Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Gentleman’s Agreement is a movie that supposedly tells us what it is like to be a Jew, but it actually tells us what it is like to pretend to be a Jew.

Reporter Phil Green (Gregory Peck) is hired by magazine publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker) to write an article on anti-Semitism, but he just cannot figure out how to approach the subject. We watch the movie patiently waiting for him to come up with the idea of pretending to be a Jew. 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 irritated 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. This delay might have been improved dramatically if someone else had suggested the idea to him. We might imagine his mother saying, “You once pretended to be an Okie to learn what it was like to be an Okie, so why don’t you pretend to be a Jew?” But since the movie has Phil come up with the idea himself, we can’t help thinking, “It’s about time!”

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. Well, what did he think was going to happen? In fact, he seems to know less about anti-Semitism than everyone 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. His girlfriend Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) has to tell him that people with houses in nice neighborhoods have a gentleman’s agreement not to sell or rent to Jews. Why is it that she knows about this, but he does not? Maybe she should be writing the article. At the very least, Phil could have collaborated with his Jewish friend and with his Jewish secretary. Instead, the man who knows least about anti-Semitism thinks he has to write the article all by himself.

And this raises the question, why not have a Jew write the article? It does turn out that the magazine Phil is going to write the article for discriminates against Jews in its hiring policy, which Minify changes when he becomes aware of it. But that doesn’t explain why Minify, who seems so determined to combat anti-Semitism, did not hire a Jew to do the job from the very beginning. We almost get the feeling that the article (and the movie itself, for that matter) would not be meaningful unless the Jewish experience was filtered through the mind of a gentile.  In other words, a Jew cannot be trusted to give an honest report on how he is treated.  He might exaggerate the abuse he suffers to gain advantage over gentiles.

Furthermore, 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 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 article I’m going to write.”

By letting us be one step ahead of Phil throughout his education on what it means to be a Jew, we in the audience are being flattered that we are already more enlightened on the subject than he is, and thus we are more inclined to agree with the movie’s conclusions.

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