One would be hard pressed to find someone who cannot identify that iconic signature belonging to one of the world’s most influential men in the entertainment industry. Walt Disney has grown from a singular man into an entire corporation with its own values and even its own city. With any figure of such importance, rumors and myths begin to form around them. For Disney, some range from the inspiring, like the story told in the recent film Saving Mr. Banks (Hancock 2013), to the strange, like the rumor of his being cryogenically frozen. One of the darkest rumors surrounding Disney is the accusations of anti-Semitism. The perception of Walt Disney has been affected by the rumors surrounding his prejudices. His work depicting incredibly stereotypical representations of race becomes evidence for those believing him to be bigoted; but the personal accounts of some of his workers as well as his association with the anti-communist and anti-Semitic group, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals are more likely the source of the myth.
“Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C’mon he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay ‘with your own kind’ at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the ‘King of the Jungle’ number wasn’t proof enough!! How much more information do you need?” (Independent). It is safe to say that Meryl Streep doesn’t care too much for Walt Disney. The quotation above came from a speech she made to honor Emma Thompson who had just stared in the film Saving Mr. Banks, the story of how Disney got the rights to Mary Poppins. Streep made many harsh comments about Disney’s sexism and racism. One member of the Disney family, Abigail Disney his grandniece “took to Facebook to say she ‘loved’ [Streep’s] remarks, and admitted that she herself had ‘mixed feelings’ about her great uncle”. Abigail Disney went on to say “You really need to be as honest as possible about those feelings, or else you are going to lead yourself into many a blind alley in life,” (The Independent). However, The Jewish News Source points out that Streep may be hypocritical in her criticism of Disney. “The irony is that while Meryl Streep was condemning Walt Disney for associating with extremists, she herself was doing the very same thing. The actress to whom she gave that award when she made her anti-Disney speech, her close friend Emma Thompson, is active in the anti-Israel boycott movement” (The Jewish). Emma Thompson, among other British actors, had publically supported a boycott of an Israeli theater troupe during its participation in an English Festival. The troupe, however, has no connection to the Israeli government policies or political beliefs. “It’s only ‘crime’ is that it’s Israeli” (The Jewish).
Streep’s belief of Disney to be anti-Semitic is a popular one. The Fox television show, Family Guy, is known for having their finger on the pulse of the events within pop culture. Walt Disney and his work have been the butt of many jokes on the show. One in particular addresses the myth of his anti-Semitism. In Stewie Griffin: The Untold Story, segment “Stewie B. Goode”, scientists awaken Disney from cryogenic freezing. Disney first asks if there are still Jews. He insists on being re-frozen when he finds out there are. Streep isn’t pulling these accusations out of thin air; they are in the public consciousness as is the myth of his cryogenic freezing. But where do they come from, is the question to be addressed. “Film professor David Hajdu said Disney was ‘a deeply flawed human being. A misogynist? You bet. An anti-Semite? That, too.’ An unnamed ‘female Academy member’ interviewed by the Reporter referred to him as ‘that old anti-Semite, himself, Mr. Disney’.” (The Jewish). However, the accusations retain the myth status for a reason. “There is zero hard evidence that Disney ever wrote or said anything anti-Semitic in private or public,” according to Douglas Brode, author of Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Brode also explained that Disney used more Jewish actors “than any other studio of Hollywood’s golden age, including those run by Jewish movie moguls” (The Jewish).
Many are aware of the stereotypical characterizations of racial ethnicities depicted in older Disney films, despite the company’s best efforts to erase their existence. “For example, Three Little Pigs featured the Big Bad Wolf sneaking up to the door dressed as a Jewish peddler. And The Opry House, during which Mickey Mouse dresses up and dances like a Hasidic Jew” (The Jewish). These two examples are perhaps the most notorious Jewish depictions made by the Disney Studio. In the original version of “The Three Little Pigs”, the Big Bad Wolf dresses up as a Jewish peddler, with a fake rubber nose and all, and says “I’m the Fuller Brush Man! I’m giving away free samples!” with a thick accent. This is a reference to the slogan of the Fuller Brush Men, made up of primarily Jewish men. In the re-edited version, The Big Bad Wolf has his own face, uncovered, and speaks in his normal voice “I’m the Fuller Brush Man! I’m working my way through college!” In the case of Mickey Mouse dancing as a Hasidic Jew in the cartoon “The Opry House”, it is nearly impossible to find the original film. Only still images of the dance can be seen online. The edited version has Mickey belly dancing to Middle Eastern music, which seems just as problematic for Islamic people but obviously that was the safe stereotype to go after next.
Neal Gabler, the only biographer allowed into the Disney archives, wrote in his 2006 novel:
“As with race, one could certainly point to some casual insensitivity. Shortly after the release of Three Little Pigs in 1933, Rabbi J. X. Cohen, the director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote Walt angrily that a scene in which the wolf was portrayed as a Jewish peddler was so ‘vile, revolting and unnecessary as to constitute a direct affront to the Jews,’ especially in light of what was then happening in Germany, and he was asked that he offending scene be removed. Roy, speaking for Walt, responded that he felt the scene was neither vile nor revolting, that the studio had Jewish friends and business associates whom it would not dare to demean, and that the characterization was no different from that of Jewish comedians in vaudeville or on the screen” (Gabler, 454).
Gabler observes that this kind of insensitivity could have very well reinforced the anti-Semitic rumors, but it also could have arisen from the fact that Disney was one of the only studios at the time to not be run by Jewish people (Gabler, 455). Jewish people were not the only group of people to be treated in such a way during that time, let alone by Disney. We see racism in Disney films with the depictions of Native Americans in Peter Pan, of African Americans in Dumbo and Song of the South, and, more recently, of Middle Eastern people in Aladdin. These depictions are no different from what was portrayed on stage in vaudeville shows or on screen. Al Jolson made a career out of it. This does not excuse the racist behavior of the Disney studio or American Society as a whole, but it does put it into a context of the era. That kind of racism was common in that time, so the rumors or anti-Semitism came from even more explicit origins.
A lot of the rumors stem from comments made by “disgruntled employees” (Gabler, 456). Gabler describes a particularly jarring encounter a former employee claimed to have had with the entertainment mogul:
“Hilberman told one Disney biographer that an animator named Zach Schwartz had been fired shortly after the presentations of the union cards. ‘He wasn’t a troublemaker, he was a good artist and didn’t give anybody a hard time. What he did was have was the last name of Schwartz and a big nose.’ (In fact, Walt seldom involved himself in the hiring of firing except at the very top tier.) Many years later an animator and director named David Swift, also a Jew, told another biographer that when he informed Walt he was leaving the studio for a job at Columbia, Walt called him into the office, feigned a Yiddish accent, and said, ‘Okay, Davy Boy, off you go to work for those Jews, It’s where you belong, with those Jews’ When Swift returned to the studio after the war, he claimed that Walt, still resentful, told him that the studio hadn’t ‘come to any harm while you were away with those Jews.’ It is certainly possible that Walt made these remarks out of bitterness shortly after the strike, though it would have been uncharacteristic of him even under those circumstances” (Gabler, 456).
Of course, this anecdote is to be taken with a grain of salt, as is any told fifty years after the fact. However, Gabler goes on to say that Disney “did make insensitive ethnic remarks and occasional slurs, talking about ‘coon voices’ or referring to an Italian band in Pinocchio as ‘a bunch of garlic eaters’ he was tolerant where is counted most and where it wasn’t for public display- his personal life” (Gabler, 455). While there are a few instances of his employees declaring his anti-Semitism, there is an over-abundance of Jewish employees who state otherwise. “Joe Grant, who had been an artist … declared emphatically that Walt was not an anti-Semite. ‘Some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish,’ Grant recalled, thinking no doubt of himself, production manager Harry Tytle, and Kay Kamen, who once quipped that Disney’s New York office had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus. Maurice Rapf concurred that Walt was not anti-semetic; he was just a ‘very conservative guy’.” (Gabler, 455). While these are all second hand accounts, it was a fact that Walt Disney frequently contributed to such Jewish charities as the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, Yeshiva College, The Jewish Home for the Aged, and even after the war to the American League for a Free Palestine. In 1955, he was named Man of the Year by the Beverly Hills Lodge of the B’nai B’rith (Gabler, 456).
Gabler believes that the most likely reason Walt Disney was branded with the anti-Semitic identity was due to his association with people who were blatantly anti-Semitic. “An animator, Art Davis… said that Sharpsteen (an associate of Disney), despite having a name that might be mistaken for Jewish, was actually a vicious anti- Semite who did not knowingly hire Jews and who reviled the ones who had been hired, which was how the studio got its reputation for hostility towards Jews. In this version, Walt was guilty of anti-Semitism by association” (Gabler, 457). This was not the only connection that would link him with morally suspicious people. Walt Disney was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, or MPA as Gabler shortens it. “Walt, in joining forces with the MPA and its band of professional reactionaries and red-baiters, also got tarred with their anti-Semitism” (Gabler, 457). Morrie Ryskind was one of the MPA’s most conservative members an also a Jewish person. However, “it was widely thought both inside and outside the film industry that the group was toxic when it came to anti-Semitism and that Ryskind merely provided cover” (Gabler, 457). Even the FBI was concerned about the organization. One FBI agent reported at the time of the MPA’s formation, “There is every possibility that persons anti-Semitic will attempt to rally around the MPA, making that organization definitely an anti-Semitic group” (Gabler, 457). The group’s principles never stated anything about a dislike for Jewish people. Its purpose was to protect Hollywood from Fascist and Communist groups. Other famous members of the group were John Wayne and Ginger Rogers. We don’t hear about them being anti-Semitic, but that may be due to the fact that it was more satisfying to tarnish the image of one thought to be so pure and kind as Disney was. The MPA had a reputation of being primarily reactionary, but members had been accused of being privately anti-Semitic (The Jewish). It was obviously this organization that Meryl Streep was referring to when she “launched into a tirade about Disney, calling the late animator a ‘hideous anti-Semite’ who ‘formed and supported an anti-Semitic industry lobby’.”(The Independent). Although he did not form it. However, Gabler states that Disney knew full well about the MPA’s purported anti-Semitism, “but he chose to ignore it, possibly feeling that the accusations was communist propaganda. The price he paid was that he would always be lumped not only with anti-communists but also with anti-Semitism, regardless of whether he himself was one or not, he had willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced them and cast his fate with them. And having done so, regardless of the awards and charitable contributions, he would never be able to cleanse himself of the taint” (Gabler, 458). It was with this major mistake on Disney’s part, that he would be forever known as an anti-Semite. And from this initial collaboration with the MPA, people would start looking for evidence of his prejudice. People love scandals and drama, so it is conceivable that past employees played into the anti-Semitism rumors with their stories altered.
With the evidence presented in the research of this topic, a conclusion can be made that Walt Disney is a product of his time and place. It is conceivable he held the same prejudices of any white, powerful, southern, and conservative man in the 30s and 40s. Again, this does not excuse his or societies actions against the depictions of minorities, in essence dehumanizing them into caricatures, but this is consistent with the other entrainment mediums level of racism of the time. It is easy to fall back on these examples, taken out of context of the era, when discussing his potential anti-Semitism. However, the rumors seem to stem from his association with undisputed prejudiced people, who go above the basic level of discrimination and into hatred. Walt Disney’s prejudice does not come from a place of hatred, as we can see from his interactions with Jewish people, but from a place of ignorance of how his depictions may affect the Jewish community in terms of positive representation. These rumors may never go away, as they’ve become an urban legend in our culture. It does not help that the Disney Corporation works so hard to try to erase the unseemly past, rather than address it as an unfortunate representation of history, like the Warner Brothers do with the Looney Toons. But then again, the Looney Tunes wasn’t created by a man who threw his lot in with undeniable anti-Semites. But even Merly Streep has to admit, “He was hella good at making films and his work has made billions of people happy. There’s no denying it” (The Independent).
“1932 -Disney- The Three Little Pigs.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2014.
Brode, Douglas. Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. Austin: U of Texas, 2005. Print.
Family Guy- Stewie B. Goode. Perf. Seth McFarlene. Fuzzy Door, 2006. Web.
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.
Medoff, Rafael, PhD. “Was Walt Disney Anti-Semitic?” RSS. Jewish News Source, 12 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.
Saving Mr. Banks. Dir. John L. Hancock. Perf. Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013. DVD.
“Walt Disney’s Grandniece Backs up Meryl Streep’s Racism Claims: ‘Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!!!’.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.