Imagine the following conversation taking place at a breakfast table in present day America between an inquisitive child and his father:
SON: What’s anti-Semitism?
FATHER: Well, uh, that’s when some people don’t like other people just because they’re Jews.
SON: Why not? Are Jews bad?
FATHER: Well, some are and some aren’t, just like with everyone else.
SON: What are Jews, anyway?
FATHER: Well, uh, it’s like this. Remember last week when you asked me about that big church, and I told you there are all different kinds of churches? Well, the people who go to that particular church are called Catholics, and there are people who go to different churches and they’re called Protestants, and there are people who go to different churches and they’re called Jews, only they call their churches temples or synagogues.
SON: Why don’t some people like them?
FATHER: Well, I can’t really explain it.
The Anti-Defamation League released a survey in November 2011 “that found that 15 percent of Americans—nearly 35 million adults—hold deeply anti-Semitic views.” The survey discovered that a startling percentage of Americans agreed with sharply worded criticisms of Jews, including 14 percent who agree that “Jews have too much power in the U.S. today” and 15 percent who agree that Jews are “more willing to use shady practices.” Moreover, the ADL found that the proportion of Americans who subscribe to such negative perspectives on Jewish Americans has ticked up in the years following the financial crisis of 2008.
Returning, however, to the aforementioned conversation between a child and his father about the nature of anti-Semitism—while it strikes me as a conversation that very plausibly could have taken place in modern America (if families still ate meals together, that is), it actually comes from a scene in the 1947 Oscar-winning film Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck as Philip Schuyler Green (the father).
In Gentleman’s Agreement, Phil Green is a celebrated journalist who is recruited by a magazine publisher to write a story exposing the passive, but incredibly pernicious strain of anti-Semitism prevalent in postwar America. “But this story is doomed before I start,” Green confesses privately to his mother. “What can I say about anti-Semitism that hasn’t been said before?”
“Maybe it hasn’t been said well enough. If it had, you wouldn’t have had to explain it to Tommy [Green’s child] right now,” his mother responds.
After puzzling over how he’ll present a new angle to a problem that had been discussed at length, albeit insufficiently, in the years following the Holocaust, Phil Green, himself a gentile, decides to spend eight weeks of his life leading others to believe he’s Jewish. As an undercover Jew, Green encounters many incidents of wounding discrimination and bigotry. In one such incident, Green’s young son comes home from school crying. After prodding his son for details, Tommy admits that his classmates “called me a dirty Jew and a stinking kike, and they all ran away.” Before Phil Green is able to respond to his son, Green’s fiancée rushes in to console the boy. “Oh, darling, it’s not true. You’re no more Jewish than I am! It’s just some horrible mistake,” she assures him.
It is the betrayal by his fiancée, Kathy, rather than the cruel words spoken to his child, that represent the pinnacle of bigotry to Green. When Green confronts Kathy, she accuses him of thinking her an anti-Semite. “No, I don’t,” Green responds. “But I’ve come to see lots of nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest their own innocence, then help it along and wonder why it grows. People who would never beat up a Jew. People who think anti-Semitism is far away in some dark place with low-class morons. That’s the biggest discovery I’ve made. The good people. The nice people.”
With my local movie theater charging $12.50 per ticket, and with all of the expenses that come with planning my upcoming nuptials, I’m determined to avoid the cinema this summer. Instead, I’m raiding the public library for every 1940s and 50s film I can get my hands on and plan to write a series here at Acculturated on the selections I watch. While plenty has changed in the sixty to seventy years since these films were produced—in Gentleman’s Agreement, for instance, a standard postage stamp cost three cents, men wore their trousers up high and their neckties wide and short, and posh hotels got away with restricting their clientele to gentiles—the basic human themes of love, truth, forgiveness, and mutual understanding are as relevant now as ever.
The problem of anti-Semitism is not one to which I normally give much thought, but for the fact that I watched Gentleman’s Agreement. As the ADL’s statistics demonstrate, anti-Semitism is not yet an issue that we can claim to have resolved so long as we nice people who hate it and deplore it and protest our own innocence continue to help it along.
Diane Ellis is the lead editor of Ricochet.com.