes people’s questions underground, where they often turn into doubts or apprehensions, aided by the shitty fertilizer of online conspiracy traffickers.
So I’ll talk about it.
Not to defend Kanye, because that’s impossible. But because, again as a rabbi here, I understand that reasonable, non-bigoted people might wonder why there are so many Jews in the entertainment industry, and I want to answer that question. Especially because it turns out that the real story of why there are so many Jews in Hollywood is itself largely tied to the long history of racism and antisemitism.
For centuries in Europe and America, Jews were exclude of most paths to wealth. Until the 1800s, we were prohibited from owning land in most of Europe and from most guilds, industries and professions. As a result, European Jews seeking upward mobility turned to urban, cosmopolitan pursuits like trading, moneylending (often forbidden to Christians), and, when they could, emerging professions like law. . Many also turned to theatrical entertainment, often considered too indecent (and, for men, “effeminate”) for respectable Christians.
This continued in the United States, but with more opportunities for entrepreneurship. Elite “white shoe” law firms all banned Jews, so Jews created their own (often with a non-Jewish partner as a first name on the door). Elite hospitals refused to hire Jewish doctors, so Jews set up their own (often with Jewish-sounding names like Mount Sinai). Elite theaters refused to employ Jews, so Jews came to dominate vaudeville – and ultimately the fledgling film industry, which, like vaudeville, was seen as too vulgar, too working-class, too base for good Christians to be involved. with.
Thus, in the California of the 1920s and 1930s, these first-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe built their own power structures, their own studios, even their own country clubs, when they were kicked out of the ones that already existed. While there were plenty of non-Jewish studios too (Disney, for example, not to mention DW Griffith and Harry Aitken’s Epoch, which gave us the openly racist and glorifying KKK epic Birth of a nation), Jewish immigrants based Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Loew’s and Universal.
Jews have become disproportionately present not only among studio bosses but throughout the Hollywood enchilada (or bagel, I guess): agents, music moguls, lawyers, everyone. In Sandler’s words, “Tom Cruise is not [Jewish], but I heard his agent was. Shunned by anti-Semitism, these former Jewish immigrants created their own empire.
Not only that, but as Neal Gabler talks about in his book An Empire of Their Own: How Jews Invented Hollywood (which also became the film Hollywood: an empire in its own right) these Jewish producers, directors, and screenwriters—mostly first-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe—created a whole new American mythos, about a land where you could come from nothing and make something of yourself . While overtly Christian themes were still common, Hollywood’s Golden Age also featured a secular, mixed-race kind of American: decent and hardworking, standing up to bullies and moving forward. It was no utopia – this American was white, straight and Protestant – but Louis Mayer, the Warners, Adolph Zukor and their generation of immigrant moguls promoted and created a new version of the American dream.
They also faced persistent anti-Semitism.
While Jewish studio moguls were one thing, Jewish actors were something else – and most changed their names to gain mainstream acceptance. Emanuel Goldenberg became Edward G. Robinson. Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall. Issur Danielovitch Demsky became Kirk Douglas. Even my (twice distant) cousin Nathan Birnbaum became George Burns.
And the association of Jews with Hollywood was well known long before Kanye pointed it out in hate. During the Red Scare of the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy – and his Jewish/Jewish, gay/queer-baiting sidekick, Roy Cohnwho happened to become the mentor of the young donald trump – pointed to Jewish Hollywood as a hotbed of communism.
So, yes, even now, a century later, there is still a disproportionate number of American Jews in the entertainment industry. It is culturally prevalent in American Jewish culture; it’s something that a lot of Jews do, whether in front of the camera, behind it, or in the studio offices. And the networks built by the first generation of moguls are now firmly entrenched, and the “alternative” country clubs they founded are now where deals are made and fortunes are made.
This is problematic: to the extent that Jewishness overlaps with whiteness (which is a whole other convoluted story), these entrenched networks and structures have resulted in the exclusion of other groups, including people of color. But that doesn’t mean there’s a nefarious plot. Dave Chappelle put it right in its controversial-and-maybe-not-quite-ok SNL monologue: “There are two words in the English language that you should never say together in order, and those words are ‘The’ and ‘Jews.’ I’ve never heard anyone do any good after saying that.
It’s exactly that. Because there are no “Jews”, an organized, coordinated entity. Ask anyone who’s ever been to a synagogue – there’s no way we can be as organized as we are depicted in extravagant fiction Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the feverish imagination of Ye. There are only… Jews. No plan, no central coordinating agency, no conspiracy, no adrenochrome harvesting committee, nothing.
Chapelle was also right when he said, “I’ve been to Hollywood, and…there are a lot of Jews. Like a plot.” It is true, and it is true for specific historical reasons. But it is, as he continued, an “illusion that Jews run show business.”
This illusion of control – whether in finance, politics or the media – is a classic anti-Semitic gesture. When was the last time you thought about who “controls” agriculture, cars or railroads? Nobody talks about white Christian men controlling certain industries. It is only when there are Jews around – again, due to specific historical causes – that this delusion becomes a conspiracy theory.
And, of course, this is a dangerous illusion. Because if there really is a shadowy elite conspiracy harming society, well, doesn’t it make sense to retaliate against it? There’s a Straight Line Between Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories – Whether of the Kanye Variety or Any Other – and My Daughter’s Preschool Receiving a Credible Threat of Violence (According to the FBI) a few weeks ago. Just as there is a line from QAnon to January 6, from stochastic terrorism from transphobic politicians to attacks on queer gathering places, and from the racist rhetoric of the “great replacement” of reactionary politicians at violence perpetrated on black bodies.
Well, that’s interesting: Queers, Blacks and Jews…. I wonder who could possibly gain from dividing and oppressing these marginalized populations? In a sense, it is the real plot.