The Believer (2001)

The Believer is based on a true story about a Jew who became an anti-Semite.  His reasons for hating Jews are fascinating but difficult to discuss. Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), the Jewish anti-Semite in this movie, is able to reveal his reasons for hating Jews and give further reasons for what to do about them because he is a Jew.  But as I am not a Jew, my repeating what he said in a review almost seems to be off limits.  It is a variation on the old principle, “I can criticize my family, but you cannot.”  It is the same as when a black comedian is able to get away with using derogatory words to refer to African Americans because he is one, while a white comedian would be pilloried for using those very same words.  Nevertheless, the ideas advanced in this movie may actually provide insight into anti-Semitism and thus are worth understanding, even if those are ideas are repugnant.

As the movie opens, we see Danny working out with dumbbells, making it clear that strength is important to him.  His head is shaved, and on his arm, we see a tattoo of the triskele, a three-sided swastika.  What we hear, however, is a flashback to a time when Danny was a young boy in school.  The teacher is telling the story of when God told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  The teacher asks the class what the meaning of the story is, and a boy gives the standard answer, that it was “a test of Abraham’s faith and devotion to God.”  Then the teacher calls on Danny, noting, somewhat derisively, that as usual Danny has something to add.  Danny replies that it is not about Abraham’s faith, but about God’s power:  “God says, ‘You know how powerful I am?  I can make you do anything I want, no matter how stupid.  Even kill your own son, because I’m everything and you’re nothing.’”

The scene changes to a subway station, where we see a teenager wearing a yarmulke.  He looks down as he walks, as if he is afraid to look anyone in the eye.  He gets on the subway, sits down, and opens a textbook, with his shoulders squeezed together, as if trying to make himself as small as possible.  He wants for all the world to be left alone.  But it is no good, because Danny sees him.  Filled with hatred, Danny begins stepping on the boys shoes, until the boy gets off the train.  Danny follows him knocks the book out of his hand.  The boy just stands there meekly.  Danny picks up the book and sees that it is a textbook from an institution that teaches Orthodox Judaism.  Danny hits the boy, knocking him down, and then starts kicking him.  As he does so, he alludes to the story of Abraham, asking the boy if he thinks this is a test, if God is going to provide a ram instead of him.

Then he tells the boy to hit him.  “Do me a favor.  Why don’t you fucking hit me.  OK?  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Hit me!  Fucking hit me, please!  You fucking kike!”  At first, this sounds like the standard act of a bully, sticking his chin out, daring someone to hit him, after which he intends to beat him up.  But it is more than that.  Danny really wants the boy to hit him.  And that is because what Danny hates about Jews is that they won’t fight.

At this point, we must stop and ask the obvious question:  Is it true that Jews won’t fight?  The answer would seem to be “No.”  The Old Testament is full of stories about Hebrews fighting.  The history of organized crime in America includes Jews like Bugsy Siegel, Arnold Rothstein, and Meyer Lansky, who didn’t get where they were by being afraid to fight.  More respectably, of course, there are the Jews of Israel, whose willingness to fight is beyond question.  However, as important as it is to note this discrepancy between what Danny believes and the facts, let us simply continue with what Danny believes for the moment.

Danny locates a fascist group on the internet headed by Curtis Zampf (Billy Zane), and he and three of his friends attend a meeting, where Zampf is comparing the good old days with the way things are now, which is bad.  He says that is why he is a fascist, because only a fascist government can straighten things out.  When a man asks about race, Zampf says this isn’t the time for that, even though he did make reference to all the black faces one now sees in the neighborhood.  Danny interrupts, saying that race is central to problem, that the modern world is a Jewish disease, the disease of abstraction.  And the solution to that disease, he says, is “killing Jews.”  Zampf objects, saying that it will be Germany all over again.  “Isn’t that what we want,” Danny replies, “Germany all over again, only done right this time?”  Later in the movie, when one of his neo-Nazi friends suggests that the holocaust was a hoax, Danny replies, “If Hitler didn’t kill six million Jews, why in the hell is he a hero?”  As far as Danny is concerned, if Hitler didn’t kill all those Jews, then he was a “putz.”

Danny says that people hate Jews, but then qualifies it:  “The very word [Jew] makes their skin crawl.  And it’s not even hate.  It’s the way you feel when a rat runs across the floor.  You want to step on it.  You just want to crush it.”  So, it’s a kind of hate arising out of disgust.  Danny says, “You don’t even know why.  It’s a physical reaction, and everyone feels it.”  But as we have already seen, from the example of the Jewish boy he bullied, as well as the example of God and Abraham, it is the refusal of the Jew to fight back Danny believes is the cause of that feeling.

In another flashback to that day in the classroom, we hear another student point out that Abraham never killed Isaac, because God provided a ram as a substitute.  First, Danny argues that Abraham really did kill Isaac on that day, just as God wanted, but that the story was changed later to make it more acceptable.  Then Danny points out that even if the traditional story was the correct one, once Isaac raised his hand with the knife in order to plunge it in, he had already killed Isaac in his heart.  Abraham, Danny continues, would never have been able to forget that and neither would Isaac.  Furthermore, he says, the whole Jewish people were permanently scarred.

One of the people at the meeting headed by Zampf was a free-lance reporter, Guy Danielsen (A.D. Miles), who is doing research on right-wing groups.  When Danny started speaking, he could immediately see that there was something special about Danny’s ideas.  He manages to get Danny to agree to an interview.  Guy asks Danny to elaborate on his remark at the meeting to the effect that the modern world is a Jewish disease.  Danny begins, “In this racialist movement we believe there is a hierarchy of races.  You know, whites at the top, blacks at the bottom.  Asians, Arabs, Latins somewhere in between.”

Conspicuous by its absence is the place of the Jews in this hierarchy, even though it is supposedly an answer to the “Jewish disease” question.  It is almost as if the Jews cannot be ranked with the rest because they are qualitatively different from the others.  Guy presses Danny about the Jewish disease.

Danny begins by using sexuality as an example.  He asserts that Jews are obsessed with oral sex because a Jew is essentially female.  “Real men—white, Christian men—we fuck a woman.  We make her come with our cocks.  But a Jew doesn’t like to penetrate and thrust.  He can’t assert himself in that way, so he resorts to these perversions….  So after a woman’s had a Jewish man, she’s ruined.  She never wants to be with a normal partner again.”  When Guy asks if that means the Jew is a better lover, Danny says it does not.  “I said he gives pleasure.  That’s actually a weakness.”

This notion that a Jew is essentially female goes with his views that Jews will not fight, because physical fighting tends to be a masculine trait.  As for this last remark that giving pleasure is a weakness, it is interesting that Danny’s girlfriend, Carla Moebius (Summer Phoenix), whom he met at the Zampf meeting, told Danny she wanted him to hurt her just before they had sex, and the next morning she had a bruise on her mouth.  I guess she is his kind of woman.

Danny continues, saying that the Jews control the media and investment banks, and “they carry out in those realms the exact same principles they display in sexuality.  They undermine traditional life and they deracinate society.  Deracinate.  Tear out the roots.  A real people derives its genius from the land, from the sun, from the sea, from the soil.  That is how they know themselves.  But Jews don’t even have soil.”  Guy makes the obvious objection that Jews in Israel have their own soil, their own country, but Danny responds that the Israelis are not Jews.

If we balked at the notion that Jews will not fight, Danny’s declaration that Israelis are not Jews seems preposterous.  However, this is not the first time I have heard this claim.  Most notably, Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative is, not surprisingly, a book about the importance that territory plays in the behavior of many animals, including man.  He argues that Jews are not a race the way Caucasians or Negroes are, but are a group of people distinguished by their lack of territory.  Once they acquired territory, the citizens of Israel ceased to be Jews.  According to Ardrey, people in Israel are different in every way from the Jews of the Diaspora:

It is not just physique.  It is posture, a manner of walking, a manner of speaking, a manner of thought.  The “Jewish personality” has vanished, replaced by that of the Israeli, a being as confident, as resolute, and as willing to do battle as a roebuck on his wooded acres.  You go to a party in Tel-Aviv and someone asks the inevitable question, “How do you like Israel?” and you answer, “Fine.  But where are the Jews?” And the party goes off into the greatest laughter, for it is the nation’s joke.  [p. 286]

The fact that Ardrey and Danny are in agreement does not mean they are right, of course.  But the point is that as bizarre as Danny’s claim that Israelis are not Jews seems to be, it is not unique to him.  If it is an instance of the no true Scotsman fallacy, it is apparently a common one.

Danny continues with this line of reasoning: “Notice the Israelis.  It’s fundamentally a secular society.  They no longer need Judaism because they have soil.  The real Jew is a wanderer.  He’s a nomad.  He’s got no roots and no attachments, so he universalizes everything.  He can’t hammer a nail or plough a field.  All he can do is buy and sell and invest capital, manipulate markets.  And it’s, like, all mental.  He takes the life of a people rooted in soil and turns it into a cosmopolitan culture based on books and numbers and ideas.  You know, this is his strength.”

When Danny said at the meeting that the Jewish disease was the disease of abstraction, we may not have understood what he meant, but the above quotation gives us a fuller sense of what he was driving at.  He continues:  “Take the greatest Jewish minds:  Marx, Freud, Einstein.  What have they given us?  Communism, infantile sexuality, and the atom bomb.  In the three centuries it’s taken these people to emerge from the ghettos of Europe, they’ve ripped us out of a world of order and reason, thrown us into class warfare, irrational urges, relativity, into a world where the very existence of matter and meaning is in question.  Why? Because it’s the deepest impulse of a Jewish soul to pull at the very fabric of life till there’s nothing left but a thread.  They want nothing but nothingness, nothingness without end.”

The reporter is awed by the intricate weaving of ideas that Danny puts forth, but then asks him how he can believe all this when he is a Jew himself, something he discovered in the course of his investigations.  Danny becomes angry, threatening to sue Guy if he publishes that.  He sticks a pistol in Guy’s mouth and says he will kill himself if he prints that.  His anger is in part that he is ashamed of being a Jew, but it is also in part that he is still struggling with his Jewishness, with his affinity for the Jewish race.  His threat to commit suicide is a harbinger of what is to come.

In the earlier scene where Danny tried to get the Jewish boy to hit him, I argued that this was more than a bully’s dare.  It was, in a strange way, a desire to help the boy, to get him to fight.  Danny hates the Jew, but he also loves the Jew.  This struggle against his Jewishness becomes clearer as the movie progresses.

After deliberately provoking a fight in a kosher restaurant by making fun of the dietary laws, Danny and his friends are ordered by the judge to undergo sensitivity training.  They listen to some survivors of the holocaust tell their stories.  A man tells of how a Nazi soldier bayoneted his three-year-old son right in front of him.  While Danny’s friends are sitting around with looks of insolence on their faces, we see, just barely, the moisture in Danny’s eyes.  He is clearly distressed by the story.  He berates the man for not fighting back against that soldier.  As he does so, his hands move across his face, as if to surreptitiously wipe the tears away.  A Jewish woman argues back, saying he would have been killed.  Danny replies that death would have been better than surviving with the memory of having done nothing.  Again the woman challenges that, quite effectively, pointing out that it is easy to talk like a hero, but braver men than Danny were broken by the Nazis.  Danny gets up saying that he and his friends have nothing to learn from the holocaust survivors, that they should be learning from Danny and his friends, to kill your enemy.

Throughout the movie, Danny has done more than talk about killing Jews.  He has been planning something, either an assassination or a bombing.  He and his friends break into a synagogue and begin trashing the place.  As they start to plant a bomb, someone discovers a Torah Scroll.  Danny becomes protective of it, while his friends want to desecrate it.  After they spit on it, tear it, and stomp on it, Danny carefully rolls it back up.  Somewhat later, as he carefully and lovingly tapes the torn part of the scroll back together, he fantasizes about being the Nazi soldier who bayoneted the child.  I’d say this guy is pretty mixed up.

When the bomb fails to go off, a Rabbi on television explains that the power cell in the timer gave out thirteen minutes before it was set to explode.  He goes on to say that once again God intervened to save the Jews.  He begins elaborating a kind of mystical doctrine in which God has thirteen attributes, the highest of which means “nothingness without end.”  When we heard Danny say, in the interview with Guy, that Jews want nothingness without end, many of us might have thought this was just part of his strange theory, but this statement by the Rabbi indicates that much of Danny’s thinking is based on his scholarly knowledge of Judaism.

At the Zampf meeting, Danny had talked about killing Ilio Manzetti, a Jewish investment banker.  One of his friends, Drake (Glenn Fitzgerald), who is a sharpshooter, asks Danny if he wants to kill a Jew, who turns out to be Manzetti.  When Manzetti walks out of the synagogue, Danny aims and shoots, but misses.  Drake accuses him of doing it on purpose.  Then he discovers that Danny is wearing a prayer shawl beneath his shirt.  “Fucking kike!” he exclaims.  “I knew it.”  They fight over the rifle, and Danny shoots Drake in the leg and gets away.

There is another flashback to that day in school when Danny gave his interpretation of the meaning of God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, which in some ways recapitulates the story of the Jew, his child, and the Nazi soldier.  As noted above, Danny had maintained that what really happened that day was that God did not substitute a ram at the last minute.  And just as Danny insisted that the Jew should have fought back against the Nazi, even if it cost him his life, so too does Danny think that Abraham should have fought back against God to protect Isaac.

Picking up where the last flashback left off, Danny continues, “The whole Jewish people were permanently scarred by what happened at Mount Moriah.  And we still live in terror.”  When a fellow student says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Danny replies, “Fear of God makes you afraid of everything.  All the Jews are good at is being afraid, at being sacrificed.”  Someone asks if he even believes in God, to which Danny replies, “I’m the only one who does believe.  I see him for the power-drugged madman that he is.  And we’re supposed to worship this deity?  I say, ‘Never!’”  The teacher tells a student to go get Rabbi Springer to remove Danny from the class.  He then turns to Danny, saying that if Danny had come out of Egypt, God would have destroyed him in the desert with all those who worshipped the Golden Calf.  “Then let him destroy me now,” Danny replies defiantly.  “Let him crush me like the conceited bully that he is.”  He looks up, as if at God in Heaven, and says, “Go ahead.”  We next see Danny running from the classroom, going down the stairs, symbolically suggesting his descent into the world anti-Semitism, into hate, into Hell.

Carla’s mother, Lina Moebius (Theresa Russell), and Zampf have decided to launch an intellectually serious fascist movement, and they want Danny to give speeches to help with the fundraising, rather than get involved in assassinations or bombings, because, as Lina says, they already have enough thugs.  He likes the idea, but he is disturbed both by the idea that he is an intellectual and by the idea of fundraising, presumably because he thinks of intellect and money as Jewish concerns.  In fact, he is so disturbed that he rushes outside and throws up.

Carla follows him outside, and starts kissing him.  Kissing someone who has just vomited is disgusting, and nothing like it has ever been seen in a mainstream movie before or since.  In the interview with Guy, we recall that Danny said that oral sex was a perversion, and sexual perversion is something Danny associates with Jews.  We have already seen that Carla likes Danny to hurt her during sex, and on a previous occasion, she invited him to her room, telling him to come to her window at midnight.  When he got there, she was humping on Zampf.  While Danny watched, she looked right at him and had an orgasm.  So, we have masochism, exhibitionism, and scatology (of a sort).  Presumably this represents another conflict of emotions for Danny in his sexual relationship with a perverted Gentile girl.

Danny gives a speech in front of a handful of people, most of whom admit to being anti-Semites.  Danny begins by posing a question as to why we hate the Jews.  “Do we hate them because they push their way in where they don’t belong?  Or do we hate them because they’re clannish and keep to themselves?  Because they’re tight with money, or because they flash it around?  Because they’re Bolsheviks or because they’re capitalists?  Because they have the highest IQs or because they have the most active sex lives?”

His audience is undoubtedly confounded by this, because he makes it clear that the reasons people give for not liking Jews are inconsistent.  He continues, “You want to know why we hate them?  Because we hate them.  Because it’s an axiom of civilization, that just as man longs for woman, loves his children, and fears death, he hates Jews.  There’s no reason.  And if there were, some smart-assed kike would try to prove us wrong, which would only make us hate them more.  And really, we have all the reasons we need in three simple letters:  ‘J,’ ‘E,’ ‘W.’ ‘Jew.’  You say it a million times, it’s the only word that never loses its meaning.”  Danny’s views seem to vacillate between giving reasons for hating Jews, such as that they won’t fight or they like abstractions, to saying that the hate is more fundamental than the reasons, which really don’t matter.

In the next scene, we see Danny talking to an investment banker who is willing to give a thousand dollars to the Zampf group, on account of an article that Danny wrote.  He advises Danny to forget about all that stuff about the Jews, not because the banker disagrees with Danny’s anti-Semitism, but because it just doesn’t play any more.  “There’s only the market,” he says, “and it doesn’t care who you are.”  When Danny says that people still need values and beliefs, the banker replies, “No, they don’t.  Not the smart ones.”  The banker agrees to give Danny as much as five thousand dollars, but adds, “When you fall off this horse, come see me.  I could show you how to make a lot of money.”

Danny says, “You’re a Jew.  You may not realize it, but you are.”

The banker shrugs.  “Maybe I am.  Maybe we’re all Jews now.  What’s the difference?”

And so, this banker is Danny’s opposite number.  Whereas Danny is a Jew who has become an anti-Semite, this investment banker is an anti-Semite who has become a Jew.  In a similar way, Carla, who has figured out that Danny is a Jew on account of his obsession with Jews, is becoming Jewish herself, learning Hebrew and wanting to observe the Sabbath.

Danny runs into some old friends of his, who are Jewish, and he is invited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with them at a synagogue.  When he gets there, he gets into a heated argument with Avi (Judah Lazarus), with whom he used to argue all the time at school.  Avi accuses Danny of being a fascist, saying he thinks “Jews are wimps.”  When he says Danny is a Jewish Nazi, Danny replies that Avi is a Zionist Nazi, that Zionists acts like Stormtroopers.  A woman standing nearby asks, “And you hate them because they’re wimps or because they’re Stormtroopers?”  It is the very thing Danny warned about in his speech, the contradictory reasons people give for hating Jews.  In fact, there are cross-currents of inconsistency running back and forth through this movie too numerous to mention them all.  And the inconsistencies point back to Danny’s more fundamental point, that the hatred of the Jews is irrational, and reasons are something people struggle to come up with to make sense of their hatred.

The speech that Danny gave making this point was to an audience casually dressed, who appeared to be working class.  But following the scene at the synagogue, Danny is back at Lina’s house, which is filled with well-dressed people, “right-wing money,” as Lina puts it.  She has hopes that Danny’s speech will be what it takes to really get the movement going.

Danny gets before the crowd and begins singing a Jewish prayer.  He then explains why he did so:  “Who wants to destroy the Jews?  Who wants to grind their bones into the dust?  And who wants to see them rise again?  Wealthier, more successful, powerful, cultured, more intelligent than ever?  Then you know what we have to do?  We have to love them.  ‘What!  Did he say, “Love the Jews?”’  It’s strange, I know.  But with these people, nothing is simple.  The Jew says all he wants is to be left alone to study his Torah, do a little business, fornicate with his oversexed wife.  But it’s not true.  He wants to be hated.  He longs for our scorn.  He clings to it, as if it were the very core of his being.  If Hitler had not existed, the Jews would’ve invented him.  For without such hatred, the so-called Chosen People would vanish from the Earth.  And this reveals a terrible truth and the crux of our problem as Nazis.  The worse the Jews are treated, the stronger they become.  Egyptian slavery made them a nation.  The pogroms hardened them.  Auschwitz gave birth to the state of Israel.  Suffering, it seems, is the very crucible of their genius.  So, if the Jews are, as one of their own has said, ‘A people who won’t take “Yes” for an answer,’ let us say ‘Yes’ to them.  They thrive on opposition.  Let us cease to oppose them.  The only way to annihilate this insidious people once and for all is to open our arms, invite them into our homes, and embrace them.  Only then will they vanish into assimilation, normality, and love.  But we cannot pretend.  The Jew is nothing, if not clever.  He will see through hypocrisy and condescension.  To destroy him, we must love him sincerely.”

It is clear that this is not something that Danny has believed all along, but has only recently concluded as the last, logical, inexorable step in his philosophy.  If it is the essence of the Jew to be hated, as Danny has claimed, then only love will destroy him, will deprive him of the very thing he needs to be Jewish.  It also represents the synthesis of Danny’s own psychological struggle, the fact that he both hates and loves the Jew.

Danny has always been more than just the typical anti-Semite, has always taken things beyond what his audience is used to, starting when he was just a student in school; but this speech is so paradoxical and confusing to his audience that he starts losing them.  Guy, the reporter, moves forward through the crowd, for he is the one person in the room who is able to follow Danny’s reasoning.  He asks Danny if this destruction of the Jew through love would not make the Jew more powerful than he already is.

Danny answers, “Yes.  Infinitely more.  They would become as God.  It’s the Jews’ destiny to be annihilated so they can be deified.  Jesus understood this perfectly.  And look what was accomplished there with the death of just one enlightened Jew.  Imagine what would happen if we killed them all.”  With that, Danny suggests they accompany him in the Jewish prayer with which he began.  But, of course, the people in the room are leaving bewildered.

Lina is furious with Danny and wants him out of the organization, but she is interrupted by Zampf to come look at a news report that Manzetti has been assassinated.  Danny has been bothered for some time that he only talks about killing Jews but has never actually killed one.  He knows Drake was the assassin, and what really bothers him is that others suspect Danny did it, rubbing it in that it was not him.  And so, he reverts to hate.  And because the newspaper shows a picture of him as a boy and reveals that he is Jewish, his hatred becomes suicidal.

Danny and his friend plant a bomb in the pulpit of a synagogue timed to go off during Neilah, a service for Yom Kippur.  His friend tells him that the pulpit has been reinforced, which will inhibit the outward blast, but Danny says that all that matters is that the pulpit be destroyed.  Because Danny earlier said that he intended to daven, to recite the liturgical prayer at the service, it is beginning to look as though Danny intends a mass-murder-suicide.  When he arrives at the synagogue, he not only sees the people he was arguing with on Rosh Hashanah, but also Carla, who refuses to leave the service.  As he sits behind Carla, he again imagines himself as the Nazi bayoneting the child, but also imagines that he is the child’s father, who then attacks the Nazi, effectively struggling with himself as both Jew and Nazi.

Danny davens as he said he would, but as the clock approaches the designated time, he has a change of heart, telling everyone about the bomb and to get out of the room.  He remains at the pulpit, recalling the day in school when he defied God to destroy him.  And then the bomb explodes.  In the last moments of his life, he sees himself back at school as an adult, only this time climbing the stairs instead of descending.  His teacher tells him that maybe he was right, that Isaac was killed on Mount Moriah, but then was reborn in the world to come.  But Danny keeps ascending without really knowing toward what, toward nothingness.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

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.