After criticism, film museum will highlight Hollywood's Jewish history

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After criticism, film museum will highlight Hollywood's Jewish history
The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, Sept. 15, 2021. The Academy’s new museum, which tried to present an inclusive history of film, overlooked the role Jewish immigrants played in creating the industry. Rozette Rago/The New York Times.

by Adam Nagourney

LOS ANGELES, CA.- When the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a 300,000-square-foot tribute to Hollywood, opened here last fall, it was lauded for honoring, in an industry historically dominated by white men, the contributions that women, artists of color and people from many backgrounds have made to film, an essential American art form.

“We want to ensure that we are taking an honest, inclusive and diverse look at our history, that we create a safe space for complicated, hard conversations,” the museum’s director, Bill Kramer, said the day after the museum opened as he welcomed guests to a panel discussion titled “Creating a More Inclusive Museum.”

But one group was conspicuously absent in this initial celebration of diversity and inclusivity: the Jewish immigrants — white men all — who were central to founding the Hollywood studio system. Through dozens of exhibits and rooms, there is barely a mention of Harry and Jack Warner, Adolph Zukor, Samuel Goldwyn or Louis B. Mayer, to list just a few of the best-known names from Hollywood’s history.

The omission, which came at a time of increasing concern about rising antisemitism across the country, soon drew complaints from Jewish leaders, concern from supporters of the new museum and a number of critical articles, including in Rolling Stone and The Forward, which ran a piece headlined “Jews built Hollywood. So why is their history erased from the Academy’s new museum?”

“I was there opening night: I was shocked by the absence of an inclusion of Jews in the Hollywood story,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, a group that tracks antisemitism and hate crimes.

Now, museum officials say, that is going to change.

Barraged by complaints, the museum plans to open a new permanent exhibition next spring devoted to the origins of Hollywood, and specifically the lives and contributions of the Jewish studio founders who were largely responsible for creating the world that is being celebrated by the sellout crowds flocking to the new museum.

Kramer said in an interview that the Academy Museum had always intended to open a temporary gallery devoted to the subject. “We’ve long had this on our list to do, and we knew this was going to be in our first rotations,” he said recently over coffee at Fanny’s, the museum’s restaurant. But the criticism prompted museum officials to shift gears and decide to enshrine it as a permanent exhibition.

“Representation is so important,” Kramer said “We heard that and we take that seriously. When you talk about the founding of Hollywood studios, you’re talking about the Jewish founders.”

The dispute highlights the challenges museums across the nation face in an atmosphere of heightened sensitivities about issues of representation and race and gender. It is particularly complicated for the Academy Museum, as it tries to walk the uncomfortable line between being a place of scholarship and a sales tool for an industry struggling to reinvent itself as audiences abandon movie theaters for their living rooms.

“It’s a colossal miss,” said Greenblatt, of the Anti-Defamation League. “Any honest historical assessment of the motion-picture industry should include the role that Jews played in building the industry from the ground up.”

Some historians said the omission appeared to be the latest example of Hollywood’s strained relationship with its Jewish history.

“You have to understand that Hollywood in its very inception was formed out of a fear that its founders — and those who maintained the industry — would be identified as Jews,” said Neal Gabler, the author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” a book about the Jewish studio heads. “It’s almost fitting that a museum devoted to the history of Hollywood would incorporate in its very evolution this fear and sensitivity.”

Still, Jewish leaders said they were heartened by the museum’s response to their complaints. Kramer and other museum leaders reached out to rabbis and Jewish scholars, including Gabler and Greenblatt, asking their guidance on what should be included in the new gallery to repair this breach.

“I am convinced they are going to do the right thing,” Greenblatt said.

What that is, though, is not yet clear. The exhibition is being planned for a relatively modest 850-square-foot gallery on the third floor of the building. Dara Jaffe, the curator, said the exhibition, which will be called “Hollywoodland,” will be a broad look at the origins of the industry. It will highlight the biographies and achievements of the founders of the major studios, as well as of some lesser-known Jewish filmmakers.

“We want to answer the question of: Why Los Angeles?” Jaffe said. “Why is this the place where the world capital of cinema blossomed? It’s not a coincidence that many of the founders are predominantly Jewish. It’s a specifically Jewish story and a specifically Jewish immigrant story.”

The exhibition will not open for a year, and key details, from how it will be presented to what kind of artifacts will be included, are still in the planning stages.

Haim Saban, an Israeli American philanthropist and media entrepreneur who with his wife, Cheryl, donated $50 million to the museum, becoming one of its most important benefactors, said in an email that the promise of a new gallery “not only underscores how seriously the Academy Museum has taken the feedback, but demonstrates an understanding of the critical role that Jewish founders had in the establishment and shaping of Hollywood.”

Saban was among the major backers of the museum to register his concern within days after it opened. He and his wife were critical to financing what ended up to be a $487 million project; the main exhibition hall at the museum was named the “Saban Building” in their honor.

Some are asking how a museum that took such care to highlight the contributions of people from a diverse array of backgrounds — it created an Inclusion Advisory Committee to offer guidance on how to deal with these issues, and made a call to “Embrace Diversity and Be Radically Inclusive” one of its guiding principles — neglected to account for the role of some of the biggest names in Hollywood history.

“There is a historic tendency of Jewish people in the industry to play down the fact that they were Jewish,” said Rabbi Kurt F. Stone of Boca Raton, Florida, who grew up in Los Angeles and is one of the rabbis the museum consulted after the backlash began. “But do I have an answer as to why they screwed up so badly? I don’t.”

Sid Ganis, a former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a lifetime trustee of the museum, said he was surprised at the depth of the outrage that emerged after the museum opened its doors. “It was vocal and real and something we paid attention to,” he said.

Ganis, a longtime proponent of the museum, said organizers were always aware of the importance of Jews in Hollywood history, adding that this was not an oversight. “We just hadn’t gotten to it yet,” he said. “Opening the museum at the end of October, the beginning of November, was an enormous undertaking. And we made choices. It was something we always knew we were going to attend to. But now, even more so.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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