History has a way of repeating itself.
The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, coupled with the latest increase in anti-Semitism, bears a cold resemblance to the tumultuous climate in the United States prior to World War II. In 1941, the United States Senate approved a subcommittee to investigate Hollywood for alleged warmongering. What followed was an exposure of institutionalized anti-Semitism on the national stage.
This weekend saw a mass shooting at a synagogue, leading many to ask why? Perhaps we have reached a point where our culture’s race discussions overlook racism against Jews. History shows us that prejudice will be normalized and mainstreamed when it goes unchallenged. As a culture, we need to continue acknowledging that there is still a battle against anti-Semitism that needs to be waged in our own country and this weekend was a tragic reminder of that.
In the 1930s, white nationalist and pro-Nazi groups, like those that influenced the Pittsburgh shooter, saw increased activity. Groups like the Nazi-influenced German-American Bund penetrated the culture, radio priest Charles Coughlin filled the airwaves with hate, journalist G. Allison Phelps published a xenophobic and anti-Semitic pamphlet about Hollywood, and politicians spoke openly about their animosity towards the Jews. Much of the hate flew under the auspice of pro-Americanism and in opposition to European interventionism. The isolationist movement, headed by the America First Committee, regularly hosted rallies that featured anti-Jewish remarks. Most famously, celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh described the ‘Jew-controlled’ media industry as a danger to the United States.
Senators Gerald Nye (North Dakota) and Burton K. Wheeler (Montana) used the America First movement to promote similar ideas and get Senate backing to investigate Hollywood for both war mongering and monopolistic practices — whichever angle would defeat the Jewish-run industry. By the late 1930s, Hollywood was producing a small number of anti-Nazi films that were based on real stories and popular novels. Films such as Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), The Mortal Storm (1940), and Foreign Correspondent (1941) kept a close eye on the growing impact of prejudice during the rise of fascism. These films were enough to incite isolationist-leaning politicians and on September 9, 1941, a Senate subcommittee opened an investigation on Hollywood.
On the morning of the investigation, many opened their newspapers to a statement from recent presidential candidate Wendell Willkie who had been hired to defend the Hollywood moguls. Willkie offered a denunciation of anti-Jewish sentiment, especially the words from Senator Nye who had regularly argued that anti-Nazi movies are made by immigrants hoping to drag the United States into ‘their war.’ In addition to regularly referring to the interests of ‘real Americans,’ meaning those born in the United States, Nye infamously referred to the Hollywood studios as “gigantic engines of propaganda.” Although Willkie would get substantial press during the investigation, the isolationist Senators muzzled him in the courtroom.
The first days of the Senate investigation featured statements from Hollywood critics such as Senator Nye and Senator Bennett Champ Clark (Missouri). Both Senators chastised Hollywood for warmongering, however, when pressed by then junior Senator Ernest McFarland (Arizona), it was learned that neither of these vocal isolationist Senators had actually watched any of the films in question. McFarland urged the subcommittee to watch the films being discussed, an action suggested throughout the hearings that would never come to fruition.
John T. Flynn, a journalist and America First organizer who also helped orchestrate the hearings, gave additional testimony. Flynn argued that the anti-Nazi films didn’t provide a balanced view of the European conflict. Willkie mused in the press that Flynn must feel that for every anti-Hitler production there should be a pro-Hitler film. Another deposition was given by critical Hollywood journalist Jimmie Fiddler, who largely made a fool of himself trying to defend his gossip columns. Senator McFarland grew increasingly frustrated at how the discussions moved from war propaganda to irrelevant topics such as Fiddler’s connection to a Los Angeles dress shop.
The first days of the investigation were a disaster for the isolationists, who now had to face a lineup of Hollywood power players. Columbia President Nicholas Schenck, Warner Bros. President Harry Warner, Paramount President Barney Balaban, and 20th Century Fox executive Darryl Zanuck all took turns defending the industry against isolationist accusations.
Schenck schooled the subcommittee on theater operations while Zanuck embarrassed the xenophobic Senators by pointing to his American birthplace. Harry Warner delivered the largest blow, arguing that his studio’s interest was only in delivering engaging films based on real stories. Warner then presented a letter that Senator Nye wrote to the studio after seeing Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Nye turned beat red when Warner read Nye’s claim that anyone who loved democracy should enjoy the film.
At this point the subcommittee was a national joke, but it didn’t stop Senators Nye and Wheeler from pushing forward and speaking out against alleged foreign interests in Hollywood. Ultimately, the attack on Pearl Harbor would render mute any argument for isolationism. By the end of 1945, the United States helped defeat the greatest cause of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century. However, the mainstream prejudice from political and cultural leaders before the war has largely been forgotten.
Today, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that Anti-Semitic incidents rose almost 60 percent in 2017. The ADL stated that in 2015 anti-Jewish hate crimes were up 35 percent and 57 percent in 2016. In 2017, President Trump invalidated ongoing threats to Jewish community centers, claiming the threats were not real and only orchestrated (possibly by the Jews themselves) to make others look bad. On October 17th of 2018, religious activist Louis Farrakhan took to Twitter with a video featuring the quote, “I’m not anti-Semite, I’m anti-Termite.” When criticized for allowing such rhetoric on Twitter, the social media company stood behind him.
In the wake of increased anti-Jewish prejudice that has displayed itself in the Pittsburgh shooting, we must remain both aware and critical of those that project anti-Semitism today. It may not be as easy to identify as a single cartoonish villain like Hitler, which means our lenses must be clear enough to see the warning signs before shots are fired.
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books