By Jay Michaelson
The Jews control Hollywood.” It’s one of those anti-Semitic tropes that, we all know, contains a certain grain of truth. “Control,” no — not with that ominous, conspiratorial connotation. But “helped create”? “Disproportionately populate?” Sure.
From the founding of California’s motion picture industry (well documented in books like Neal Gabler’s “An Empire of Their Own: How Jews Created Hollywood”) to the present day, Jews have played an outsized role as its producers, agents, directors and writers. It’s not just a myth.
Which is why the at-least-equally disproportionate exclusion of people of color from the Academy Awards — the phenomenon hashtagged as #OscarsSoWhite — is a Jewish problem. But it’s also a Jewish opportunity, because if Jewish leaders took the initiative to address the crisis proactively, the Jewish “elephant in the room” could instead be a powerful force for change.
We can’t know precisely how many Jews vote in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a lofty name for what is mostly a trade organization. That’s because the names of the academy’s 5,765 voting members are kept secret.
RELATED STORY: Who runs Hollywood? C'monIn 2012, however, the Los Angeles Times did what Angelenos do best — they networked — to confirm the identities of more than 5,100 of those voters. What they found, to no one’s surprise, is that the academy is as white as this year’s honorees. In 2012, Oscar voters were 94% white and 77% male. Blacks and Latinos constituted about 2% each.
That is disgraceful, even if the numbers have improved over the past four years.
Here’s where Jewish leadership could play a role.
Suppose L.A.’s celebrity rabbis urged Jewish film machers to take the initiative in diversifying the industry as a whole, not just the academy specifically. Suppose those movers and shakers personally committed to more recruitment, more support and more training of women and people of color in the film industry at large.
None of this would require government programs, quotas or race-based hiring. Rather, imagine if the Spielbergs and Geffens of L.A. endowed scholarships for minority students working in film, internship opportunities at their own shops, and proactive efforts to reach out to those from disadvantaged communities.
And imagine if they did so as Jews — generally, in the case of Hollywood, non-practicing and non-religious Jews, but still members of what Justice Felix Frankfurter once called “the most persecuted minority in history.” If a public alliance of American Jewish filmmakers took personal initiative to fix this unjust, embarrassing and ugly situation, they could make a real difference.
Would this not honor American Jews’ long experiences with marginalization and exclusion, the historic support of Jews for the civil rights movement, and the most profound teachings of the Jewish ethical tradition?
It would also honor the Jewish history of Hollywood itself. That history is, in many respects, an honorable one with respect to race and class. Gabler’s book makes a convincing argument that Jews, excluded from the elitist and racist New York film industry, created an alternate universe in California that valued the underdog over the elite, the outsider over the insider. This was the world of “Gone With the Wind” (produced by the Jewish David O. Selznick) — which, for all its racial stereotypes and concentration on white Southerners, focuses on a female hero with far less prejudice than her peers — rather than that of the overtly racist “Birth of a Nation,” in which the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes.
So, to call for a Jewish response to #OscarsSoWhite is not to demean the Jewish role in Hollywood, but to affirm its best aspects while working to remedy its shortcomings.