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What Ben Urwand has taught us: the package is not the product

Ida Mayer Cummings and Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford (right) with my great-grandmother, Ida Mayer Cummings, Louis B. Mayer’s sister. The two women were dear friends, and it was through Ida that Mary become a devoted benefactor of Jewish causes in Los Angeles. Date unknown.

For those of you who follow my blog or follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, you will know that I have been shocked at the instant acceptance that Ben Urwand received from the media and in other forums for his sensationalist claims that Hollywood’s Jewish moguls collaborated with Hitler and his regime. Basically, as soon as Urwand’s publicists, Golberg McDuffie, sent out their presser about his book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, there was a collective “we knew it!”

Expert rebuttals to The Collaboration are collected in a handy timeline here.

As a grandniece of Louis B. Mayer and my generation’s family historian, I’ve seen plenty of anti-semitic portrayals of his time at the helm of MGM, so I put a lot of this early acceptance down to the ‘greedy Jew’ shibboleth. If you’re Jewish, you develop bat senses for this one early on. I’ll never forget the adult son of a dear friend of mine talk about his boss tickling the “Jewish piano” – he meant the cash register.

Ben Urwand is Jewish and I understand this was used in promoting him and his book (his Hungarian grandparents are almost always mentioned in articles), which clearly lent his claims a powerful stamp of endorsement. It was a case of: “Hey, everybody! This guy’s Jewish and he’s slamming other Jews. It’s gotta be true!”

But what I wasn’t prepared for was the warm welcome from Jewish media outlets, like Haaretz and David Mikics writing in Tablet Mag, who concluded his glowing review of The Collaboration with the repulsive concept that the moguls were responsible for the Holocaust. (On a side note, Mikics did not disclose

that he is also published by Harvard University Press, as Urwand is.) This early review back in June unleashed, or was the harbinger for, a tsunami of hate against fellow Jews – Mayer, the Warner Bros, Goldwyn, Zukor. It is this response that has floored me, more than anything else.

To be fair, the Harvard brand and the vision of Urwand teaching himself German and slaving away in cold, German archives for years is all great stuff. I can imagine a journalist saying to a colleague over the partition in your typical open plan newsroom, “Wow, this dude is hard core! He freakin’ TAUGHT himself GERMAN. Man…”

So let’s turn the tables for a minute and imagine that instead of being Jewish, Urwand wasn’t anything at all, or perhaps of another faith. What would have happened then? Scrutiny, for one. A lot of it. You might remember that recently Reza Aslan, a Muslim author was questioned for having written about Jesus. As he rightly pointed out, his religion had nothing to do with his ability to research, interpret or write: “It’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus. I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.”

For the first few weeks, Ben Urwand was treated like a rock star and his book became a pop culture phenomenon, rocketing up the bestseller list in its category.

Then the experts moved into action and began their evisceration of The Collaboration in The New Yorker (David Denby), The Wall Street Journal (Professor Jeanine Basinger), AFI’s online review (Mike Greco), LA Weekly (Paul Teetor), The Hollywood Reporter (Professor Thomas Doherty), The Nation (Jon Wiener) and in acclaimed blogs like Self Styled Siren (Farran Nehme), The Millions and others (links to all can be found here). Twitter was a storm of criticism, and many retweeted David Denby’s crucial question: “How could Harvard have published this book?” And I understand there are still other very critical reviews to come. (Hopefully, these reviewers will not make the repeated mistake that even others critical of Urwand’s book have made and repeat that Germany was a big market for the moguls. It wasn’t.)

Meanwhile, Professor Thomas Doherty’s book on the same topic, Hollywood and Hitler, was pointed to as being far superior to The Collaboration. But where Urwand gave the moguls the devil treatment, Doherty says that “Hollywood did more than any other for-profit business to sound the alarm against Nazism. It is a story not of collaboration but resistance.”

But this is not what excellent headlines are made of. It reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon I once saw with an employee showing his manager a graph, to which his boss says “Sex it up!”

Urwand has been invited to speak at a number of Jewish cultural events, including at the DC Jewish Literary Festival, the Museum of Tolerance in New York, and the Wiener Library in London, which is devoted to Holocaust studies. Why then, if his book has been expertly demolished and his central claims about the Jewish moguls are in tatters, is Ben Urwand being given the opportunity to speak within a Jewish context?

Here’s what Ben Urwand has taught us: the package is not the product. The product is the product. It’s not that Ben Urwand is a Jewish scholar giving a Jewish topic the Harvard treatment. He’s a misguided academic who got stars in his eyes all the way back at Berkeley who is trying to re-write history. And he got it wrong.

To journalists, event organizers, educators, film bloggers and writers, students of film history, and others, I say: read the rebuttals and take note of the many crucial factual errors that have been pointed out.

At the end of the day, none of the men whose memories and legacies have been posthumously trashed in The Collaboration deserve this. If they could defend themselves, they would set the record straight. But they’re all gone. As such, it is up to us to super glue that vase back together and put it back up on the shelf – carefully.

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3 comments on “What Ben Urwand has taught us: the package is not the product

  1. Great article by a great writer.

  2. You might want to add my Urwand/Doherty comparative review, “Collaboration Without Corrroboration Is Tyranny,” in UCLA’s Mediascape blog. — Vincent Brook

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