www.dollymania.net                                              February 23, 2004

Is Dolly Anti-Semitic?

An innocent comment Dolly made a decade ago which some took to be anti-Semitic is rising from the past again in coverage of a book released four months ago by Anti-Defamation League Executive Director Abraham H. Foxman, Never Again? The Threat Of The New Anti-Semitism, which will be released in paperback in November. For fans who may come across mentions of the comment in reviews and stories on the book, I thought it appropriate to provide some insight into what she was quoted as saying and what happened afterward.

Recent Coverage Of The Quote
A story from this month's The Jewish Post (here) reviews the book, noting that the author "does not like the way the Jews often are being treated in the popular culture . . . Dolly Parton complains that Jews in Hollywood have closed doors in front of the Christian message."

  • The review of it in Publisher's Weekly starts off with Dolly's quote, saying: "'Everybody's afraid to touch anything that's religious because most of the people out there [in Hollywood] are Jewish, and it's a frightening thing for them to promote Christianity,' claimed Dolly Parton, unable to develop a TV miniseries about a born-again Christian folk singer. Such a casual reiteration of the myth that Jews control Hollywood is one example Foxman, the longtime national director of the Anti-Defamation League, cites in showing what he claims is a new acceptance of global anti-Semitism."
  • Foxman cited Dolly as an example when promoting his book on New York's WNBC in November, saying: "Dolly Parton, a very nice lady, a very successful entertainer . . . Forbes magazine every year lists her as amongst the top 10 money-makers. And Dolly Parton had an interview several years ago in Vanity Fair, and they--there was a close-up and they talked about her success and how she made it . . . and they asked her about her successes, and she listed all of them . . . And then they said to her, `Well, any failures? Any things you didn't succeed at?' And she thought a little bit and she said, `Yeah, I wanted to do a miniseries about a born-again Christian singer,' and they said, `So what happened?' She thought and she said, `Well, you see, the Jews control Hollywood, and they don't want to project in a positive light Christians.' . . . And I said to myself, `My God, here is such a smart lady with so much success.' When it comes to a failure, it's not `Maybe it was a cockamamy idea.' You blame somebody else, but who do you blame? For 2,000 years, you blame the Jews. Now is she an anti-Semite? No. But is that anti-Semitic stereotyping? Yes." Dolly was the only celebrity singled out by Foxman in the interview, although there was a brief reference made by the interviewer to Mel Gibson and his film, The Passion Of The Christ. (Read the full interview here.)
  • And one review, from a recent issue of the Cleveland Jewish News (here), noted that while the book raises many serious issues, its discussion of "a stupid remark made by Dolly Parton" and a couple of other celebrity misspeaks are "trivialities."

    So, What Happened That These People Are Talking About?
    I'll admit I didn't pay much attention to the story when it first came out a decade ago, but Dolly was commenting about her failed attempt to produce and star in a television miniseries about a gospel singer and was quoted in a January 1994 Vogue interview as saying: "Everybody's afraid to touch anything that's religious because most of the people out there (in Hollywood) are Jewish, and it's a frightening thing for them to promote Christianity." The statement (minus its first 11 words and the phrase "out there") was re-printed in a quotes section of the Feb. 14, 1994, issue of Time magazine. (Note that the wording is strikingly different from the way Foxman characterized it in his interview, where he quoted it as: "Well, you see, the Jews control Hollywood, and they don't want to project in a positive light Christians.")

  • Almost immediately, Foxman released to the press a letter he wrote to Dolly in which he chided her choice of words and accused her of recycling the anti-Semitic stereotype that the Jews control Hollywood and are hostile toward Christianity. Dolly publicly apologized for the remark and wrote a letter of apology to Foxman himself, saying she regretted that her comment may have conjured the impression of Jewish "control" of Hollywood. He publicly accepted the apology.

    What Has Happened Since?
    In her autobiography, Dolly: My Life And Other Unfinished Business, released a few months after the controversy, Dolly wrote: "I was really hurt recently when something I said was taken to be anti-Semitic. It came out of a conversation with (her manager and one of her closest friends) Sandy Gallin, who is Jewish, about a new TV show I am developing. The show is all about the Deep South, fundamentalist Christians in particular. There I was trying to explain to some of the Jewish writers about Pentecostalists, the whole holy-roller talking-in-tongues thing. I said something like, 'I can imagine how hard it would be for a Jew to write this. It would be like a hillbilly trying to write the story of Judaism.' I think everybody there knew what I was talking about and understood, but it somehow got blown out of proportion in a magazine article. I knew how personal a thing people's religion is to them, and I would hate to think I had offended anybody by a thing like that. If I did, I truly want to apologize." Later in the book, she wrote that while Christian beliefs are important to her, she is not "one of those who believes that a person has to embrace them to be a decent and worthwhile human being. Spirituality is the most intimate part of a person's makeup, and it's strictly up to the individual to choose how to express it."

  • That sentiment was repeated earlier this year in an interview with Country Weekly magazine, where she explained: "I'm not a religious fanatic. I'm not even religious. I'm very spiritual, and I love God. But I'm not trying to cram religion down anybody's throat, because everybody has to find God in their own way, whatever they perceive him to be. God can just be your higher wisdom or whatever, but we need something bigger than us to look to and believe in."
  • In 1999, she purchased the film rights to The Jew Store, Stella Suberman's memoir of growing up in pre-Depression-era small-town Tennessee as part the first Jewish family to move to the town, including their dealings with the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Semitism and eventual acceptance. Whenever she makes the film, Dolly plans to play the one woman who takes the family under her wing and serves as a bridge between them and the townsfolk. When the announcement of the purchase was made, several media outlets repeated the 1994 quote, noting it was ironic that Dolly herself had been accused of anti-Semitism a few years before and now planned to produce a film about acceptance of Jews.
  • In October 2003, Foxman released his book. A paperback edition is scheduled to be released in November 2004. Toward the end of the book, you'll find Chapter 8, titled "The Poisoned Well: Spreading Bigotry Through Popular Culture." In its second paragraph, Foxman brings up Dolly, writing: "And then there's the case of Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton? Is this a joke? Does one of America's favorite country singers and entertainers really deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as someone like David Duke? No, she doesn't. And yet, in my role as director of the ADL, I've had run-ins with any number of widely admired, seemingly harmless, and often well intentioned figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports, and politics."
                A couple of pages later, he launches into his tirade against Dolly. He mentions her interview in the January 1994 issue of Vogue magazine, noting that she was asked to list some of her many, many successes and then to describe a failure. He recounts that she replied she attempted to launch a mini-series on a "born-again Christian folksinger" before commenting: "Everybody's afraid to touch anything that's religious because most of the people out there (in Hollywood) are Jewish, and it's a frightening thing for them to promote Christianity." (He got the quote and magazine correct in his book, as opposed to his misstatements in the WNBC interview.)
                Foxman then writes: "When I read this comment, my first reaction was one of deepest frustration. It's so disappointing to find the old canard about Jewish control of the entertainment industry resurrected again -- especially on the lips of someone whose opinions carry weight among country music fans in America's Southern and Midwestern heartland." (He appears unaware that country music is the most popular musical format nationwide and is not really much more popular in the South or Midwest as it is on the West or East Coasts, and the fact that Dolly is a pop culture icon who has as much influence over non-country listeners as any other celebrity.)
                Foxman then concedes that, yes, a large number of prominent producers, directors, studio executives and entertainers are Jewish but notes that "demographics don't amount to Jewish 'control' of Hollywood because in reality the Jews who work in Hollywood are there not as Jews but as actors, writers, business executives, or what have you, just as Dolly Parton is in Hollywood as a singer, actress, and entrepreneur, not as a representative of her favorite church," adding that people who work in entertainment who are Jewish do not use their positions to promote Jewish culture or values through their work.
                He continues: "Dolly Parton's ill-conceived comment in Vogue ignored these truths and resurrected an old anti-Semitic stereotype that bigots use to attack and discredit not only the entertainment business but the news media, publishing, and other vital links in the world's information network."
                Shortly thereafter, he notes: "I'm happy to report that when we publicly challenged Parton's statements (and privately invited her to reconsider), she promptly did so. 'I know from personal experience how stereotypes can hurt,' she wrote me, "and I regret that my words could have conjured up an impression of Jewish 'control' of Hollywood.' In the years since the incident, Parton hasn't reverted to any anti-Semitic flirtations."
                He then offers much shorter items outlining more blatantly bigoted remarks by actor Marlon Brando ("Hollywood is run by the Jews. It's owned by the Jews."), Jackie Mason (with prejudiced remarks about African-Americans and Arabs, apparently to show that Jewish people commit the same crime of stereotyping) and Whoopi Goldberg (a joke recipe titled "Jewish American Princess Fried Chicken" which she submitted for a fundraising cookbook and in which she told the person to have a butler fetch the chicken and a cook prepare it for you) before a multi-paged review of bigotry on the Internet, pointing out "There's a world of difference between a Dolly Parton, who repeated a traditional anti-Semitic slur out of ignorance and thoughtlessness" and overtly racist and prejudiced people.
                He concludes the chapter with a description of Mel Gibson and his father, who subscribe to an ultra-orthodox version of Catholicism with what many consider a very strong anti-Semitic dogma, mentioning interviews each has given and the upcoming film The Passion Of The Christ before opining: "The case of Mel Gibson illustrates the kind of damage that can be done when thoughtless or ignorant views like those expressed by Dolly Parton are allowed to take root and grow. That's why such views must be challenged as soon as they appear."

    In Conclusion
    The blame for the controversy was shared by many. What happened was Dolly made a statement expressing a belief that one particular project failed in part because of a culture clash: Almost all of the people involved in the specific project other than her were Jewish and had difficulty identifying with and accurately depicting a culture -- rural, fundamentalist Christianity -- with which they had had no previous contact. Yes, she erred in wording her comment in such a way that 1) it sounded as if she were describing Hollywood in general rather than this one project, and 2) it could easily be misinterpreted to say that Jews control Hollywood, even though that's not at all what she meant. Yes, Vogue erred in not providing adequate context for what the remarks actually meant. Yes, Mr. Foxman erred in overreacting to the statement, misinterpreting it and reading more into it than was actually there. However, in my opinion, the worst failure and most misguided act of the entire situation was Foxman's choice to continue to perpetuate in his book and in interviews the misconception of what she said and meant in her statement 10 years after the fact, giving what was in reality a trivial incident about 10 times more ink in his book than a real anti-Semitic comment from Marlon Brando or the pattern of hateful statements by Mel Gibson's father. Yes, anti-Semitism does exist and, as with all bigotries and prejudices, it is rooted in hate. Also, it is one of the more evil of bigotries because, like homophobia and sexism, it is often carried out in the name of God. However, to make an example out of one of the most un-prejudiced and most loving people in America, who accepts all around her regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, sexuality or social status, because of a simple, out-of-context quote is unfortunate and wrong. Shinning the spotlight on it again as a supposed example of blatant anti-Semitism in American society is inappropriate at best and makes more out of it than actually exists.