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.

The movie lets us believe that it is living next to a Jew that gentiles would find objectionable, and maybe they would.  But, having been born the year before this movie was made, and having spent most of the 1950s living in the deep South, I can attest to the fact that the real reason people did not want a Jew to buy a house in their neighborhood was that they were afraid he would just turn around and sell that house to a “Negro.”  A Jew was a Trojan horse.  After all, someone driving through a neighborhood in the 1950s, thinking about buying a house, would not realize that the white man watering his lawn was a Jew, so property values would be unaffected by his presence.  But that same prospective homeowner could not be mistaken about the black man watering his lawn, which would have ended all thought of buying a house in that neighborhood.  As a result, the purchase of a house by just one black family would have been enough to make the value of all the houses in the neighborhood plummet.  However, this consequence of selling a house to a Jew is not brought out in the movie.

In any event, why is it that Kathy knows about this gentlemen’s agreement, but Phil 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 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, whether it is the people reading the article in the movie, or the audience in the theater watching this movie, they would not trust a Jew.  They would suspect he was lying about 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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