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Duck Everlasting — The secret Jewish history of Donald Duck

Was Disney’s sputtering creature a symbol of liberty or of mankind’s fowl propensity to embrace duck-tatorship?

It was 90 years ago that the querulous, sputtering Donald Duck first appeared in a movie short. The Russian Jewish director Sergei Eisenstein adored Donald and his Disney confrères, despite their lack of social significance; Eisenstein deemed Donald “beyond good and evil.”

Yet other Jewish talents specifically used Donald Duck as a vehicle for teaching morality propaganda lessons, like the comedian Sid Caesar, of Polish Jewish origin, who according to historian Jeremy Dauber got his start in showbiz by doing a routine in which Donald Duck debated Adolf Hitler.

Mimicking the two voices in a Coast Guard entertainment for the troops in 1944, Caesar was doubtless inspired by the 1943 Disney propaganda cartoon “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” an Oscar winner for best animated short film. It depicts Donald Duck as a beleaguered denizen of Nazi Germany who is terrorized by a shadow that looks like a character giving the Sieg Heil salute. To the duck’s relief, it turns out to be a shadow cast by a replica of the Statue of Liberty, raising its arm to carry the torch of liberty over the poem “The New Colossus” by Jewish author Emma Lazarus.

This ambiguity of an American symbol mistaken for the threat of Nazi dictatorship reflects complex opinions of Donald Duck by Jews and others before, during, and after World War II.

An earlier Donald Duck cartoon from 1938, “Donald’s Better Self,” juxtaposes good and evil, as if preparing the American mindset for the struggle that would ensue between Fascism and freedom. “Donald’s Better Self” justified military action after provocation.

Author Colin Shindler points to a document drafted in 1942 by Disney employee Robert Spencer Carr, specifically mentioning music, narration, celebrity casting, moral supremacy, and ridiculing the Nazi state as ways to win a propaganda war with Fascist Europe.

A Disney animator works on a sketch of Donald Duck circa 1936. Photo by Getty Images

Yet historian Yehuda Moraly notes that the American Jewish producer Leon Schlesinger, head of Warner Bros. Cartoons, preceded Disney with Looney Tunes shorts like “The Ducktators” (1942), a barnyard allegory about the rise of fascism, starring Daffy Duck, the Warners’ rival for Donald Duck. In “The Ducktators,” a baby duckling is hatched who grows up to be Hitler, voiced by the American Jewish radio personality Mel Blanc.

Nevertheless, Disney’s Donald Duck was considered symbolic of Americans internationally, as in “Nimbus Liberated” (1944), an antisemitic French cartoon funded by the Nazis. In it, a caricatured Jewish announcer for Free French broadcasts in London announces the Allied air invasion of France, with planes piloted by Donald Duck and fellow US cartoon stars slaying French civilians.

Even before the war was over, Donald’s status as the quintessential American offended some Jewish thinkers. Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) by the German Jewish social theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer trashed the Jewish popular author Mortimer Adler’s view of Disney cartoons as great art.

Horkheimer and Adorno likened Germany’s “generation that allowed Hitler to become great” to American audiences, those “pure, childish souls who applaud with innocent approval when Donald Duck gets walloped.”

In their analysis of American culture, Betty Boop, created by the Jewish cartoonist Max Fleischer, is presented as vastly preferable to the noisy victim Donald. It is even posited that Donald Duck receives his beatings in cartoons so that the spectators can accustom themselves to their own punishment in American capitalist society.

As described by researchers Thomas Andrae and Esther Leslie, Horkheimer and Adorno saw Donald Duck-olatry as a form of masochism, the “misplaced love of the common people for the wrong which is done them” through “the breaking down of individual resistance.”

This type of kvetching about Donald Duck and US failings was echoed a few decades later in How to Read Donald Duck, (1971) coauthored by the Chilean Jewish writer Ariel Dorfman.

In a preface to the 1975 English edition of the book, Dorfman addressed Donald’s creator: “Mr. Disney, we are returning your Duck. Feathers plucked and well roasted… Donald, Go Home!”

No allusion was apparently intended to roast duck with plums, a Rosh Hashanah delicacy in some Jewish kitchens.

Instead, Dorfman trashed Donald and his fellow Disney characters as capitalist propaganda for American corporate and cultural imperialism.

At times the Disney corporation has behaved in ways that seem to confirm these accusations. Israel: A History in 100 Cartoons recalls a 1991 tzimmes when the House of Mouse sued the Israeli cartoonist Dudu Geva for copyright violation. Geva’s purported crime was drawing a duck character which resembled Donald Duck too closely.

In a Tel Aviv newspaper, Geva had published the comic strip “Moby Duck,” an excerpt from his Duck Book. Rather than just change the image, which he ultimately had to do anyway, Geva chose to fight the case, going all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Historian Shaul Mitelpunkt explains how Disney’s lawyers terrorized Geva by waking him with a phone call at 7:00 am to announce that he was being sued by the corporate behemoth. Instead of hiring an intellectual property attorney to defend him, Geva relied on Avigdor Feldman, a human rights specialist.

Humanity, represented by the Israeli artistic and literary world, was offended by the heavy-handed US corporate sanctions against small-scale Jewish creativity.

In courtroom testimony, Geva explained his addition of a Tembel hat, a national symbol of hardworking Israelis, to create a kind of “Srulik Duck,” as an ironic takeoff on the optimistic, diligent, outgoing 1950s cartoon character symbolizing Israel. Shaul Mitelpunkt claimed that Geva had expatriated Donald Duck, “turning him into a dirty Sabra trickster.”

However, the Supreme Court dismissed Geva’s claim that he was using the image of Donald Duck as a societal critique. They cited a deposition in which Geva himself admitted that rather than criticizing Donald, he admired him and included him in his book “out of respect to Disney’s duck character, that is one of my childhood heroes, one of the standing pillars of the duck nation in particular and Comics culture in general.”

Geva added to an interviewer from “Ma’ariv” in January 1992 that Donald Duck “is the king of ducks as far as I’m concerned. I thought I showed him respect here, until [Disney] forgot his place and jumped a small Israeli duckling.” Like Horkheimer and Adorno, Geva saw Donald as a loser to be championed.

Whether the stress of this episode took an exceptional physical toll on the cartoonist is unknown, but Dudu Geva died prematurely of a heart attack at age 54.

The possible dangers for Jews of loving, or hating, Donald Duck excessively was echoed in an odd episode from 2012 in Ohio, when Governor John Kasich sought to install a Holocaust memorial at the Statehouse.

A local Republican politician complained that it was only necessary for someone to say “I want a statue of Donald Duck on the Statehouse grounds” and if the governor agreed, the statue would duly be raised.

This trivializing right-wing juxtaposition of Donald Duck/Holocaust was as unsettling as the Statue of Liberty/Hitler salute confusion in “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” perhaps saying much about Donald Duck’s at times uneasy ongoing link to Jewish history.

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