Gentleman’s Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson

Availability: Amazon, Los Gatos, San Jose

Our member David Singer writes:

Gentleman’s Agreement takes place in the New York City of 1947, a world which, though only 65 years distant, feels very different from today. You can’t read more than a page or two without noticing the characters smoking and drinking; magazine publishing is an important industry; and antisemitism (I’ll spell it consistently with the novel) is rife, even if it’s only maintained by “gentlemen’s agreements”.

In the novel (and the movie, which is a faithful reflection of the novel), the protagonist, Phil Green, is assigned to write a series of magazine articles exposing antisemitism. He decides that the best way to understand the problem is to experience it, so he tells everyone that he is Jewish (though he isn’t). He experiences bigotry and discrimination in ways both large (being turned away from a hotel) and small (being told a Jewish doctor isn’t “given to overcharging the way some do”). His son is called a “dirty Jew”; even his secretary, who only got her job by changing her name from “Walovsky” to “Wales” on one of the two applications she submitted, is afraid, when the magazine changes its policy to explicitly say that religion is not a factor in hiring, that having “one of the objectionable [Jews]” on staff would ruin everything.

Pretending to be Jewish has other effects on Phil’s life, too. His fiancĂ©e (who suggested the series in the first place) is in on the secret, but the (spoken and unspoken) attitude of her family and friends towards Phil drives them apart, as she finds herself excusing their actions and speech because “it’s what life is like”.

In the end, Phil’s experiences allow him to write a powerful series titled “I Was Jewish For Eight Weeks”, which affects almost everyone who reads it – at least those who aren’t consciously biased.

Gentlemen’s Agreement itself made a significant dent in the perception of antisemitism in America; the book sold 1.6 million copies and reached #1 on the New York Times Best-Seller List. The movie won the Best Director and Best Film Oscars, and received widespread critical acclaim.

We’ve come a long way in the 65 years since 1947, haven’t we? Or have we?

There is certainly less overt prejudice against Jews; quotas and “restrictions” are long gone. Children are no longer required to say “The Lord’s Prayer” in public schools. Even the Los Gatos “Christmas Parade” is now the “Christmas/Holiday Parade”.

But non-Christians in America are still often on thin ice. Since 9/11, the Muslim community has borne the brunt of the problem; this year, Muslims wanting to build a mosque in San Martin had to overcome significant opposition, facing statements like this: “This is a Christian country. This is an American valley,” said Diane Dawson, 73, of Morgan Hill, who wrote two openly incendiary letters to the Morgan Hill Times in 2007. “I’m just suspicious that they’re sneaking in to contaminate our country.” Mercury News, August 20, 2012.

Politics is not immune to such feelings, either. A recent poll showed that 17 percent of all registered voters, 30 percent of Republicans, and 34 percent of “conservative Republicans” said Obama was a Muslim, and 65 percent of those identifying him as Muslim were “uncomfortable with his religion”.

Do we, as Jews, protest such statements? Or do we stand silent, grateful that the attention isn’t falling on us?

Even though the book is dated in many ways, the questions it raises are still relevant. Read the book (or see the movie) and see what you think.