Let’s settle this once and for all. In 2014, Meryl Streep gave a speech accusing Disney of being a racist and an anti-Semite. I dealt with the racism accusations in The Disney Conspiracy, Part II. Now let’s look at Walt Disney’s feelings towards the Jews, and whether he really was an anti-Semitic Nazi sympathiser.
Disney’s grandniece Abigail Disney supported what Meryl Streep said about Disney being anti-Jew. This is his actual grandniece. So we should believe her, right? She ought to know. Right?
Not necessarily. I demonstrated in my last Disney conspiracy article that Abigail Disney doesn’t really know what she’s talking about when it comes to her great uncle. And she was born in 1960. Walt died in 1966. She cannot claim any first-hand experience of his attitudes, beliefs and work practices.
Still, it seems a lot of young people these days – including a friend of mine – subscribe to the notion that Walt Disney was pro-Nazi and hated the Jews. Where does this come from?
Disney’s affiliations with pro-Nazis
In 1938, Walt Disney welcomed German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood to promote her film, Olympia. Riefenstahl was a friend to Adolf Hitler and known for producing documentaries that glorified the Nazis. When this knowledge reached Hollywood, all the main studios refused to screen her movies – apart from Disney.
It’s a stretch to say that this is evidence that Disney was pro-Nazi. At most, it’s evidence that he was simply ignorant. Three months after her visit, Disney claimed that he did not know about her Nazi-glorifying works when he issued the invitation. He decided not to work with her again for fear of it damaging his reputation.
Disney animator and Goofy creator Art Babbitt, who was Jewish, accused Walt of being a Nazi follower or sympathiser in the 30s. He claimed to have seen Disney and his lawyer attending meetings of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organisation in the late 30s. However, while nobody knows what these meetings were about, some have theorised that Disney’s interest in the organisation was about forging good business relationships with Germany, i.e. for distributing his films there.
And Disney biographer Neal Gabler, the first writer to be given unrestricted access to the Disney archives, questions Babbitt’s story about these meetings ever having happened. (Babbitt was known for having a deep dislike of Walt Disney and there were a number of feuds and legal disputes between him and the studio.) Gabler said that Disney had no time for political meetings, nor did he have much interest in politics.
So was Disney pro-Nazism? Despite the lack of evidence, a lot of people still think that he was. The rumours have been flying about for a long time and are linked with the accusations that he hated Jewish people (which I’ll come onto in a moment). “Walt Disney Nazi” and “Walt Disney was a Nazi” are among the most searched for Walt Disney-related terms on Google.
But the ‘evidence’ above does not demonstrate that Disney allied himself with the Nazi party. In fact, while there is no concrete evidence that Disney was pro-Nazi, there is evidence that he was anti-Nazi. After all, he made several anti-Nazi propaganda films during World War II, including Education for Death and Donald Duck cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face, both of which criticised and parodied the Nazis and Hitler.
Disney and the Jews
Over the years, unfounded rumours, ignorant animation choices and the odd ill-thought-out remark have been exaggerated and blown out of proportion. They’ve been cultivated into a fully-fledged theory that Walt Disney hated the Jews.
Jewish animator David Swift said that when he told Walt that he was leaving the Disney Studio to go and work for Columbia Pictures, Disney responded, feigning a Yiddish accent, “Okay, Davy boy, off you go to work for those Jews. It’s where you belong, with those Jews.” From what I can tell, this seems to have been nothing more than an inappropriate joke. Swift returned to work for Disney in 1945, and said later that he “owed everything” to Disney. When he left the studio again in the 50s, Disney said to him, “There is still a candle burning in the window if you ever want to come back.”
Animator Ward Kimball also said in a 1986 interview, “Walt was prone to remarks about Jews, I guess like everyone else.” Similarly, Disney was known for using the odd racist slur in story meetings. But as I argued in my previous article, and as pointed out by Kimball, the words Disney used were the same words used by everyone else. Disney was the product of a racially insensitive time, and like many people, he was ignorant of other cultures and belief systems, and naively went along with the stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. Ignorance and hatred are not the same things.
Disney’s association with a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals – an anti-Semitic organisation – is another reason for the allegations levelled at him. This is what Meryl Streep referred to when she accused Disney of being an anti-Semite last year. In his article, Fact Checking Meryl Streep’s Disney-Bashing Speech, Amid Amidi points out that although the group did contain anti-Semites, and did earn itself an anti-Semitic reputation, it did not start out as an inherently anti-Semitic organisation. Rather, its mission statement said that it was dedicated to fighting fascism in Hollywood. Amidi also points out that Walt’s reasons for joining it were nothing to do with anti-Semitism…
“Disney’s actions speak powerfully to the notion that his involvement in the group was to settle personal scores against those whom he felt had wronged him, and never an ideological stance against Jews.”
Finally there’s the issue of the Jewish stereotypes that appeared in a few of Disney’s cartoons. In the original version of Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf comes to the door dressed as a stereotypical Jewish peddler, and in The Opry House, Mickey Mouse is dressed as a Hasidic Jew. But these kinds of stereotypes were appearing in all cartoons from all studios at that time. They’re not evidence that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite and hated Jews, just that he was ignorant of Jewish culture – just like everyone else in Hollywood.
The fact is, there is no evidence that Disney ever displayed any animosity towards Jewish people. On the contrary, there is more evidence for the opposite. Disney was known for donating regularly to Jewish charities. Artist Joe Grant noted that “some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish”. In fact, head of marketing Herman Kamen – himself a Jew – joked that Disney’s New York office “had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus”. And among the many Jews who worked for Disney were the Sherman Brothers, who composed the songs for films like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book; Robert B. Sherman said he saw no evidence of any anti-Semitism during the seven years he worked closely with Walt.
Biographers Katherine and Richard Greene said that after a decade of research into Walt Disney, looking carefully at letters and memos and having conversations with reliable sources, they could find no evidence that Disney harboured a dislike of Jews. And they were both Jewish themselves. They pointed out that in 1955, the B’nai B’rith chapter in Beverly Hills – a Jewish organisation committed to protecting the Jewish community and combating anti-Semitism – named Walt Disney their ‘Man of the Year’. The Greenes said it was “hardly an award likely to presented to an anti-Semite.”
Most researchers have concluded that the long-held belief that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite is a myth. Just like the allegations that he was a racist. People simply don’t want to believe that this enormously influential individual, who built the most successful entertainment empire in the world, was actually a nice guy. They’re determined to find Disney’s ‘dark side’. They’re determined to dig up skeletons in his closet.
Sorry folks. There aren’t any.
Next week: the curse of The Omen