Hollywood’s Jewish Founders: How the Academy Museum Got It So Wrong, Twice

Their dominance became a target for wave after wave of vicious antisemitism, from fire and brimstone evangelicals in the teens and early 20s who demanded the movies’ liberation from the hands of the devil…to Red-baiters in the 40s for whom Judaism was really a variety of communism and the movies their chief form of propaganda… Ducking from these assaults, the Jews became the phantoms of the film history they had created, haunting it, but never really able to inhabit it.
— “An Empire of Their Own,” Neal Gabler

IN THE LAST MONTH, the culture wars raging around antisemitism have come home to roost at Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its new museum on Wilshire Boulevard. After the museum initially failed to recognize the Jewish founders of the industry in 2021, this year the exhibit aimed at righting this lapse managed to insult and offend instead of making amends. TheWrap, which broke this story in early June, looked deeply at the reasons why the Academy managed to get it wrong, twice, and what it says about the heightened sensitivity of this cultural moment.


After more than a decade of missteps and misfires, the magnificent, $480 million Academy Museum of Motion Pictures opened, finally, in 2021. After one building, and then another. After design battles among the architects. After the hiring and the replacement of a museum director. After fundraising stalled out and had to be started and then started again. And after delays and delays and more delays.

When the doors finally opened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed that all the struggles could finally be put in the past. Judy Garland’s ruby slippers were there, along with the mechanical shark from “Jaws” and the Rosebud sled from “Citizen Kane.”

But what really stuck out to early visitors was the politically “woke” tone of the museum, drawing attention to Hollywood’s past failings toward Black, indigenous, LGBTQ groups and women, in a way that some found salutary and others heavy-handed. An homage to “Real Women Have Curves,” the 2002 film about a Mexican American family in East LA, won a prominent place, as did a gallery on the films of Spike Lee.

A gallery called Impact/Reflection looked at Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement in the context of Hollywood, while the animation exhibit featured a deep look at the history of racist imagery and sexual violence in cartoons.

The aim was “to confront head-on the dark legacy of exclusion and discrimination in the industry,” wrote The Guardian at the time. “The hope is to tell a much more complicated, and accurate, story of Hollywood through the years.”

Museum officials agreed. “As the Academy, we want to recognize our own complicity,” Assistant Curator Dara Jaffe told the British paper, in the anti-racist patter of the moment.

“We need to speak honestly about who we are as an industry,” said then-Museum Director Bill Kramer, now the CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Judy Garlands ruby slippers, inscription inside says, #7 Judy Garland, are on display at the new Academy Museum in Los Angeles, CA Tuesday, September 21, 2021.
Judy Garland’s ruby slippers (Photo by David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
Oscar-winning director Spike Lee talks about a streek in New York being renamed after his 1989 classic film Do The Right Thing, while taking a private tour of an exhibit featuring objects from his personal collection, which is being presented as part of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures core exhibition, Stories of Cinema, in Los Angeles, CA, Friday, Sept. 24, 2021.
Director Spike Lee (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Although diversity and inclusion were the bywords in conceiving the museum’s exhibits and programming, one historically significant minority was notably excluded: Jews. And only a few weeks later, the Academy began to be hit with complaints from Jewish groups — and donors — about why the museum left out the central figures in the creation of the movie industry.

From Adolph Zukor to Carl Laemmle to Louis B. Mayer (an Academy founder) to the Warner brothers to Harry Cohn, Eastern European immigrants came to America, mostly with nothing, and built a mighty studio system — in Warner Bros., MGM, RKO, Universal, Paramount, Fox and Columbia studios. All of them Jews. All of them immigrants. All of them fleeing vicious antisemitism, eager to prove their American bona fides and make their mark on the world.

The Academy recognized the error and committed to honor those founders. But when the exhibit “Hollywoodland” opened in mid-May, Jewish visitors to the museum were dismayed. Instead of celebrating the achievements of these founders, the exhibit took pains to point out their flaws, using terms like “oppressive,” “tyrant,” “predator,” “womanizer” and “frugal.”

Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences CEO Bill Kramer poses for a portrait at the Academy Headquarters on July 25, 2023 in Beverly Hills, California.
Bill Kramer, CEO of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences (Photo by Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)

“THIS VERY EXHIBIT IS COMPLICIT in the hatred of American Jews, by using antisemitic tropes and dog-whistles,” wrote an enraged Patrick Moss, co-chair of the WGA Jewish Writers Committee, in a scathing letter to the Academy leaders, one of a half-dozen written by prominent individuals including directors Kimberly Peirce and Alma Har’el, which TheWrap obtained exclusively in early June.

The Museum quickly backtracked and vowed publicly to get it right this time, even while privately wondering if the protest was really that widespread. A week went by and the Academy had its answer as a letter signed by 300 prominent Hollywood Jews, including Casey Wasserman, Debra Messing and David Schwimmer, expressed their hurt and outrage.

This time the exhibit was changed within two days, removing the most offensive words, and the Museum set in motion a process to more deeply overhaul “Hollywoodland.”

So how did the Academy get it so wrong, twice? Is it possible that the institution itself is antisemitic, despite having so many prominent members who are themselves Jewish, and despite Jewish donors from Haim Saban to David Geffen to Steven Spielberg with their names on the building?

The Academy insists this notion is absurd on its face. But it’s what some Jewish advocates believe, including a group that has demanded that curator Dara Jaffe be fired. Indeed, some Jewish Academy members who spoke to TheWrap believe even now that a pernicious antisemitic strain resides within the institution.

“I do think so,” said Lawrence Bender, a producer and AMPAS member who has been Oscar-nominated three times for Best Picture.

When asked why, Bender said, “Three things: I’ve been told directly by people in the Academy that they refuse to have a Jewish affinity group. It was voted down. They blatantly opened the museum excluding the Jews when they’re the founding fathers of our industry. Lastly, the exhibit that they put up, it felt begrudgingly done, with no joy, mixed with all kinds of antisemitic tropes.”

A spokesperson for the Academy denied that the institution has any strain of antisemitism within it: “We will not and we do not tolerate antisemitism at the Academy.”

An Academy official acknowledged to TheWrap that a Jewish affinity group was indeed rejected, but said that a new affinity group was in the process of being constituted.

Producer Lawrence Bender speaks onstage the 23rd Annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival at The Virginia Theatre on April 22, 2023 in Champaign, Illinois.
Producer Lawrence Bender (Photo by Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images for Roger Ebert’s Film Festival)

What is undeniable is that the controversy at the museum has now become part of the current culture wars. With anti-Israel, pro-Palestine sentiment on the progressive left fueling a wave of antisemitism around the world, the errors with the Jewish Founders exhibit are inflaming sensitivities in the Hollywood community. And that is making attempts to repair the damage around the Hollywoodland exhibit more difficult. 

It is all too easy to forget that only three years ago, when the museum opened, the world was a very different place. As the country questioned daily whether the scourge of racism against Black people could ever be extinguished, the priorities for a community focused on being a standard bearer for social justice in its gleaming new shrine to cinema were completely different.


On the one hand, he [Harry Cohn] wanted to be the toughest, most brutal executive in Hollywood — the one they all feared. On the other hand, he wanted to be regarded as a man of good taste and judgment — the one they all envied. Negotiating between these — the vulgarian and the patron — required an excruciating balancing act, and it was one apparently important enough for Cohn to perform, yet it took its toll.

— “An Empire of Their Own,” Neal Gabler

Harry ruled the production arm in Los Angeles, earning a reputation as a tyrant and predator; he modeled his office on that of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, built to intimidate anyone who entered.

— Hollywoodland Exhibit (original)


IT WAS SUMMER 2019, and the museum project was not going well. Museum director Kerry Brougher, a veteran in the arts world who had joined in 2014 from the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, had been hard at work on planning the permanent exhibits around classic Hollywood iconography such as Cleopatra’s wig worn by Elizabeth Taylor and an exhibit called “The Studio System “which included classics like “Casablanca” and “Singing in the Rain.”

But that April his deputy curator Deborah Horowitz exited, and the museum was struggling with fund-raising — stalling more than $100 million short of its $388 million goal. And Brougher was winning no friends inside the cliquish AMPAS organization.

The museum had just been forced to postpone the opening date yet again, pushing to some time in 2020. In August, Brougher was asked to leave.

The Academy was facing other pressures too. In 2015, the #OscarsSoWhite scandal, a social media hashtag led by activist April Reign, shamed the organization for the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations and subsequently in the membership of the Academy. The institution had set out to change, and aggressively expanded the number of women and minorities among its voting members, going from 94% white and 75% male in that year, to 81% white and 66% male with the subsequent years bringing continued change.

In October 2019, in stepped Bill Kramer, formerly the museum’s chief fundraiser, to take on the role of museum director. The organization made the bold announcement that Brougher’s plans for permanent exhibits would be set aside, replaced with a different approach focused on individual exhibits that would rotate and bring a new emphasis on diversity and underrepresented voices.

That mission took on an even more urgency after the nation was swept up in an anti-racist fervor after witnessing the horrific murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in an excruciating eight-minute arrest (and death) caught on video over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.

The museum had to be part of the solution, not the problem, said one of several people who spoke to TheWrap about the internal thinking at the time. And the Academy, like society as a whole, had to correct itself.

“We didn’t want to be the plodding history of cinema: here’s the masters,” said one person involved at the time. “Everyone is straight and white and male. That is the history of cinema in most of your textbooks.”

The thought was: “We have a responsibility to expand this story.”

There was also an awareness that the city of Los Angeles itself is nearly 50% Latino, and the museum had to reflect that. And an awareness that attendance at the movies was declining, and the museum had an opportunity to look forward rather than backwards.

“There was talk of cinema dying,” said this person. “That movies are dead, not alive. ‘Some Like It Hot’? Who is Billy Wilder? We wanted to make this a living thing.”

And what about the Jews? The founders of Hollywood?

One insider told TheWrap that there was always a plan to include the Jewish founders, but that this was planned for a few years after the opening — including a map of where the studios were established around Los Angeles.

Another insider remembered that it was not in the initial plans for another reason, too. Avoiding the problem of memorializing old, white men like the Jewish founders who had many personal imperfections was just — easier.

“It wasn’t: ‘We’re not going to put the Jews in there,” said this person. “It’s more: That’s the story that’s always been told.’”

And so, the Jews were left out of the exhibits of the opening in 2021 in favor of Spike Lee and other progressive priorities.

In hindsight, said this person, “maybe we overcorrected.”


Harry Warner wanted the rights to “The Jazz Singer” because “it would be a good picture to make for the sake of racial tolerance if nothing else.”…  “The Jazz Singer” did something that was extremely rare in Hollywood: it provided an extraordinarily revealing window on the dilemmas of the Hollywood Jews generally, and of the Warners specifically.

— “An Empire of their Own”

Jakie performs in blackface, perpetuating a century-long tradition in the United States that caricatures and dehumanizes Black people. As part of a marginalized minority, Jakie – and the Warners – seek acceptance as Americans by embodying the dominant culture, invoking a popular symbol of racial oppression that further harms another marginalized group. 

— Hollywoodland exhibit  (original)


BILL KRAMER WAS ON HIS WAY HOME from the Cannes Film Festival toward the end of May this year when he started to get messages from prominent Academy members like Bender and Peirce. In Peirce’s case she was a member of the Academy’s Inclusion Committee. They had seen or heard about the new Hollywoodland exhibit and were upset.

They sent him messages about the words on the panels in the exhibit. For example, Jack Warner was “brash and irreverent,” a “womanizer” who was “frugal” in shaping the Warner Bros. culture. Harry Cohn was “a tyrant and predator,” with an office modeled on “Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, built to intimidate anyone who entered.” These were on panels with 50-100 words in a relatively small space of about 30 feet.

A documentary film voiced by Ben Mankiewicz similarly noted that the moguls perpetuated racism, saying: “Hollywood films… generally excluded, stereotyped or vilified people of color and LGBT+ characters and perpetuated ableism and sexism with rare exceptions. In Hollywood, to become American was to adopt and reflect oppressive beliefs and representations.”

Academy Museum, Jewish Exhibition - Studio Origins
Academy Museum, Jewish Exhibition - Studio Origins
Academy Museum, Jewish Exhibition - Jazz Singer
Academy Museum, Jewish Exhibition - Jazz Singer

Kramer was furious. He had seen a model of the planned exhibit back in March, when former Academy President Hawk Koch had shown it to a group of Academy executives, including President Janet Yang, at his sprawling home in Ojai.  The exhibit was based on “An Empire of Their Own,” the definitive account of the Jewish founders of Hollywood written in 1988 by scholar Neal Gabler, who was drafted to create the exhibit with Jaffe.

People in attendance included Museum Director and President Jacqueline Stewart, a film professor from the University of Chicago and author of “Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity,” who had been hired in 2022. Stewart was ultimately responsible for the exhibit, as were vice president of curatorial affairs Doris Berger and the curator Jaffe, who had worked with Gabler.

But Stewart and the curators had not shown the panels with their harsh verbiage to Kramer and Yang in advance.

By the time Kramer saw it in late May, it was too late. The offense had been taken, and a half dozen letters were already being written, detailing the outrage and the belief that the exhibit went deliberately out of its way to insult these Jewish founders, to sound antisemitic dog-whistles, and to place the blame for the racism, sexism and homophobia of early Hollywood on these Jews.

It wasn’t that hard to believe. In the spring of 2024, university campuses were aflame in anti-Israel protests because of the war with Gaza, and Jewish schools and synagogues in Los Angeles were besieged by a sudden, global wave of antisemitism.

It was too much for some Jews in Hollywood who saw it as their own institution abandoning them.

“It is almost as if, instead of celebrating the birth of the industry, the Academy is apologizing to the public for having to reveal a dark corner of its history it wishes it could have kept hidden,” wrote Keetgi Kogan in her letter to the Academy.

Academy insiders have explanations for the harsh language, but even they concede that it sounds mostly like excuses. According to two insiders who spoke to TheWrap, academics like Stewart or Jaffe are deep in a “colonialist” conversation who maintain “we have to tell hard stories”; academics are less thoughtful about how scholarship might hurt someone in a public venue; Jaffe is more of an “activist,” and some internally believe that might not be appropriate for a museum in presenting the history of cinema.

(L-R) Exhibition Curator Dara Jaffe and Director and President of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Jacqueline Stewart, attend The Academy Museum hosts "Hollywoodland: Jewish Founders and the Making of a Movie Capital" Media Preview at Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on May 16, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
(L-R) Exhibition Curator Dara Jaffe and Director and President of The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures Jacqueline Stewart (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

As it happened, Stewart had decided to step down in May for personal reasons and return to Chicago. So she was already gone when the controversy emerged in public via TheWrap.

Stewart did not respond to multiple attempts to reach out to her. Gabler, too, did not respond to two emails seeking to discuss this article. Kramer declined to comment. Jaffe was not made available. The new museum director Amy Homma was not made available.

Still, the Academy told TheWrap it is deeply engaged in a process to get this right, finally. Homma has had several meetings, including with Kogan and others. She’s met with the Anti-Defamation League. Thus far the museum is standing by Jaffe, despite the ongoing calls for her removal, at least from the reframing of the exhibit.

In its official statements to TheWrap, the Academy has recognized that there is a wrong to be righted. “We have heard the concerns from members of the Jewish community,” came the statement on June 10. “We are deeply committed to telling these important stories in an honest, respectful and impactful way.”

The post Hollywood’s Jewish Founders: How the Academy Museum Got It So Wrong, Twice appeared first on TheWrap.