Why are so many Jews working in Hollywood? - opinion

Jews do not run Hollywood. It is crucial to address, however, that, yes, the entertainment industry has disproportionately many Jewish people working in it.

 COMEDIAN DAVE Chappelle arrives to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, in Washington, in 2019. The statement by Chappelle last month, implying that Jews ‘run Hollywood’ was inaccurate, says the writer.  (photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
COMEDIAN DAVE Chappelle arrives to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, in Washington, in 2019. The statement by Chappelle last month, implying that Jews ‘run Hollywood’ was inaccurate, says the writer.
(photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

It’s time to address the burning topics that have come about recently: Jewish people and Hollywood. The not-so-subtle comments made by certain celebrities have opened up many questions for people outside of the Jewish community: How come there are so many Jews working in Hollywood?

Statements made or implied by celebrities like Kanye West and Dave Chappelle are inaccurate. Jewish people do not run Hollywood. You would think the average person could understand that a minority that makes up 2% of the American population couldn’t possibly control one of the world’s largest industries. The famous studios we all enjoy and love are subsets of giant corporations managed by different people.

It is crucial to address, however, that, yes, the entertainment industry has disproportionately many Jewish people working in it. Denying it doesn’t help our case but understanding how it happened can explain some confusion. Jewish success is not limited to the entertainment industry. Our community has had long-standing growth and representation in finance, business and law fields.

So the question remains, what about Jewish people gives them success in these industries?

It isn’t because we have superpowers, influence and control. And it isn’t because Jewish people are greedy for money. Ironically, these same stereotypes that perpetuated discrimination against Jews are what brought them to work in the entertainment industry. Our secret to success has always been our resilience.

  Rapper Kanye West holds his first rally in support of his presidential bid in North Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. July 19, 2020.  (credit: REUTERS/Randall Hill/File Photo) Rapper Kanye West holds his first rally in support of his presidential bid in North Charleston, South Carolina, U.S. July 19, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/Randall Hill/File Photo)

The way Jewish people emerged in Hollywood is a beautiful story of a minority group who came to America with nothing but had to find a way to make something of themselves. It was the long-standing racism in Europe and America that forced Jews into jobs that were not popular. Jay Michaelson recently explained this very well in his article in Rolling Stone titled “There are lots of Jews in Hollywood. Let a Rabbi explain why.”

In the article, Michaelson describes that throughout history, European and American society denied Jews the right to own land and barred them from most industries. As a result, they had to work in urban professions, such as trade and finance. At the time, money lending was considered a dirty job so many Jewish people took jobs in trade or joined emerging professions like law. Many Jews also turned to theater, which was considered too indecent for the average respectable Christian. Some academics attributed Jewish success to our community’s high literacy rates.

Elite law firms and hospitals refused to hire Jewish lawyers and doctors so Jews decided to open their law firms and hospitals (we all are familiar with Mount Sinai). So too in entertainment, upscale theaters would not employ Jews so our community came to dominate vaudeville (a theatrical genre of variety entertainment), an industry hospitable to Jews and considered too vulgar for Christians at the time. Since it wasn’t a respectable field, society did nothing to keep Jewish entrepreneurs out of the industry.

WHEN MOVIES were introduced in the late 1920s, ensuring success required the same skills that Jewish people had in vaudeville and the garment trade. Many first-generation Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe built their studios in California. Immigrants like Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor and Samuel Goldwyn were some of the key founders of Hollywood studios that you know and love today (Jewish Unpacked, 2021). Carl Laemmle, a German-born Jew, marketed clothing before starting Universal Pictures.

Adolph Zukor founded Paramount Pictures, a Hungarian-born Jew who had sold furs before entering the entertainment business. Zukor’s later business partner, Jesse Lasky, was an American-born Jew who was previously a vaudeville horn player. Marcus Loew, an American-born Jew, came from vaudeville before pivoting to movie theaters (AMC Loew’s) and production. The examples go on and on, and include Shmuel Gelbfisz (Samuel Goldwyn), who sold gloves before he entered the film business (Jewish Unpacked, 2021). Since so many early Hollywood studio key founders were Jewish, it was natural for Jewish people to become active and take senior positions in Hollywood over time.

One might think that given the history, it would be perfectly logical to understand why Jewish people are largely active in the entertainment industry today. Why, then, has it become such a controversial issue? Insinuating that Jewish people have some power of control over the world isn’t new, it is an age-old antisemitic trope that has been one of the significant drivers of antisemitism throughout history.

Throughout time, Jewish people have been scapegoated and blamed for world problems. Age-old conspiracy theories have manifested differently in each generation and today, antisemites are using the fact there is a high representation of Jews to insinuate the same tropes. Whether in Hollywood, business or finance, Jewish success, instead of attributing our success to hard work, is used by antisemites as a way of labeling Jewish people as money hungry and greedy.

The irony is that most Hollywood Jewish studio owners wanted nothing more than anything to assimilate into American culture to escape antisemitism. We can see this clearly in early Hollywood movies, where Jewish people made films that broke down barriers and offered a vision of what America’s melting pot could strive for in the future.

One thing here is abundantly clear, the secret to Jewish success is our community’s resilience and will to fight against barriers. It will not be the first or last time that figures use our success as a weapon against us. But when we talk about Jewish representation in these professions and industries, we need to talk about them through the history of breaking barriers when faced with discrimination.

Jewish people do have a superpower: it’s called resilience.

The writer is a social media activist with over 10 years of experience working for Israel, Jewish and caused-based NGOs. She is the co-founder and COO of Social Lite Creative, a digital marketing firm that specializes in geopolitics.