Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Walter Disney (1901-66), a worldwide cultural icon, was an animator, film producer, and entrepreneur credited with pioneering the American animation industry. His films, which are beloved worldwide, include “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), “Pinocchio” (1940), “Fantasia” (1940), “Dumbo” (1941), “Bambi” (1942), “Cinderella” (1950), and “Mary Poppins” (1964). He was nominated for 59 Academy Awards, winning 29 – both enduring records.

Even half a century after his death, Walt Disney’s iconic images, stories, and characters continue to leave an indelible mark on culture, and the multimedia conglomerate he built remains a formidable giant in the entertainment industry. His amusement parks, which began with Disneyland in 1955 and now include Disney World, EPCOT, and many others overseas, draw millions of visitors each year. Disney’s TV shows – including “The Wonderful World of Color” and “The Mickey Mouse Club” – are still favorites amongst children around the world.

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Considerable evidence exists to support the proposition that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite, although, as we shall see, the record is decidedly muddled and, Neal Gabler, Walt Disney’s personal biographer, vehemently denies the charge. It is sometimes difficult to isolate fact from fiction; for example, the allegation that Walt had a private meeting with Hitler and developed a relationship with him is sheer nonsense, but it is true that he went out of his way to meet Mussolini.

Even Gabler concedes that Walt “willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced [anti-Semites] and cast his fate with them,” and The Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledges, as it must, that Disney included ethnic stereotypes in some of his early cartoons.

When Walt visited Munich in 1935, Nazi newspapers warmly welcomed him as a hero who stood up to the Jews of Hollywood. (Interestingly, the Sleeping Beauty Castle that Walt later built at Disneyland closely resembles the Neuschwanstein Castle he saw in Bavaria during his trip.)

Walt never met with Hitler, but it is beyond dispute that the Fuhrer adored Disney’s work. Goebbels is said to have presented 12 Disney short films to Hitler as a Christmas present in 1937, which the latter treasured. Hitler was determined – and ordered Goebbels – to create a Nazi animation studio and production company that would rival Disney, but the result was Deutsche Zeichenfilm GmbH, which ultimately produced only a few Nazi propaganda cartoons.

In 1938, just a few weeks after Kristallnacht, Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s personal filmmaker and propagandist, came to the United States seeking an American studio to work with her. Famous – or infamous – for glorifying the Nazis, and best known for “Triumph of the Will” (1935), a revolting propaganda film that chronicled the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg, she was boycotted by all Hollywood studio leaders, except one – Walt – who expressed admiration for her work and gave her a personal tour of his studio.

According to Riefenstahl, Walt ultimately turned down her offer to work with him because he was afraid that doing so would tarnish his reputation. Returning to Germany, she publicly thanked Walt for having received her, declaring that it was “gratifying” to “learn how thoroughly proper Americans distance themselves from the smear campaigns of the Jews.”

In an infamous “Three Little Pigs” cartoon (1933), part of Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series, the Big Bad Wolf is drawn with a Der Sturmer-like exaggerated depiction of a Jewish nose, a long scraggly black beard, and a Jewish hat. Dressed like a Jewish peddler, the Wolf speaks with a thick Yiddish accent as he tries to cheat the homeowner pig. (Pigs, of course, metaphorically represent everything repulsive to Jews, although it’s unclear if the producers specifically intended viewers to make this association.)

The pig, however, is not fooled by the disguise and proceeds to beat the evil Jew through the door. In response to a protest by the American Jewish Congress, the wolf was later re-edited and changed into a Fuller Brush door-to-door salesman, but Walt never understood why his portrayal was objectionable and the wolf retained his beard and accent in later versions.

In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), the evil witch’s hooked nose, hunched bearing, and general demeanor of seduction are wholly evocative of the anti-Semite stereotype prevalent at the time. In “Pinocchio” (1940), the cunning puppet-master who manifests a total lack of any moral imperative and is interested only in amassing great wealth is the unambiguous incarnation of the Jewish skinflint.

In “The Opry House,” Mickey Mouse dresses up and performs a caricature of a dancing chassidic Jew, comparable to a blackface portrayal of African Americans. And, in “The Wayward Canary” (1932), Minnie Mouse, for some inexplicable reason, owns a cigarette lighter bearing a swastika.

Some critics argue further that the Sorcerer in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment from “Fantasia,” with his conspicuous hooked nose, long beard, large head-covering, and chants from a strange and mystical Talmud-like tome, is an anti-Semitic trope; moreover, in an unmistakable allusion to Moses at the Red Sea, he splits the floodwaters with a dramatic raising of his hands. Finally, it is interesting to note that composer Abraham Dukas’ inspiration for the music of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was the famous tale of the golem of Prague.

Not surprisingly, Walt respected auto-industry tycoon Henry Ford, a notorious anti-Semite and union-buster who reciprocated his esteem and said he admired him for being “a successful self-made protestant in a field dominated by Jews.” Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, reported that when he once asked Walt a question, he responded, “Let me check that with my Jew.”

Disney defenders mostly respond to all these charges with, what I call, the “everybody’s doin’ it, doin’ it” defense – that, at most, Walt was a “cultural racist” who, consistent with his times, engaged in conduct that we today consider improper. The ethnic stereotypes he used were common to films of the 1930s and, unlike Henry Ford, he never wrote anti-Semitic screeds. They also argue that his association with anti-Semitic groups is merely “guilt by association.”

Furthermore, Walt was known to have actively supported many Jewish charities, including the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, Yeshiva College, the Jewish Home for the Aged, and even the American League for a Free Palestine (the “Bergson Group”). The Beverly Hills Chapter of B’nai B’rith also named him its Man of the Year in 1955.

Disney supporters also contend that an anti-Semite and Nazi supporter would never have made anti-German propaganda films like “Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi” (1943), a quasi-documentary propaganda piece in which Disney animators describe the birth of an Aryan German before cataloging the indoctrination process of the Hitler Youth. Nor would he have made, also in 1943, “Der Fuehrer’s Face” (“Donald Duck in Naziland”), for which Walt won an Academy award.

However, this argument is weakened by reports that Walt is reputed to have claimed that he had been forced by “that Jew” – i.e., Henry Morgenthau, FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury – to use Mickey Mouse to support the American war effort. Other commentators note that “Der Fuehrer’s Face” may address the topic of a “Master Race” but conspicuously fails to mention Germany’s systemic anti-Semitism.

Disney supporters also note that many of the most influential people at Disney were Jewish. Walt hired many Jews for his studio, including Joe Grant, who wrote “Dumbo,” and the Sherman Brothers – Richard and Robert – who wrote the music for “Mary Poppins.” Richard stated that Walt always treated him and his brother “like sons” and that calling him an anti-Semite is “preposterous.”

It is also notable that on the opening day of Disneyland, attended by representatives of a variety of Christian faiths, Walt also made a point of inviting Rabbi Edgar Magnin, considered the “Rabbi to the Stars” who, over a long career, forged a Jewish identity for Los Angeles that joined pioneers and Hollywood moguls.

On the other hand, when Jewish animator Dave Swift announced that he had accepted a new position at Columbia Pictures, Walt responded in a fake Yiddish accent: “Okay, Davy Boy, go work for those Jews. It’s where you belong.” Moreover, when Disney artists tried to unionize in 1941 (they were ultimately successful after a brutal and prolonged battle), Walt tried to ruin the careers of the union organizers, most of whom were Jewish; he often insisted that the unions, which he despised, were run and controlled by “the Jews.”

In particular, Walt fired animator Arthur Babbitt, who had created the Goofy character, for his union-organizing activities, which led to a strike. Babbitt claimed to have seen Walt and his lawyer, Gunther Lessing, at meetings of pro-Nazi German-American Bund in the late 1930s, and Walt was known to have a personal relationship with Fritz Kuhn, leader of the Bund. Walt was also an active member of the anti-Semitic Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.

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The importance of Mickey Mouse to Disney may perhaps best be evidenced by the fact that the Disney studio was referred to as the “Mouse House,” and the entirety of the massive Disney enterprise is often colloquially referred to as “the Mouse.” There is no definitive explanation for why Walt chose a mouse, of all things, as his initial cartoon character and to launch his career and studio.

Some critics suggest Mickey, who was originally named Mortimer, was possibly inspired by a pet mouse Walt had adopted, but even they concede that the origins of the character are unclear. Others suggest that Walt, intentionally or subconsciously, was drawing on the idea, broadly popularized by the Nazis, that Jews are vermin. After all, in Mickey’s debut in “Steamboat Willie” (1928), he was not the lovable rodent we have come to know but, rather, a sadistic rat-like perpetrator of atrocities – in short, the perfect Nazi image for the Jews.

The postal authorities in most countries periodically issue Disney-themed stamps, which are thematically collected and are very popular. Exhibited here is a Ugandan Disney stamp showing Donald Duck’s nephews spinning a dreidel on Chanukah.

Even the earliest Nazi propaganda depicted Jews as vermin and parasites. The narrator in the infamous anti-Semitic propaganda film “The Eternal Jew,” explains, “Just as the rat is the lowest of animals, the Jew is the lowest of human beings.” A German newspaper article from the 1930s establishing a link between Jewish vermin and Mickey Mouse could not be clearer:

Mickey Mouse is the most miserable idea ever revealed.… Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal…. Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!”

That the Nazis viewed Mickey Mouse as Jewish is also evident in their banning of “The Barnyard Battle” (1929), a cartoon in which Mickey and his fellow mice defend their farm against German cats. The Germans considered the cartoon “offensive to national dignity” because Jewish vermin, unambiguously represented by Mickey and his fellow mice, had dared defend themselves against the German military, represented by cats wearing German military helmets.

This theme was later brilliantly adapted by Art Spiegelman in his master work, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a graphic novel about how his father, a Polish Jew, survived the Holocaust. Jews are depicted as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, and Russians as bears.

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An interesting comparison may be drawn between “Miki Maoz” in Israel and “Farfur” in the Palestinian Authority. In Israel, Mickey is the same lovable mouse we have all come to know and love, and Mickey stories are often translations of his American adventures.

First issue of Miki Maoz (1947)

Shown here is a very rare item from my collection, one of the first comic books in Eretz Yisrael: the first issue of Mickey Mouse (1947), published by journalist, interpreter, and poet Yehoshua Tan-Pai (original name Shie Bodshetsky, 1914-80). Characters featured on its eight pages include Mickey, Donald Duck (“Danny Avazani”), and Pinocchio.

Palestinian children also grow up watching Mickey Mouse, but on PA national television, a Mickey Mouse clone may wear an explosive belt, encourage children to become suicide bombers, and sing “Death to America and death to the Jews.” While carrying grenades and an AK-47, “Farfur” has urged children to return the Islamic community to greatness by liberating Jerusalem with the blood of Jews (who, in one episode, are shown beating Farfur to death to silence him).

Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, called Hamas “pure evil” for using Mickey to teach murder to children.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.