Absence of Jewish legacy at LA’s Academy Museum of Motion Pictures spurs outcry

Patrons threaten to pull their support if mention isn’t made of Hollywood’s ‘founding fathers,’ immigrant Jews who laid foundations for the filmmaking industry

The exterior of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures appears in Los Angeles, Sept. 21, 2021. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)
The exterior of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures appears in Los Angeles, Sept. 21, 2021. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which aims to enshrine a century of movie-making in Hollywood, is facing criticism because its exhibits exclude the Jewish filmmakers who played key roles in launching the industry.

Donor and influential academy members have complained that there is no mention of the mostly immigrant Jews who established the industry after escaping persecution in their home countries, Rolling Stone magazine reported.

Some patrons have threatened to pull support over the issue, sources familiar with the developments told the magazine in a report published Thursday.

The museum opened on September 25 last year with a star-studded event but already at the time some were raising questions about what was missing from the displays.

Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who was at the gala opening, told the magazine of his disappointment at what appeared to him to be a “glaring omission.”

“As I walked through, I literally turned to the person I was there with and said to him, ‘Where are the Jews?’” he said.

“I would’ve hoped that any honest historical assessment of the motion picture industry — its origins, its development, its growth — would include the role that Jews played in building the industry from the ground up,” Greenblatt said.

Illustrative: Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speaks at the group’s 2018 National Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images/JTA)

The absence has been noted by various media outlets, drawing criticism from The Forward, Air Mail, and Bari Weiss’s Common Sense website on the Substack platform.

However, a source familiar with programming at the museum told Rolling Stone that there wasn’t enough pressure from influential figures to include Jews.

“A lot of people who might have fought harder for the representation of Jews were just really laying low,” the unnamed source said.

“It’s a conspiracy of silence and that’s deeply upsetting,” Greenblatt said

“By not including the founding fathers out of the gate, they were making a massive statement,” said academy member and film financier Ryan Kavanaugh. “As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, it’s just shocking that they erased the contributions of a group who faced severe antisemitism — they couldn’t get bank loans, they couldn’t own homes in LA, and yet they still created this industry that is the bedrock of the LA economy and touches people around the world.”

“Instead of, ‘Look at what they were able to do,’ it’s just wiped out,” complained Kavanaugh, who founded Triller, a video-sharing social media network. “It goes against everything that our industry says they stand for.”

Exhibits at the museum after it opened tended to focus on more contemporary figures, with one academy member saying it gave the impression that “the film industry was created 10 years ago. They erased the past. And I find it appalling.”

Haim Saban speaks at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ Unveiling of the Saban Building event at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles on December 4, 2018. (Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

Haim Saban, whose $50 million contribution to the museum was the largest single donation, said he and his wife Cheryl had spoken with the museum’s management and that they were taking their feedback “seriously.”

The Sabans “firmly believe that the Jewish contributions to the film industry, from its founding to today, should be highlighted,” he said.

Others have defended the museum, saying it couldn’t present 100 years of history all on its opening night.

“We didn’t get to opening night with the origin story, but we got to opening night with what was relevant to the audience we were playing to and needed to include,” said Sid Ganis, an honorary trustee. “I have friends who said to me, ‘Where are the Jews?’ It’s in the eyes of the beholder. They’re there, and they will be there in a bigger, more prominent way pretty soon.”

So far over 290,000 people have purchased tickets for the museum on Wilshire Boulevard, including veterans of the movie industry. Museum director and president Bill Kramer said the administration is attentive to the feedback.

“I’ve had sit-downs with four Academy members and two donors who wanted to better understand why they weren’t seeing an exhibition on the primarily Jewish founders of Hollywood, and we take that note very seriously,” he said. “Representation is so important to us, including our Jewish founders. If we are not talking about them in enough detail or more prominently, we want to hear that and we want to respond to that. We heard these notes, and we get it. And we’re really happy to be able to make a change and are going to course correct.”

Screen capture from video of Academy Museum of Motion Pictures director and president Bill Kramer, March 2021. (YouTube)

The museum is planning a new exhibit for next year that will focus on Hollywood founding fathers, he said. Originally planned as a temporary feature, it will be made a permanent exhibit in the wake of the complaints.

Also, a six-week film series, “Vienna in Hollywood: Émigrés and Exiles in the Studio System,” launched in December mostly features Jewish filmmakers, a move welcomed by Saban.

“We have no doubt that as the museum’s dynamic exhibitions continue to rotate, Jewish contributions will continue to be represented among the many important stories about the history, art, and artists of the movies,” he said.

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