Guest post on Walt Disney and anti-Semitism

Originally a comment by flippyshark on Meryl Streep the rabid, man eating feminist.

He formed and supported an Anti-Semitic industry lobby

There is no turning Walt Disney into a liberal hero. But as far as I can tell, this claim is just plain not factual. After the animator’s strike in the 1940s, Walt Disney was most certainly anti-union, and happy to help the McCarthy witch hunt. But I cannot find any credible evidence that he harbored any specific animus against Jews. The worst I can find are some anecdotal accounts of him using insensitive phrases in casual conversation (“Have the accountants Jew up the numbers”) – and animator Art Babbit (who was Jewish and active in the unionizing of the animation studio) alleged that Walt and Roy Disney attended meetings of the German-American Bundt (for business reasons) in the years before WWII. (Can’t be confirmed) During the war, the Disney Studio produced plenty of anti-Nazi wartime propaganda, and there is no evidence that Walt had any pro-Nazi sentiments at that or any time. Indeed, he proudly took home an Oscar for the zany anti-Hitler Donald Duck short “Der Fuehrer’s Face.”

He received a Man of the Year award from the B’nai Brith in 1958, an occasion he happily showed up for – not likely to happen if he had at any time been known as the organizer and supporter of an organized anti-Semitic lobby. Many of his closest associates and creative lights in the company were Jewish (which doesn’t disprove the personal accusation, I know.) The Sherman Brothers (the songwriters for Mary Poppins) knew Walt well in the last ten years of his life. They spoke warmly of him and considered the anti-semite charge a calumny. I have personally worked with and spoken to Marty Sklar, recently retired head of Walt Disney Imagineering. Also a Jew, he regards the idea as slander. (While admitting that Walt was often brusk and tactless in his day to day dealings)

Not meaning to sound like an apologist – he was an imperfect man, and his creative legacy has its good and awful points. But the anti-Semitic notion seems to be more of a popular myth than anything rooted in fact. (Unlike Henry Ford, who left us plenty of documentary evidence of his racial hatred for the Jewish people.) And yes, hiring practice at the studio was utterly sexist. (And I love Emma Thompson for all the reasons Streep cites here.)


  1. colnago80 says

    Several decades ago, there was an unauthorized biography of Disney which claimed that he was an antisemite, a racist against Afro-Americans, a drunk and a thoroughly nasty man in his dealings with his subordinates. That volume has been pretty well discredited as false relative to his alleged animus against Jews and Afro-Americans and greatly exaggerated as to his drinking habits and nastiness. Much of the anti-Semitic charge was based on his employing German engineers like Willy Ley who had worked on the German rocket projects under Werner von Braun as consultants.

  2. flippyshark says

    Interesting point about Willy Ley and Von Braun. I do recall hearing that there was some controversy surrounding Walt’s use of Werner Von Braun in Victory Through Air Power. Marc Eliot’s book, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, was so widely dismissed at the time that I stopped reading it before I was halfway through. Occasionally I’m tempted to find it and go through it just to see how much it conflicts with what I know or have read elsewhere. (As far as Disney biographies and commentaries, I’ve read a heap of ’em.)

    Thanks for the repost, Ophelia!

  3. flippyshark says

    (Goodness, I’ve got my timeline askew – Von Braun had nothing to do with Victory Through Air Power)

  4. says

    Welcome flippy.

    Yes that timeline sounds wrong – Victory Through Air Power has to be WW2 propaganda, yes? Von Braun was busy making V2s at the time, so that wouldn’t be a good fit. 🙂

  5. flippyshark says

    Correct. Von Braun consulted on and appeared in three outer-space themed episodes of the Disney Sunday broadcast in the late 50s. (Man In Space, Man and the Moon and Mars and Beyond) I think my brain was mis-wiring Von Braun’s onscreen presence with that of Alexander deSeversky in the WW2 era Victory Through Air Power, which was indeed a propaganda feature. Walt hoped that it would boost support for air-based combat. (And I should avoid posting while exhausted)

    How I love Tom Lehrer. 🙂

  6. leftwingfox says

    Late to this party. The biography was called “Dark Prince of Hollywood” by Marc Eliot, and from what I understand, the author was pretty uncritical of accepting any negative claim about Disney without bothering to verify.

    Studying animation history can be a really fascinating sample of lefty political hstory. Racism and discrimination, monopoly, government regulation and free speech, labor and trade issues, and the role of technology and capital on the market.

    I think I mentioned this here before, but when I went to animation school, my mother admitted she wanted to be a Disney Animator, but chose to go into architecture instead because of Disney’s hiring practices at the time. A shame; my mother is a far more talented artist than I am.

  7. lupinella12 says

    Hey, Flippy!
    Thank you, as always, for your brilliant grasp of facts. Especially in regards to someone neither of us are known for our admiration of his legacy.
    Also, on a personal, meat-space note: squee.

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