"King of Kings" (1927) and the Origins of Jewish Cultural Censorship



“My own suggestion would be … both in your interest and in the interest of the cause of the Jews of the world to strike out the words ‘Crucify Him’ entirely.”
Rabbi Edgar Magnin to Cecil B. DeMille, 1927.[1]

Initially established in 1913 to manage fallout from the conviction of Jewish murderer Leo Frank, the ADL’s first major effort to engage in cultural censorship began in the early 1920s in the form of a campaign against Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independentessay series “The International Jew.” The campaign began with a cross-denominational conference in September 1920, during which Orthodox and Reform rabbis gathered in Chicago to develop a strategy that would suffocate Ford’s momentum and stifle growing American anti-Semitism.[2] The chosen approach was based on crypsis. The rabbis agreed that rather than condemn Ford themselves, they would draw up a statement condemning his writings as un-American and un-Christian and have it signed by prominent non-Jewish American luminaries. This crypto-Jewish manifesto was then signed by, among others, President Wilson and former President Taft, before being published to a gullible public.

The manifesto, however, was later deemed to have had only a minor effect in diminishing Ford’s momentum, so further, more direct, action was undertaken. Detroit’s Rabbi Leo Franklin was dispatched with instructions to personally influence Ford against further publishing against Jews. When Franklin failed to weaken Ford’s resolve, the ADL drafted “anti-discrimination bills” they hoped would preserve the image and status of American Jews, and mailed them to Jewish bodies across the country for lobbying purposes. Concurrently, the ADL initiated a boycotting campaign targeting the Dearborn Independent’s advertising revenue. Ford finally ceased discussing the topic when he was personally targeted in an individual libel lawsuit by Jewish lawyer Aaron Sapiro.

The episode demonstrated that, even in its nascent stages, Jewish censorship strategies were flexible and multifaceted, with efforts being undertaken in the social, political, economic, and legal arenas. In the following essay, I consider a less well-known, but equally important, instance of early Jewish cultural censorship — the ADL’s battle against Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 biblical epic King of Kings. The King of Kings case, it will be seen, provides considerable insight into Jewish approaches to (and fear of) Christianity, as well as pathological levels of Jewish anxiety about security, and the remarkable variety of Jewish tactical approaches to perceived anti-Semitism. Perhaps most crucial of all is the insight provided into the nature and direction of Jewish social and cultural control, especially the overwhelming need for control over what the majority population believes and perceives, or is allowed to believe and perceive. The story of the ADL and King of Kings is ultimately about the contest over ‘ways of seeing,’ a contest that prefigured very similar reactions to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), and that remains at the heart of American life almost a century later.

The Uneasy Identity of Cecil B. DeMille
Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959), regarded by many as one of the greatest filmmakers of his era, was in some ways an unlikely candidate for an ADL-designated public enemy. He was halachically Jewish via his mother Matilda Beatrice Samuel. He worked closely with Jewish producers Jesse Lasky and Schmuel Gelbfisz (later Samuel Goldwyn), and he enjoyed his greatest success in an industry dominated by Jews. His relationship to Jewishness, however, was complex. His mother disowned her family and Jewish roots when her parents objected to her intentions to marry a Christian, the Episcopalian businessman Henry Churchill de Mille. She later engaged in an apparently sincere conversion to de Mille’s religion. There were no trappings of Jewishness in DeMille’s childhood home, and both Cecil and his brother William were reported by friends and relatives to have held anti-Semitic views as adults. They are also said to possess a subtle resentment of their partial Jewish ancestry. Biographer Scott Eyman has argued that DeMille consistently emphasized only his Episcopalian background to the press during his early ascent in the movie industry, prompting “people who knew his mother in New York” to “assume a covert anti-Semitism, a stance that would only be strengthened by his future status as a pillar of California’s right wing.”[3] William DeMille’s daughter Agnes, a dancer, recalled her father at times railing against her “Broadway Jew manager,” and that her uncle Cecil once confided to her “I don’t like the Jewish people out here.” Cecil DeMille’s longtime screenwriter, Jesse Lasky Jr, commented after DeMille’s death: “He did not heavily identify himself with Jews.”[4]

Despite discomfort with his origins, DeMille was intelligent enough to use his Jewish ancestry, in the right company, to help him navigate a heavily Jewish industry. The Jewish Tribune pointed out in the late 1920s that DeMille “considers it of great commercial and strategic importance to boast of the Jewish blood in his veins.” And, as will be discussed below, in certain contexts, DeMille would often praise Jews and their characteristics. DeMille thus comes across as an opportunist, who identified with his own success more than any ethnic cause or group, and who could simultaneously hold deep ambivalence about his Jewish background while understanding that this uncomfortable fact would be useful for his career in an industry that operated like a Jewish cousinhood. Jesse Lasky Jr probably summed it up best when he argued that DeMille ultimately didn’t identify with anyone: “He had a suspicion that most people might not be worth identifying with anyway. He served his own Gods.”

King of Kings

By 1926, DeMille had made a personal fortune directing movies for Jewish producers. It seemed a logical next step that he should strike out on his own, and DeMille Pictures Corporation was born. His first two pictures, however, The Road to Yesterday and The Volga Boatman, were a flop and a hit respectively, thus cancelling each other out and placing the new production company, now bleeding capital, in significant peril. He needed a significant hit. In May 1926, Denison Clift, a DeMille studio contract writer, wrote a memo to DeMille:

Why skirt around the one great single subject of all time and all ages — the commanding, majestic, and most sublime thing that any man can ever put upon the screen: the Life, Trial, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ: in other words: the LIFE OF CHRIST, with its awe-inspiring power, its simplicity and its unutterable tragedy. … The title of the picture would be: THE KING OF KINGS.
DeMille threw himself into the project with intensity, working with screenwriter Jeanie MacPherson on a script that closely followed the Gospels with one exception. Reflecting his penchant for more seedy material, and the perennial notion that “sex sells,” DeMille personally held the belief that Judas had not betrayed Christ for money, but because Judas lusted for Mary Magdalene and had been frustrated by Christ’s conversion of her. DeMille expected that this change, even introduced subtly, would result in some minor complaints from Church authorities, but he was extremely pleased with a final script that ran to a mammoth 366 pages. In the end, DeMille had little to fear from the Church.

The Synagogue was a different matter. DeMille was aware, from the earliest stages of the project, of a need to manage Jewish sensibilities. On August 23, 1926, the day before production began, DeMille assembled all senior cast and crew for a six and a half hour meeting at his home. At one point, DeMille told those present:

We have to protect all classes of people, especially the Jew. The purpose is to treat all classes fairly and particularly the Jew, because the Jew is put in the most unfortunate place of any race in the Bible because it was not really a matter of the Jew having persecuted Jesus, it was Rome — Rome with her politics and graft. … The Jews are a very great race, a very sensitive race and we have no desire to hurt them, nor do we desire to hurt anyone.
DeMille also expressed the opinion during the early stages of filming that the movie would bear great responsibility not only in fixing in the public mind an image of Christ, but also an image of those responsible for his crucifixion. In addition to his own anxieties, at least one major film executive wrote to DeMille expressing the hope that DeMille would do all he could to “get around the Bible’s anti-Semitism,” mainly by opening the picture with a caption stressing Roman dominance in Judea and other rhetorical conceits intended to portray the Romans as the primary antagonists. Eyman argues that, throughout filming, DeMille “strove to ameliorate any charges of anti-Semitism.” DeMille completely removed Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us, and on our children”) and instead inserted a line for Caiaphas the High Priest during the earthquake the follows the Crucifixion: “Lord God Jehovah! Visit not Thy wrath on Thy people Israel — I alone am guilty.” The move was designed to completely side-step the issue of Jewish communal and generational guilt for the death of Christ.

While showing tremendous sensitivity to Jewish interests in the text of the film, DeMille was stunningly unaware of the implications of his casting choices. Jesus and the Disciples were portrayed by young actors of northern European heritage, while DeMille insisted that the Jewish mob was played by extras culled from nearby Jewish quarters, along with Caiaphas and Judas, who were played by the Jewish father and son Rudolph and Joseph Schildkraut.[5] This practice of ethnic casting alone was to prove infuriating to Jewish authorities across America, who insisted that, despite DeMille’s alterations to the Gospel, the film remained an anti-Semitic Blood Libel.

The Jewish Reaction
DeMille’s King of Kings was released to huge public acclaim on May 18, 1927, and was every bit the commercial and critical success that DeMille hoped it would be. In fact, the only negative reaction to the film came from the organized Jewish community, which reacted to King of Kings with what can only be described as extreme vitriol. In the words of Jenna Weissman, “Where Christian America showered the film with hosannas, Jewish America pummelled it with brickbats.”[6] The Jewish Tribune led the initial campaign against DeMille with some deeply personal comments concerning racial betrayal:
[DeMille] brooks no argument, no contradictions, no independence, no apologies reflecting upon him. … Cecil is the real son of his mother … an English Jewess who embraced the Christian faith early in her life. … Mrs. DeMille does not consider herself a Jewess, but Cecil even now likes to repeat to every handy listener how proud he is of having a Jewish mother. … It is as if he were naively, yet sincerely, saying to the Jewish press and pulpit which accuse him of the betrayal of the Jewish race, “Can a man who is proud of his Jewish origins betray the Jewish race?”
The article went on to state that DeMille was a new Henry Ford, with King of Kingslikely to become the motion picture equivalent of The International Jew. The remarkable assertion was also made, despite all glaring evidence to the contrary, that the film was a flop, and had only been rescued by publicity surrounding its anti-Semitism. As DeMille biographer Scott Eyman points out, the Jewish Tribune, consumed with hysteria, had abandoned all logic:
The Jewish Tribune tried to have it both ways: castigating DeMille for freely acknowledging his Jewish heritage, when they would have undoubtedly castigated him even more had he avoided the matter, then bewailing the way the Jewish media had risen to take the director’s bait even as the article itself was part of the protests.
Prominent Zionist and Jewish activist Rabbi Stephen Wise entered the fray, saying the film would not have been made if a single Jew in Hollywood had acted “with the stature of a man.” Wise was the first major Jewish figure to call for the complete censorship of the film, telling one reporter, “I do not believe that the picture is curable. The only way to mend it is to end it. … The blood of Jews will be on the heads of the owners of this picture.”

Eyman writes that DeMille was “bewildered by this criticism,” having gone to great lengths to absolve Jews of any communal responsibility for Christ’s execution. Eyman suggests that DeMille probably reflected back on the September 1926 letter from an unnamed executive demanding that the movie place all blame for the crucifixion on the Romans. In DeMille’s opinion at the time, this would have represented too great a departure from the Bible, so he opted instead to attempt to place blame solely on Caiaphas. And DeMille had invested much in this attempt at pacification. Caiaphas is introduced in the film not as a Jewish High Priest, but as a “Roman appointee.” When Pilate asks the crowd, “Shall I crucify your king?,” it is not the entire collective of chief priests—as in John 19:15—but Caiaphas alone who responds “We have no king but caesar.” Throughout the film, Eyman stresses, DeMille reconfigures the blame solely upon this Romanized High Priest. It was now clear to DeMille, however, from the Jewish reaction to King of Kings, that any suggestion that Jesus was executed at the instigation of even a single Jew was more than the Jews of America would tolerate. They wanted nothing less than a rewrite of the Gospels.

DeMille was furious. During the latter stages of filming, he was often seen quietly staring at a portrait of Christ that he had placed on his desk, prompting at least one close associate to speculate that DeMille was beginning to become “deeply religious.” Jewish reactions to King of Kings certainly hit a strong nerve with DeMille, something indicated in a letter to a non-Jewish colleague:
I felt [the Jewish leaders] would greatly harm the Jewish race by bringing the matter to an open fight. … Someone in the Jewish race is trying to start trouble. This trouble should be stopped immediately for the good of all, as it could very easily lead to a situation that might be very destructive. Those Jews who are raising these rather violent objections would crucify Christ a second time if they had the opportunity, as they are so ready to crucify what, for want of a better term, I shall call His second coming upon the screen.[7]
Demands for changes to the film were formalized and broadened via the intervention of the ADL, with demands for substantial cuts and rewrites in return for a cessation of Jewish protests. The ADL contacted Los Angeles-based Rabbi Edgar Magnin, an associate of DeMille’s, and asked Magnin to persuade DeMille to acquiesce. The ADL projected power but was clearly only too aware of the popularity of the film and of DeMille, with the result that the ADL was as keen to see an end to the furor (though with its interests achieved) as DeMille. This tightrope situation was expressed succinctly by Magnin in a letter to DeMille dated September 28 1927:
An open rupture between [the Anti-Defamation League] and you could do absolutely no good to either and would likely result in harm to both. … Strike out the words ‘Crucify Him’ entirely. It would appear to me the action in itself is descriptive enough without the title. … Please give this your most careful and thoughtful consideration in the next few days, and if you can possibly do so, accede to the request of the League.
DeMille attempted to buy time by hastily preparing a memo describing actions he had taken to protect Jews during the making of the film, but the Jewish pressure continued. Resolutions condemning the film were passed by the United Synagogue of America, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California, and numerous similar groups across the country. Private detectives were hired to follow H. B. Warner, who played Jesus, in the hope that any discovered revelations about his private life (he did have a drinking problem) would help diminish ‘Jesus’ in the minds of the viewing public. The Schildkrauts, who played Caiaphas and Judas, were attacked as race traitors in Jewish editorials for allowing themselves to be cast in their villainous roles. DeMille later recalled, “Joseph was frightened. Joseph thought his career was through.” Felicia Herman writes that “the controversy over the film raged through November and December, receiving almost constant attention in Jewish newspapers through the nation.”[8] The ADL began making calls for the wholesale banning of the film, and then, in December, a three-page ADL ‘shopping list’ of proposed cuts and alterations arrived in DeMille’s office. Among the demands were:
  • Eliminate all scenes of the lashing of Jesus barring the first.
  • In the scene where a Jew, in answer to the question, ‘What evil has he done?’ shrugs his shoulders and jingles a coin, eliminate the jingling of the coin.
  • In the scene where Pilate washes his hands and puts the responsibility for the crucifixion on Caiaphas, let Caiaphas say “I assume the responsibility …”
  • Tone down the crucifixion.
The ADL also demanded that the film open with a foreword explaining that “the Jews were no longer an independent people,” and that all legal decisions at the time of Christ were ultimately the responsibility of the Romans. Coinciding with the arrival of the ADL “shopping list,” MGM announced that it would not release the film in eastern European countries “where it might inflame existing prejudices against the Jewish community.”[9]
DeMille’s will collapsed. In January 1928 a new version of the film was announced and released, incorporating the changes demanded by the ADL and others. By March 1929, DeMille was telling the Jewish Daily Bulletin that he regretted ever making the film. Even with the large number of changes, remarks Steven Carr, subsequent showings of the film
were subject to everything from accompanying benevolent ministerial statements to outright censorship. For example, in 1937 when the film was shown to churches in California, two entire reels were censored. The deleted scenes involved Judas accepting the bribe, the betrayal of Jesus, mob scenes, the activities of the high priest, and the Crucifixion itself. Before the film, a minister was to make a statement “completely exonerating the Jews” from any responsibility for the Crucifixion.[10]
The ADL used the battle over King of Kings to establish a permanent relationship with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA). Thereafter, the MPPDA (1915–1936) would facilitate an “official Jewish representative” appointed by the ADL who would liaise with the MPPDA and enable the ADL to screen any film for anti-Semitism before release to the public.

One of the most remarkable features of the battle over King of Kings is the extent to which the entire affair was subject to the grossest of exaggerations. Even for its time, the film was remarkably tame, and of course it had been thoroughly sanitized by DeMille prior to release. The severity of Jewish reactions therefore suggests one of two possibilities, or perhaps a combination of both. In the first instance, it’s clear that Jews have a strong fear of the portrayal of Jews in the Gospel stories in their unadulterated form, a fear that resurfaced on the release of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. In my own personal interactions with Jews over the years, I’ve constantly observed a strong and deep-seated unease when Christianity is discussed. In the realm of scholarship, it’s commonplace in Jewish historiography to see anti-Semitism portrayed as fundamentally theological in origin, despite a wealth of evidence suggesting far greater socio-economic influence in the development of anti-Jewish attitudes. Many Jews, engaged in self-deception, probably do believe that the New Testament is the sole reason why they have experienced hostility. In the context of such anxieties, no matter how misplaced, it should come as little surprise that Jews would react with extreme horror towards any representation of the New Testament, and especially any representation of the trial and execution of Jesus.

On the other hand, much of the Jewish behavior surrounding this episode appears extremely calculated and well-organized. Relations between the MPPDA and the ADL were already embryonic prior to the filming of King of Kings, and there is some reason to suspect that the entire episode was exaggerated in order to manufacture a crisis that demanded a response (greater formal Jewish involvement in the censorship of mass media). There is of course a possibility that Jewish fear and Jewish ambition have merged in this instance.

Reading much of the material relating to the King of Kings controversy, I found myself quite disturbed on realizing that much of contemporary Christianity resembles DeMille’s butchered film. Almost everything that gave it some teeth in past centuries has been excised, leaving for the most part a rather toothless brute that is a tame lapdog scared of its own shadow. Yes, Christianity, excepting a few corners of resistance, has been censored. It’s been rendered safe. It’s been declared “Jew-friendly.” Most importantly, it looks nothing like its original form, its ‘Director’s Cut’ so to speak. The fact that Jews even feel secure enough to now demand that the New Testament should come printed with “anti-Semitism warnings” really says it all.

The King of Kings censorship campaign also highlights the unique relationship that Jews have with censorship. Cultural censorship, of course, is not limited to Jews, and calls to limit speech or expression have also been common among Jews and Christians. The difference is that Christians in the twentieth century were often most heavily involved in attempts to limit or remove obscenity in culture, whereas Jews were most often leading the battle to advance the same obscenity in the name of “free expression.” American Christians, and Catholics in particular via organizations like the National League of Decency, often campaigned for censorship on behalf of abstract moral values like decency and modesty rather than for themselves as a church or a people. Jewish involvement in censorship, on the other hand, is without exception always self-interested. As mentioned above, Jews are extremely liberal in their advocacy for the freedom to view or consume material regarded as morally destructive, but have been nothing less than relentless in their pursuit of legal methodologies and other forms of pressure designed to limit any speech or activity that would bring them into criticism or otherwise harm their interests as a group.

The episode has clear parallels with our contemporary situation. Many of the tactics pioneered in the Ford-DeMille years remain in place a century later. Blackmail, spying, boycotts, and behind the scenes pressure remain the mainstays of the ADL’s tactical bag of tricks. The old MPPDA-ADL partnership sees its postmodern equivalent in the form of Big Tech companies that allow the ethnically solipsistic fanatics of the ADL to declare what is or is not hateful content that should be censored from public view.

If I have a lasting frustration with the King of Kings story, it is that millions of Americans stood and watched as a tiny hostile minority—a minority that had not attained anywhere near the power they would achieve in later decades and had only recently lost their campaign against the 1924 immigration restriction law—dictated what they could and could not see on a subject no less than what is supposed to be, for most of them, their most sacred scriptures. This was at a time when the ADL’s power in relation to DeMille’s involved considerable bluffing, as they themselves conceded in some of the Jewish correspondence of the period. The sheer gutlessness of that generation which collapsed in the face of Jewish pressure left a heavier burden for the subsequent generation, and that burden has been getting heavier ever since. Censorship brings a multitude of victories for the censor. What is truth if it can’t be spoken?

[1] Cited in S. Eyman, Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
[2] D. D. Moore, B’nai B’rith and the Challenge of Ethnic Leadership (New York: State University of New York Press, 1981), 115.
[3] Eyman, Empire of Dreams.
[4] Ibid.
[5] For an interesting perspective on the casting of the Schildkraut’s see A.K. Koslovic, “The Deep Focus Casting of Joseph Schildkraut as Judas Figure in Four DeMille Films,” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, 6 (2004).
[6] J. Weissman, Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments (Oxford University Press, 2017), 40.
[7] M. Bernstein (ed), Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Radio Era (Athlone, 2000), 80.
[8] F. Herman, Views of Jews: Antisemitism, Hollywood, and American Jews, 1913-1947 (Brandeis University Press, 2002).
[9] K.R. Phillips, Controversial Cinema: The Films That Outraged America (Praeger, 2008),139.
[10] S. A. Carr, Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History up to World War II(Cambridge University Press, 2001), 81.
(Republished from The Occidental Observer by permission of author or representative)