Was Bambi Jewish?

Was Bambi Jewish? It sounds like the setup to an unfunny Family Guy joke, but it’s actually the fascinating argument put forth by Paul Reitter, an author and professor at Ohio State, in a newly published Jewish Review of Books piece entitled “Bambi’s Jewish Roots.” The piece explores the background of Bambi’s author Felix Salten and convincingly argues that Salten’s original Bambi novel was an allegory for anti-Semitism:

It was not until a decade ago, however, that an actual reading of the “Zionist overtones” in Bambi was proposed. In an essay published in 2003, Iris Bruce argues broadly that the novel evokes the “experience of exclusion and discrimination.” But she also pays close attention to its language. Salten’s suggestive phrase for butterflies is “wandering flowers,” and Bambi describes them elsewhere as “beautiful losers” who have to keep moving, “because the best spots have already been taken.” Bruce stresses, as well, that the culture of the deer develops around the fact of their victimization: They tell their children tales that “are always full of horror and misery.”

Likening Bambi to Kafka’s talking-ape story “A Report to an Academy,” Bruce claims that Salten’s work, too, is a critique of assimilation. One of the deer uses the loaded verb verfolgen to ask whether humans and deer might get along: “Will they ever stop persecuting us?” When another deer answers that “reconciliation” with humans will eventually come about, Old Nettla, a third deer with vastly more experience of the world, will have none of it. Indeed, her response foreshadows a line from Salten’s Zionist book Neue Menschen auf alter Erde (loosely translated, new people on ancient ground), which expresses impatience with the enduring “dream of full integration.” Old Nettla seethes that humans, “have given us no peace and have murdered us for as long as we’ve existed.”

Not many of the deer in Bambi persist in believing that living harmoniously among humans is possible. Of the deer that do, two, Bruce points out, wind up being killed by hunters. One of those deer, Bambi’s cousin Gobo, spends time in captivity, and when he returns to the forest boasting of how well he was treated, Bambi is taken aback by how “strange and blind” Gobo has become. Furthermore, where Gobo is proud of the band that humans have placed around his neck (which should have made him off-limits to hunters), the wise “Royal Leader” (fürst) of the deer regards it as a sign of degradation and Gobo as “an unfortunate child.” That Gobo’s faith in humankind leads to his death reinforces the Royal Leader’s assessment. The label “Royal Leader,” on the other hand, reinforces the old deer’s status as a Herzl figure, since at the time Herzl was often given regal titles by Zionist writers. As Bruce puts it, “The old Prince of the Forest, then, can be said to represent Herzl.”

Walt Disney, by all accounts, was completely unaware of the allegorical underpinnings of the story. Like the average American reader of the book, he appreciated the story for its overt environmentalist themes and remade the story and characters accordingly. As Disney developed the film adaptation, he was interested in exploring “the possibilities with animals” and “not with doing the book the way it was.” In his piece, Reitter writes:

Of course, that didn’t stop Disney from transforming the story Bambi tells. Captiousness, melancholy, and a sentimental streak count among the prominent characteristics of Salten’s animals. The animals in the Disney film, which premiered in 1942, are altogether more frolicsome, brash, and affable. The plucky rabbit Thumper, for example, is Disney’s creation, not Salten’s. In the film, more than in the book, the forest, while no Eden, has an initial tranquility that is shattered by the cruelty of man. Indeed, some viewers regarded the film as registering the trauma of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of America’s innocence. Salten, nevertheless, liked the film, though he always described it as “Disney’s Bambi.”

Reitter’s piece has sparked dialogue in the Jewish community about Salten including this follow-up piece in the Jewish daily Forward. As for Walt, he continued to be inspired by Salten’s work and used his work as the basis of two more feature films—Perri and The Shaggy Dog.

(Thanks, Kellie Strøm)


  • Inkan1969

    Hmm. I read the Salten novel. I’d have to read this argument all the way through to consider it.

    There IS a passage in the novel where a fox calls the hunter’s hound that’s pursuing him a traitor. That part might be Salten making an analogy.

    This passage focuses on the Gogo subplot that’s not in the movie. To tell the truth, I didn’t see the Gogo subplot as an analogy, because it came off as realistic instead. A domesticated animal WOULD think all humans are trustworthy and friendly, and not be capable of distinguishing one human from another. So Gogo’s praise of humans due to the humans who took care of him sounded realistic; a domesticated deer like him really would walk up to a hunter and assume that the hunter’s friendly. :-( So I didn’t think the passage was an analogy.

  • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1742682656 Richard Smith

    Insert joke about Walt’s alleged anti-Semitism here.

    • Funkybat

      Or alternately; please don’t.

      That’s a (largely apocryphal) dead horse that’s already been beaten into a fine paste.

      • https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1742682656 Richard Smith

        I was being sarcastic. I don’t believe that myth.

        • Funkybat

          I didn’t think you did. I just find the references to Walt’s alleged dislike of Jews to be very tiresome at this point. Kind of like references to how Family Guy is bad and predictable.

          Both false allegations (the former) and true statements (the latter) can become tiresome if repeated enough. No hard feelings or anything, just had to share mine.

  • http://skunkandburningtires.com/ Ju-osh M.

    TheJewniverse.com wrote a similar piece back in January. Here’s another interesting factoid that makes the question ‘Is Bambi Jewish?’ seem a lot less ludicrous:

    “In 1936…Bambi was banned by the ruling Nazi party
    because of its ‘political allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe.’
    Burnings of the book were organized across Nazi states.”

    One wonders what Hitler — who greatly admired Disney’s films ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1579629/Did-Adolf-Hitler-draw-Disney-characters.html ) — made of the film adaptation. I hope it made him feel whatever the opposite of ‘twitterpated’ is.

    • timmyelliot

      I’m sceptical that the reason Nazi’s banned Bambi was “political allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe.”

      I’ve never been able to find the original quote, just a bunch of secondary sources pointing in circles.

      I think that’s giving the Nazi’s too much credit for understanding allegory. Besides, there were over 40 agencies involved with banning books, along with multiple different guidelines to which types of books would be banned.

      I think it was as simple as: Felix Salten was a prominent Jew, therefore his novel was banned (he ended up fleeing to Switzerland).

      • Ant G

        The Nazis really understood the effect of art on culture and were pioneers in propaganda techniques. They would know to spot allegories more than well. They were enemies, but not idiots.

        with that said, I agree with the latter half; it probably got banned more for who the author was first.

        • Funkybat

          There were some clever and intelligent people at the top of the Nazi regime, along with a whole lot of idiotic troglodytes. With almost any “popular movement” you will find a small elite at the top pulling the strings of the foot soldiers of the movement.

          People like Goebbels and Himmler knew exactly what they were doing. They were happy to let uneducated reactionaries carry out their evil plans. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them didn’t even passionately hate the Jews, but rather cynically concluded that the persecution and genocide would help to advance their personal political and economic interests.

          There are sick people out there, in every country and every generation. Its only with eternal vigilance that we can prevent such people from getting a toehold onto power.

    • Funkybat

      Interesting, I had never heard that re: Hitler and Salten’s Bambi. Sounds like pretty solid corroborating evidence, though of course the Nazis loved to call all kinds of forward-thinking art “degenerate Jewish trash.” Didn’t stop them from stealing it and hoarding it in their homes of course…

      I would be surprised if Hitler ever had a chance to see Disney’s Bambi, as it came out in mid-1942, and I kind of doubt smuggling current American films into Germany was a big concern for the powers that were at that time. Even if it were available, it sounds like Hitler probably wouldn’t have been interested, probably thinking Walt had “sold out to the Jews” or some such nonsense.

  • Derik

    I believe all this to be true. Kind of like Animal Farm but not as obvious. The book, as I believe, wasn’t intended for children. It’s actually quite horrifying and gives you the feel that you’re reading a thriller or horror novel.

    Also, I wonder what the analogy was for Bambi dating his cousin. xD

  • Pieter

    You couldn’t resist having a dig at Family Guy, did you?

    • George_Cliff

      I found that jibe to be quite pithy and a perfect transition from what sounds like a far-fetched and almost silly lead-in to a well written and thought-provoking article.

    • TheGreatWormSpirit

      Because it’s a terrible show.

    • Ant G

      But it really does sound like a set up for an unfunny Family Guy joke

  • Tony

    “Indeed, some viewers regarded the film as registering the trauma of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the loss of America’s innocence.”
    That, of course, would have been just a coincidence, as the film would have been near completion at the time of the attack, and would not have informed much of the story at all. There was a similar reaction on Monsters Inc., which came out just after 9/11, and people compared the exaggerated procedures of the CDA with those of the Department of Homeland Security.

  • http://www.elliotelliotelliot.com ElliotCowan

    Venison is kosher so it’s possible…

  • Eman

    Bambi is a Deer.
    I think that’s as much as Disney was thinking when he made the film.