A new documentary for American Experience questions the claims Disney was biased against Jews

By Maria Coder
Updated August 03, 2015 11:55 AM
Silver Screen Collection/Getty

New historical research shows there’s no evidence that Walt Disney was a rabid anti-Semite, according to a new documentary.

The cartoon pioneer’s legacy has been dogged by claims that he was biased against Jews. However, biographers and filmmakers who recently re-examined the subject are calling those allegations into question.

It’s “absolutely preposterous to call him anti-Semitic,” composer Richard Sherman said Sunday, commenting on a new PBS American Experience documentary that will air next month.

Sherman and his brother Robert, the sons of Jewish immigrants, worked on Disney movies including Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, and both were treated like family, Sherman told the AP.

Richard and Robert Sherman are legends for their work with Disney. They won Academy Awards for the score of Mary Poppins and the song Chim Chim Cher-ee. Perhaps their most famous song is It’s a Small World (After All), written for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Robert Sherman died in 2012.

While rumors have been circulating for years that Disney was a Nazi sympathizer or a hostile anti-Semite, historian and social critic Neal Gabler said he didn’t find that in his research for his 2006 book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

“I saw no evidence other than the casual anti-Semitism” that was common among non-Jews during Disney’s time, Gabler said.

Gabler said Disney was stern and driven and would fire people who fell short of his vision; “everyone was terrified.” But Sherman, who began working with Disney in 1960, said he never felt scared. He thinks perhaps by the time he came aboard, Disney had mellowed following decades of success. Disney died six years later, in 1966.

On his deathbed, he reportedly told his brother, Roy, about his plans for the Epcot theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

“He was a great soul, he really was. And he had his flaws, of course. Who doesn’t? But the main thing is he was driven to do good things,” Sherman said.

The four-hour Disney documentary will air on American Experience at 9 p.m. on Sept. 14 and 15.