Monday, April 13, 2009

The Irony and the Bigotry

Gentleman’s Agreement
The Merchant of Venice

Bigotry is full of irony. For instance, the first American to die in the Revolutionary War was a black man named Crispus Atticks – but blacks were held as slaves for more than 80 years after that war, suffered through a peculiar brand of apartheid for another 100 years and only recently were recognized as being able to politically lead a nation that they have led in so many other fields (culture, agriculture, medicine and science, to name a few) since its inception. Another case in point involves Adolph Hitler, the man who is considered by many to be the worst anti-Semite who ever lived – despite the fact that his family tree contained Jewish people.

The movies that will be examined in this posting (Gentleman’s Agreement, released in 1947 in black and white; Crossfire, 1947, b&w; and The Merchant of Venice, 2004, color) offer many excellent examples the cruelty, the stupidity, the smugness, the evil and the irony that anti-Semitism spawns. I should note that I intentionally ignored films about World War II because I wanted to highlight anti-Semitism in this country – but I included the Shakespearean take on the subject because . . . well . . . I love Shakespeare.

Perhaps the greatest irony about Gentleman’s Agreement is that with all the Jewish movie moguls of the early and mid 20th Century, it was a Gentile – Darryl F. Zanuck – who made the film. Some of the reason’s behind the reluctance of Jewish film makers to engage in the project are discussed in the movie.

The film is about a Gentile magazine reporter named Philip Schuyler Green who is given the assignment by a Gentile publisher named John Minify to write a series about anti-Semitism. Phil, a widower who lives with his mother and son, initially is not enthused by the assignment. He changes his mind, however, after discussing the subject over the breakfast table with his family and answering his son Tommy’s questions. While searching for the proper angle from which to attack the subject, it suddenly dawns on him that he should pass himself off as a Jew and report on how he is treated.

Phil tells Minify about the strategy and they agree not to tell anyone that Phil’s claim of being Jewish is false. The only people who are to know besides the publisher and the reporter are Phil’s family and Kathy Lacy, the publisher’s divorced niece who originally suggested the assignment and who becomes romantically involved with Phil – so much so that they become engaged. But, ironically, when Kathy learns about Phil’s strategy, the romance begins to run into trouble. Part of the trouble revolves around a house Kathy owns in an area of Connecticut that discourages Jewish families from living there – but more about this later.

It should be noted that Phil’s mother wholeheartedly supports the idea and Tommy agrees to go along with the plan without hesitation – allowing his friends, schoolmates and teachers to think that he is Jewish.

There is another important character in this tale – Dave Goldman, a Jewish army officer who has been Phil’s best friend since they were kids. Dave has been offered a job in Connecticut but is having a problem finding a place to live. He gives Phil advice on what to expect during his charade. He also gives advice to Kathy about what a husband expects from a wife – advice that my wife said was the best explanation of what a wife should be that she has ever heard.

Then there is Phil’s secretary, Ethel Wales, who has changed her name and is passing for a Gentile. She explains that when she applied for work using her Jewish name, her applications were always rejected – even at the magazine for which she now works. Phil then informs Minify of what happened to her and the publisher immediately calls in his hiring manager and tells him that all future help-wanted ads were to include a line that says an applicant’s religion will not be a consideration for a job. When Miss Wales finds out, she warns Phil that the new advertisement is liable to attract the kind of Jews who wouldn’t be suitable for working at the magazine. Phil replies that her thinking is a form of anti-Semitism and that he doesn’t expect to hear anything like that from her again.

Another important character is Anne Dettrey, a Gentile reporter at the paper who falls in love with Phil even though he is, so she thinks, Jewish. She invites Phil to a party and introduces him to Professor Lieberman, a famous scientist of the Jewish persuasion. She also becomes good friends with Dave and the three of them – Phil, Anne and Dave – start hanging out together.

During his deception, Phil learns first-hand what it is like to be denied admittance to an exclusive hotel; how it feels when the superintendent of the building where he lives tries to discourage him from putting his “Jewish” surname on his mailbox; and, most disheartening, the bigotry his son faces from his schoolmates. When Tommy comes home crying one day about his mistreatment, Kathy tries to console him by telling the child that he should try to understand that the deception is a “horrible lie.” Phil is incensed – probably because by her choice of words, she has implied that Jews are “horrible” people. Thus, the engagement is broken.

When Dave finds out what happened to Tommy, he tells Phil that his assignment is complete because he has now experienced the worst things about anti-Semitism – seeing what it does to Jewish children and feeling the helplessness of their parents.

When Dave turns in the series of articles, his secretary is stunned to learn that a Gentile would willing accept anti-Semitic mistreatment. But everyone involved with Phil and the magazine, especially his mother and Anne, are proud of what he has done and produced.

Then there is Kathy. She meets with Dave and tells him a story about a dinner she attended where a man got up a told a joke that denigrated Jewish people, adding that she and many other attendees didn’t laugh at the joke and felt anger towards the joke teller. Dave responded by telling Kathy that by just sitting there and doing nothing, she was telling this guy that it was alright to be bigoted. Dave said she should have stood up and called him on it, and that confronting people about their bigotry was the only way to really fight against it. Then, Dave gave the speech that my wife loved.

When Dave reports back to Phil about his meeting with Kathy, Dave tells his friend that Kathy has agreed to let Dave and his family rent the previously mentioned Connecticut house – and that she will live in the area to help Dave’s family deal with their Gentile neighbors. I’ll leave it to you to figure out whether Phil and Kathy get back together.

My discussion about Crossfire will be very brief. This film was released several months earlier than the previously discussed movie. But unlike Gentleman’s Agreement, this film looks at the more violent side of anti-Semitism.

The irony – maybe hypocrisy is a better word – of Crossfire is that a soldier who has just returned from World War II, where he fought against Hitler’s Germany and its attempt to annihilate Jews, kills a man simply because that man is Jewish. The soldier expresses disdain for Jews throughout the film and is proud of the murder he has committed. But in the end, the murderer gets what he deserves.

This tightly written film offers an extremely accurate depiction of many of the U.S. military men who returned to the United States after The Second World War. After fighting against the malevolence of Hitler’s Final Solution – which was the extermination of all Jews and all other “inferior” races – these soldiers, sailors and marines continued to consider themselves superior to Jews, blacks, Catholics and others – and often showed no compunction for inflicting bodily, sometimes lethal, harm.

Which brings me to The Merchant of Venice, a story that takes place during the 16th century. The part of the tale that speaks to my current subject revolves around a Jewish money lender named Shylock, who carries deep-seeded resentment about the way Jews are treated, and a merchant named Antonio, who loathes the usury practices he attributes to Shylock. But Antonio, who has taken business away from Shylock by providing loans without interest, becomes beholding to Jew when he agrees to support his friend Bassanio’s desire to wed “the fair” Portia.

However, Portia has many suitors and her father’s blessing is needed before a match can be made. So Portia’s father requires that the suitors raise a certain amount of money and then answer a riddle, which is irrelevant to this discussion. Bassanio asks Antonio help him raise the money and Antonio finds he has to turn to Shylock for a loan. But instead of asking his normal interest rate, Shylock – seeing a way to get revenge on the man he considers an enemy – demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan cannot be repaid.

As can be expected, Bassanio’s attempt to raise money to give to Antonio, which in turn, will pay off the debt to Shylock, falls flat. And on top of that, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Bassanio’s friend, Lorenzo. Now, with a sense of betrayal added to his resentment, Shylock demands repayment of the loan. Being unable to meet the loan’s conditions, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. Naturally, the case winds up in court.

When it is pointed out that he is being harsh in his demands, Shylock defends himself by essentially saying that he is only acting in the same harsh manner that Christians have treated him. Then Shylock case gets upended by a law of which he was not aware. That law states that it is illegal for a noncitizen, which Jews are considered, to seek physical harm against a citizen of Venice, and the punishment is the harm that is being sought – in this case, a pound of Shylock’s flesh. But Antonio, Bassanio and Portia – apparently coming to understand Shylock’s anger during the course of the trial – plead with the magistrate not to condemn Shylock to the penalty prescribed by law.

The ironies in this story are Shylock’s willingness to act like a Christian in order to exact his revenge, and then having his sentence commuted with the help of the Christians on whom he was trying to exact that revenge.

So, the three films show us that the main ironies of anti-Semitism and all other forms of prejudice: When you think that you and those like you are superior to those from a different community – be that community religious, racial, geographic, or whatever – you tend to prove by you own actions that you are not. In fact, you often prove that you are worse than those “other” people. And this can apply to the victims, as well: When you seek revenge against those who are persecuting you, more likely than not, you will act as badly, or worse, than the persecutors.

One final thought: Gregory Peck, who portrayed Phil Green in Gentleman’s Agreement, is at the top of my favorite-actor list because of his roles as a defender of American ideals. In this movie, he gives a speech that connects anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism. And he reinforced that belief by playing Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, where he defends a black man against a false charge of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow-era American South. Mr. Peck obviously believed that being an American meant being tolerant of others regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity – a belief that we all should hold.

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