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Of Moguls, The Ku Klux Klan, & The Jewish Australian Dream: A Friday Thought

August 23, 2013 – 9:42 am12 Comments

From the editor:

ku klux klan2In his book, Them, about (mostly anti-Semitic) extremists,  Jon Ronson writes about a very odd chapter in the history of American cinema.

The great Jewish movie mogul, Louis B Mayer’s early foray into movie production included a film – Birth of a Nation – that glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

This was during the period just before the Jewish influx into the American movie industry. Today, Jews comprise 2% of America’s population and 60% of the movie business.

Ronson also writes about the hesitation of American Jewish producers to advocate through film for European Jewry during the Holocaust for fear of drawing negative attention to American Jewry. Indeed, at times, according to Ronson, some of the more anti-Semitic people in American film were Jews themselves.

Despite all the reticence and antipathy, however, Ronson describes a filmic culture with an indelible Jewish stamp.

Where once American cinema glorified white supremacy, the Jewish influx created films that extolled the virtues of tolerance and the victory of the little guy over various Goliaths. Ronson contends that it is a very Jewish sentimentality that seems to permeate so many movies and that  the American dream is born of this culture. He argues that the American dream is therefore inherently a Jewish dream.

Do you agree with Ronson’s assessment?

Do you believe that Australian Jews are similarly conflicted?

What is the Australian Jewish dream and is it any different from the aspirations of broader Australia?

Is there a dream at all?

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  • frosh says:

    Interesting topic. I tend to agree with Ronson (or at least your synopsis of his writing, and I have to confess to not having read his book) on the role of Jews in Hollywood.

    They’ve never really felt secure with their position as Americans, and that is why they avoided advocacy of Jewish rights (in a time when Jews faced great persecution). Even to this day, we hardly see truly positive and secure Jewish characters on film, and when we do, it’s more likely to come from the work of non-Jews, just as any films that advocated for Jewish rights came from the work of non-Jews (e.g. Gentleman’s Agreement).

    There’s another book about this by Neal Gabler, titled: An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. It’s also been made into a documentary, which you can watch online for free at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLB496FBFB242C53FB

  • letters in the age says:


    Just to add Dr Cannolds resignation from Assanges group…

    Very intetesting to say the least..

    I hope she joins a major party or runs with The Greens…

  • Alicia Mayer says:

    To say that the Jewish moguls did not advocate for Jews during WWI and the Holocaust is patently wrong. They did so overtly and covertly. Here’s my rebuttal to Ben Urwand’s book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler as it is relative to this discussion:


    My great-uncle’s involvement in Birth of the Nation was in the early to mid 1910s when he himself was new to America (having come from St John, NB in Canada) and most likely did not understand the underlying themes. He would’ve been impressed by other elements. It’s also important to not see responses/actions through today’s lens. That’s like looking through a spyglass through the wrong side.

    Find me on twitter via @RealAliciaMayer

  • Alex Fein says:

    That’s fascinating, Alicia. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  • frosh says:

    Hi Alicia,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. I read your essay, and the two other essays your essay links to.

    I wouldn’t accuse the Jewish moguls of collaboration. However, I’m not aware of any evidence for their advocacy for Jewish rights or welfare, either in Europe or America. In your essay that you have linked to, you mention a number of prominent families, including the Zanuck’s.

    My understanding is that Darryl F. Zanuck was not Jewish.
    I quote this article in the NYT, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/01/movies/film-darryl-f-zanuck-action-hero-of-the-studio-era.html?pagewanted=1
    “Almost all those who created the American movie industry were Jewish, and many of them were immigrants, but Zanuck was a notable exception.”

    I think it’s no coincidence that Zanuck, a gentile, was the one to make the seminal film about anti-Semitic prejudice, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). As a gentile, he wasn’t afraid of being charged with dual loyalty or being seen as too much of a Jew, not enough of a loyal American.

  • Alicia Mayer says:

    Dear Frosh,

    Thanks for that insight re the Zanucks. And you’re right – they were a notable exception amongst the Jewish immigrant families. I’ll change this in my essay.

    Using my family as an example, my great uncle worked hand-in-hand with my great-grandmother, Ida Mayer Cummings on several notable projects in both America and Canada. Mainly, they both helped to raise millions in assistance for the Jewish Home for the Aged, which helped ensure elderly Jews lived their final years with dignity. There were also many linked fundraising activities to the JHA. My great-grandmother’s annual fundraising gala was started either the same year or shortly before or after the Academy Awards. It has been held for that long in the same venue as well – the Beverly Hills Hotel.

    Uncle Louis and Ida were also close to the legendary Rabbi Edgar Magnin and active members of the Congregation B’nai B’rith/Wilshire Boulevard Temple. There were many ways to contribute to the community through this channel.

    And just yesterday, footage was found of Louis B. Mayer and his cousin Nathan Cummings (who founded Sara Lee Foods) setting the foundation stone for the shul in St John, New Brunswick, Canada. I am waiting to hear more about this. Together both men contributed to Jewish causes in their mothers’ names.

    I will eventually coalesce all of their activities into an essay on http://www.HollywoodEssays.com but I have written extensively about the JHA and my great-grandmother Ida across several essays.

    Thank you for your questions.

  • letters in the age says:

    Wow Alicia!!

    Great stories and memories by all!!

  • Alicia Mayer says:

    I should also add that there is evidence that the studio heads worked behind-the-scenes in the MPDAA archive. However, interestingly several of the moguls and other Hollywood powerbrokers lived on the one street – Palisades Beach Road. They were also members of the same congregation (with Rabbi Magnin as mentioned above). They saw each other quite a lot and it’s safe to say that their ‘resistance’ activities would’ve happened privately.

  • Alicia Mayer says:

    By the way, I live in Sydney. Here’s a little bit about me: http://hollywoodessays.com/about

  • letters in the age says:

    lovely Alicia.

    Thanks for sharing.


  • eli says:

    Hi Frosh,
    Re your statement ‘it’s more likely to come from the work of non-Jews, just as any films that advocated for Jewish rights came from the work of non-Jews (e.g. Gentleman’s Agreement)
    That is somewhat incorrect.
    The book on which the screenplay was based was written by Laura Z. Hobson.She was born Laura Kean Zametkin in New York City, the twin daughter of Jewish immigrants, Michael Zametkin and Adella Kean.
    The screenplay was written by Moss Hart.He was born to English-born Jewish immigrant parents who lived in the Bronx.
    Zanuk, the producer was not Jewish however produced it any case against the wishes of Samuel Goldwyn. John Garfield who was Jewish,accepted a part in the film because he wanted to be part of it.
    There was certainly conflicting emotions for Hollywood Jews at the time. But the essence of the work as well as many others was about the rights of not just Jews but all minorities.

  • frosh says:

    Eli, books are books, and Hollywood movies are Hollywood movies. I’ve never stated that Jews didn’t write books advocating for Jews, or didn’t write books with strong positive Jewish characters.

    I am only referring to Hollywood film that were produced/released.

    You statement that “Zanuk, the producer was not Jewish however produced it any case against the wishes of Samuel Goldwyn” only strengthens my argument.

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