The movie A Gentleman’s Agreement told a story set in the United States just after the end of World War II of a journalist by the name of Philip Schuyler Green who is tasked with writing a story on the prevalence of anti-Semitism in America at the time. The Green’s masterplan was to pose as Jewish and introduce himself as Philip Greenburg for a time to see firsthand the kinds of discrimination Jews felt. The fact that he could just decide to pose as Jewish and his peers believed him speaks to how arbitrary the line of identification was. The professor Fred Lieberman explained it well during his scene. He did not practice the Jewish faith, and there is no ethnic homogeneity among “ethnically Jewish” people. Yet, he was still labeled a Jew and faced the discriminations and stereotypes that came with the label.
The types of discrimination Green faced were eye-opening for both the characters and the viewer. First, he experienced institutional discrimination from employment and housing discrimination as well as denial of service at “restricted” businesses. Other Jewish characters also confided in Green about their experiences with institutional discrimination. For example, Elaine Wales applied for a job using her birthname and was told there were spots available. However, she was given an offer after applying to the same job using an American white name. Ironically, this occurred at the printing organization she and Green were working at, which prided itself as a the most liberal print firm of its time. Green was also confronted with a variety of microaggressions and outright slurs. People would make jokes or comments about Jews and money, then become awkward when Green told them he was Jewish. Even more interesting, the movie also showed how even Jewish people bought into the negative stereotypes about Jews. Elaine told Philip about how she was not pleased with the new hiring advertisement which openly stated an anti-religious discrimination policy, worried that an “undesirable” Jew would be hired and ruin the reputation of all Jews in the firm. She even confessed to casually using slurs toward herself. The potence of anti-Semitic institutional discrimination, slurs, and microaggressions across society is evidence of how racialized messaging and narratives are highly effective at permeating every aspect of life in America.
I thought the message of the movie was beautiful and powerful. The main issue Green took with those he encountered and even his peers was not just the active casual participation in anti-Semitism, but also the complacency of others when anti-Semitic practices were taking place. Just as Dave explained to Kathy in one of the final scenes, it is not enough to just be angry about racism and discrimination. Those instances require active counteraction. He told her that, for example, she needs to speak against people who make anti-Semitic “jokes.” If discrimination is left to be in lower-impact situations like jokes at the dinner table, the behavior is normalized and sends a signal to the actor that the behavior is acceptable. Moreover, it leaves the potential for the behavior to worsen and grow in impact, like when the stranger openly harassed Dave in a public restaurant. The movie drove home the idea that complacency is not an option. It is not enough to just not be racist or not participate in discriminatory practices. Action is necessary to eliminate the practices.
I thought it was interesting that the movie chose to tackle prejudice perpetuated even by those who claimed to not be anti-Semitic, like Kathy, who do not speak up when prejudiced jokes or comments are made. Complacency in these situations is still very relevant today, as people prefer not to make a scene or rock the boat, but it is necessary to combat discrimination and prejudice. It seemed to me that complacency was one of the main themes of the movie, and I hope it spoke to audiences at the time, and even audiences today.