Gentleman’s Agreement is a story about a journalist who pretends to be a Jew in order to find out what it feels like to be a Jew. The journalist is Phil Green (Gregory Peck), a widower who lives with his mother (Anne Revere) and his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell). The three of them have moved to New York, where Phil has been hired by John Minify (Albert Dekker), editor of a prestigious, liberal magazine, Smith’s Weekly, to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism.
Minify is pushy. He invites Phil to come to a social gathering at his place, having decided that Phil needs to meet some people, and when Phil tries to beg off, Minify insists. We also find that Minify finishes people’s sentences for them. He not only knows what he wants, he knows what he wants people to say, and he is in too much of a hurry to let them say it.
At the party, Phil meets Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), who is divorced. Her ex-husband is also at the party, and they are on friendly terms. As Minify says, with a bit of contempt, their relationship is “civilized.” Now, I’ve always made an effort to remain on good terms with an ex-girlfriend, but I never wanted to be at a party where I knew she would be, where I would doubtless have to watch her put on a show about how happy she was with another man, while I would have to pretend that I was completely indifferent to it all. However, the point of their relationship is to show how polite these people are, polite even in their prejudice against Jews, as we eventually find out. This is kind of anti-Semitism this movie focuses on, as opposed to that which is rude and obnoxious. Hence the word “gentleman” in the title.
Kathy also is Minify’s niece. She has to remind Minify that she is the one who has been after him to publish a series of articles on anti-Semitism for almost a year, after a Jewish school teacher was forced to resign. Phil says it’s “funny” that she was the one that first suggested that series of articles. In response to this remark, Kathy suggests that Phil makes up his mind about people too quickly, especially women. This apparently inspires no reflection on Phil’s part, because the next morning, at breakfast, Phil mentions to his mother that he will be writing a series of articles on anti-Semitism, and again he says it’s funny that Minify’s niece suggested it originally. His mother responds, “You don’t say. Why women will be thinking next.”
In both these scenes, we side with Kathy and Phil’s mother in their bringing attention to a prejudice Phil seems to be harboring about women. Maybe Phil should pretend to be a woman to find out what that feels like. In all seriousness, these scenes make it clear that we in the audience are more enlightened than Phil is regarding women, and by extension, about prejudice in general. As we watch this movie, in which Phil struggles to write that series of articles on anti-Semitism, the movie places us in the position, not of being lectured to, but rather of patiently waiting for Phil to reach a level of awareness in such matters as we have already achieved. Having been so flattered, we are more likely to express our approval of this movie.
Tommy asks what anti-Semitism is, and Phil explains that some people don’t like Jews. When Tommy asks what a Jew is, Phil responds that Jews are people that go to churches called “synagogues.” That has to be the most superficial definition of a Jew I have ever heard. That’s like defining a woman as someone that uses the ladies’ room. Although, now that I think of it, maybe that is the definition of a woman nowadays. Anyway, I was waiting for Phil to say something to the effect that Jews are descendants of the people written about in the Old Testament, who believe there is just one God, whom they call Yahweh, but who don’t accept the idea that Jesus is the son of Yahweh, and thus are not Christians. But we get nothing of the sort. A lot of Christians in the audience of 1947 might have been offended to hear such a definition, which consists, in part, of a denial that Jesus is the son of God, thereby stirring up the very feelings of prejudice against Jews that this movie is hoping to avoid. So, it’s safer to be superficial.
Phil is having a difficult time figuring out how to approach the subject. He tells his mother that he is getting nowhere: “When I think I’m getting onto something good, I go a little deeper, and it turns into the same old drool of statistics and protests.” Then he thinks about his Jewish friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield), wishing he were here with him, realizing he’d be the guy to talk to. This leads to him to a new line of thought:
Hey, maybe that’s a new tack. So far, I’ve been digging into facts and evidence. I’ve sort of ignored feelings. How must a fellow like Dave feel about this thing? …Over and above what we feel about it, what must a Jew feel about this thing? Dave. Can I think my way into Dave’s mind? He’s the fellow I’d be, if I were a Jew. We grew up together. We were the gang. We did everything together. Whatever Dave feels now, indifference, outrage, contempt, would be the feelings of Dave, not only as a Jew, but the way I feel as a man, as an American, as a citizen.
His mother suggests he write Dave a letter. He sits down at the typewriter. But then he sees the futility of it all, imagining himself writing a letter, expressing his frustration in doing so to his mother:
What do I say? “Dear Dave, give me the lowdown on your guts when you hear about Rankin [a racist member of the House of Representatives] calling people ‘kikes.’ How do you feel when Jewish kids get their teeth knocked out by Jew-haters?” Could you write that kind of letter, Ma? That’s no good, all of it. It wouldn’t be any good if I could write it. There’s no way to tear open the heart of another.
Let us call this problem, as Phil understands it, the inadequacy of words to communicate feelings. There are two senses in which words might be used in an effort to communicate feelings. One is to use words that denote feelings, such as “outrage” or “contempt.” The other is to use words to describe situations that might induce feelings in the person hearing or reading those words, as in “Jewish kids get their teeth knocked out by Jew-haters.” Both types were mentioned by Phil above, but neither is capable of successfully communicating the feeling a Jew has, according to Phil’s way of thinking.
In some cases, people will insist on the inadequacy of words even when they are the ones using words to describe their situation. It is not uncommon for someone, listening with a sympathetic ear to his friend’s troubles, to say, “I know just how you feel,” only to have that friend respond, with irritation, “You don’t know how I feel!”
Eventually Phil comes up with the idea of pretending to be a Jew, as the only way to find out how it feels. When he finally reveals that on a previous occasion, he pretended to be an Okie in order to write about the plight of the Okies, and that on another occasion he pretended to be a coal miner in order to write about coal mining, we are a little incredulous that it took him so long to think about pretending to be a Jew. Having done this sort of thing twice before, it should have occurred to him right off.
And yet, in the end, this really doesn’t make much sense. Essentially, what Phil is getting at is that all Dave can do when asked to write back a letter telling how it feels to be a Jew is to provide what may be called a verbal description of his feelings. That is, he can write about his experiences, all the discrimination he has encountered, the hatred others have for him, and the humiliation he feels, but these will still be just words. The words will denote feelings or describe situations that might induce feelings, but there can be no way to ensure that the feelings expressed by the words he uses will be effectively communicated to Phil when he reads them. That is why Phil believes he must pretend to be a Jew, so that he can experience the feelings himself and know for sure what feelings those words are supposed to communicate, but which might not actually do so when they are written by Dave, and Phil merely reads them in a letter.
But in that case, we are getting nowhere. After Phil goes to all the trouble of pretending to be a Jew, when his sits down to write those articles, all he can do is provide another verbal description, one not much different from the one Dave might have written. The people who read Phil’s articles will be in exactly the same situation that Phil would be in reading Dave’s letter. They will read the words, but they cannot be sure that what Phil felt when he pretended to be a Jew is being captured by the words he uses to express those feelings. Following Phil’s reasoning out to its logical conclusion, the only way the Gentiles that read the articles he writes can know what Phil really felt is for them to pretend to be Jews themselves.
Anyway, when he finally does start pretending to be a Jew, he is shocked by all the prejudice he encounters, as when he tries to check into a high-class hotel and is refused service because it is “restricted.” Well, what did he think was going to happen? In fact, he seems to know less about anti-Semitism than anyone else in the movie. We get the impression that the person most ignorant about anti-Semitism has been picked to write an article about it. But again, this is the movie’s way of allowing us in the audience to regard ourselves as more enlightened on this matter than Phil is.
Even though Phil has decided that the inadequacy of words to communicate feelings precludes the possibility of learning anything by talking to Jews, we nevertheless cannot help but suppose that he might actually get a little insight from such discussions, not only from Dave, who knows Phil is not a Jew, but also from his Jewish secretary, Elaine Wales, who believes Phil is a Jew. Basically, she passes for a Gentile, having changed her name from Estelle Walovsky. Had she not done so, she says, she would never have been hired at Smith’s Weekly. The fact that Phil was hired doesn’t surprise her, because she says it’s different for writers than it is for “small fry,” employees like her. When Phil finds that out that there is a tacit policy on the part of the personnel department not to hire Jews, he tells Minify about it, who is ashamed he didn’t know this was going on in his own magazine, a policy he immediately changes, requiring an ad be placed in the newspaper for a secretary, stating that religion is a matter of indifference.
Thinking Phil is a Jew like her, Elaine says she worries that this change in policy will allow the “kikey ones” to be hired, the vulgar ones that are loud and use too much rouge. This is something most of us have encountered with other races, religions, or nationalities, where someone is embarrassed by his own people, so to speak, when they act crude and low class. It is to be noted, by the way, that there are no Jews in this movie that are loud or wear too much rouge. That sort is only described, not depicted. Just as Elaine wants to exclude them from where she works, so too are they being excluded from this movie. Otherwise, we might end up being sympathetic with Elaine’s attitude, and that certainly would never do.
Phil never knew there was a form of anti-Semitism among Jews themselves. In other words, he definitely had something to learn from Elaine. But instead of pretending to know what she is talking about, and agreeing with her somewhat in order to get some more insight in the matter, he becomes angry and demands that she not use words like “kike.” Having done so, Phil can be sure that this is last time he will learn anything about what it is like to be a Jew from Elaine. You can’t find out what someone is truly thinking and feeling if you act shocked and disapproving at what he or she is saying. In fact, Kathy has commented on this trait of his, saying, “Your face takes sides, as if you were voting for or against.” A journalist like Phil would do far better cultivating a cosmopolitan manner, presenting a face that feigns sympathy with whatever someone is saying, no matter how much he might despise it, as the best way to learn more about how that person thinks and feels. Instead, we are treated to one of Phil’s displays of righteous indignation, which forecloses the possibility of his gaining any further insight from Elaine or any of the other people in this movie who dare to express prejudice in his presence.
Later, Phil meets Professor Lieberman (Sam Jaffe), another Jew, but one that is not religious. He is philosophical about anti-Semitism, making jokes about it. And when Dave finally arrives in town, we see that he is not especially interested in anti-Semitism. In short, three very different Jews are depicted in this movie, each one of which has a different attitude about anti-Semitism. In other words, Phil’s quest to find out what it feels like to be a Jew is compounded by the fact that it all depends on the Jew.
Dave has an opportunity to move up in the firm he works for as the eastern representative, but he will have to find a place for himself, his wife Carol, and their children to live in the New York area. This may be a challenge, since there is still a housing shortage, owing to the war that has only recently ended. After much effort to find a place to live, however, Dave gives up, telling Phil he will have to turn down the promotion and stay in California.
By this time, Phil and Kathy have become engaged. She owns a house that she had built while she was married, though she and her husband got divorced before they actually lived in it. It would be perfect for Dave and his family, but since they are Jews, Kathy says she cannot rent it to them, explaining that people with houses in nice neighborhoods have a gentleman’s agreement not to sell or rent to Jews. She deplores the whole business, but she is not up to being ostracized by everyone in the neighborhood for breaking that agreement. As a result, Kathy and Phil quarrel, and they break off their engagement. But this raises the question, why is it that Kathy knows about this sort of thing, while Phil has never heard of it before? Maybe Kathy should be the one to write the series of articles.
Better still, why not have a Jew write the articles? A Jew would have a lifetime of experience about anti-Semitism and not have to rely on just a few weeks of pretending to be a Jew. And while it might not be possible to find Okies or coal miners capable of writing a series of articles on their experiences, for they would likely be poorly educated, there should be no shortage of Jews with the writing talent needed to put their thoughts on paper. It would still be just a verbal description, with all the limitations noted above, but it would likely be a better, more informed verbal description than the one composed by someone who was just pretending to be a Jew for a few weeks.
The reason is clear, though no one in this movie dare give voice to it: the articles would not be regarded as legitimate unless the Jewish experience could be validated by the testimony of a Gentile. Christians reading the articles would not trust a Jew. They would suspect he was lying about the abuse he has suffered in order to make them feel guilty, thereby gaining an advantage over them.
In that case, instead of hiring a Gentile to pretend to be a Jew, Minify should have hired a Jew to pretend to be a Gentile. He could have hired someone like Dave to write the articles, who would then sign them under a name like Phil Green, claiming that he only pretended to be a Jew so he could know how it feels to be one, thereby giving the articles the needed cachet of Christian authenticity.
Doing this would solve another problem, which is that there is no guarantee that by pretending to be a Jew, Phil would have the feelings that Dave has on account of his actually being a Jew. Since Phil is not a Jew, it is hard to believe that he would feel the effect of prejudice the same way a Jew would. Phil acts deeply offended when he encounters prejudice, but it is still from the secure position of someone who knows that this charade is only temporary, and he will soon return to his place in society as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. The inadequacy of words to express feelings is only made worse by the fact that Phil is not likely to have the feelings that Dave does anyway. Or the feelings that Elaine has, or those of Professor Lieberman.
Furthermore, if I had pretended to be a Jew in order to be able to write about anti-Semitism, every time someone “offended” me, I would gleefully sneak off to the restroom to write down notes, thinking, “Boy, this is going to be good stuff for that series of articles I’m going to write.”
In the end, Kathy realizes she has been wrong to go along with anti-Semitism, so she rents her house to Dave. As a result, Phil is willing to forgive her and marry her. The series of articles promises to be a great success. Phil’s mother suggests that as a result, the twentieth century may turn out to be “everybody’s century, when people all over the world, free people, found a way to live together.”
Or maybe not.