In a conversation with a dear relative recently, the movie Gentleman’s Agreement came up. She’d watched it and thought it wonderful. I’ve never seen it, but I knew it was based on a novel, so…we both went our separate ways and ordered it, she in paperback, I on Kindle.
The story is an unvarnished look at anti-Semitism. Not the deadly kind that Nazis practiced, but the more subtle forms that made the Final Solution possible, the implicit acceptance of the notion that Jews are a race apart, that they have certain unflattering characteristics which make it perfectly acceptable to keep them at a distance.
That’s at the core of the book and movie’s title, by the way — the unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” to keep Jewish people out of certain housing developments, clubs, schools, professions, etc. No written rules or laws, just an understanding that “those people” are not to be let in.
Laura Hobson’s 1947 novel is slow in starting and hardly subtle. The protagonist, widower Phil Green, must write a series of articles for a New Yorker-type magazine on the topic of anti-Semitism. He ultimately decides (a good quarter of the way into the book) to pretend to be Jewish and write his series based on those experiences.
Where subtlety appears, however, is in how his coworkers and fiancee, Kathy, deal with his “Jewishness.” He learns, for example, that his magazine discriminates in hiring, that a secretary only gained a job after changing her name. He learns that his fiancee, a supposedly open-minded liberal divorcee, thinks one shouldn’t roil the waters and try to get hotels, housing developments, clubs, even her family, to accept Jews in their midst, that it’s better not to make a fuss.
One of the most striking moments of the story comes when Phil’s son, Tom, encounters bigots on the schoolyard, who won’t let him join in because he’s a “kike.” While Kathy comforts Tom by telling him it’s not true, he’s not Jewish, Phil is pleased to hear his son did not reveal his Protestant background, knowing that such an admission would be tantamount to agreeing with the offenders:
“Good boy. I like that.” Phil nodded judiciously. “Lots of kids just like you are Jewish, and if you said it, it’d be sort of admitting there was something bad in being Jewish and something swell in not.”
Moments like those are what make the book special, digging deeper into what it means to be an anti-Semite even if you don’t think Jews are bad people. If you stand by and say nothing when they are treated as “others,” perhaps you have some soul-searching to do, implies Ms. Hobson.
In the end, the critical conflict comes between Phil and Kathy, between his outright explicit need to fight anti-Semitism and her desire to do so while not rocking the boat, not upsetting all those “gentlemen’s agreements.” Their love story has you turning the pages, hoping they both recognize what’s best about each other, that they do the right thing. You won’t be disappointed.
Full disclosure: my husband’s father was one of those not “let in” during the 1930s to an Ivy League college that had already met its “Jewish quota.” A brilliant scientist, he went to Cal Tech instead and did research that is still cited today by other scientists in his field.
As in the novel, his encounter with anti-Semitism was subtle. Ivy League institutions justified their anti-Semitism of the day by insisting that test scores and academic achievement alone didn’t determine “good character.” And I am guessing that a last name like “Sternberg” had something to do with the college’s character assessment. Today’s admissions officers should take note of the use of other variables to justify discrimination.
One final note on this very good, if gentle read: The scene mentioned above with Phil’s son reminded me of a memoir by anti-Nazi writer Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler. In that book, he describes a scene in his law office where Gestapo came in asking who was Jewish. Haffner admitted he was not…and immediately realized what a betrayal it was to announce this fact, even though it was true. It shouldn’t matter who is Jewish, he thought, and by saving his own hide, he’d betrayed others.
Gentleman’s Agreement is worth a fresh look from readers, especially in this time when the same audience Phil Green was writing for is now embracing some anti-Semitic tropes: wealthy, liberal elites.