On April 19, New York’s Center for Jewish History hosted what was billed as a graduate seminar on “Anti-Semitism at the Movies.” Rachel Gordan, a Harvard doctoral student in history, discoursed on “Gentlemen’s Agreement” and “Crossfire”—both nominees for the Academy Award as Best Picture in 1947; the former, starring Gregory Peck, emerged as the winner. Peck played a newspaper reporter, a nondescript Protestant, who posed as a Jew to write an expose about the “gentlemanly” anti-Jewish prejudice that pervaded American society at the time.
Ms. Gordan screened the breakfast-table scene where Peck’s character explains to his son what Jews are. He patiently indicates that just like Catholics and Protestants go to their churches to pray, Jews attend their houses of worship called synagogues or temples; he also adds, when prompted by his son’s ignorance, that Jews are just as American as they are.
The respondent, Yale University historian Dr. Tisa Wenger, and later Dr. Nancy Sinkoff, a Rutgers University associate professor of Jewish studies and history who moderated the program, both mildly critiqued Gordan in how she defined Jews. During the Q & A, I sharpened this critique by pointing out that she kept on referring to individual Jewish identities as their “Judaism” rather than their “Jewishness,” as I’d refer to it. Gordan’s narrow religious definition, rather than a broader lens of cultural heritage and/or ethnic affinity, is a product of her generation growing up in an American society where Jews are more accepted, and where secular Jewish organizations and activities are in decline.
I mentioned the irony of Gordan’s religious focus as we sat in the home of YIVO, the famed research institute mostly dedicated to the study of secular Jewish culture and history, and at a time when a good half or more of self-identifying American Jews are not affiliated with a synagogue or temple.
I’ve written previously on this matter of secular Jewish identity and how it relates to the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state in terms of its majority population rather than religion. In Israel, secular Jewish life is more in evidence and more viable; even the non-religious or only moderately observant majority lives within an unmistakeably Jewish culture, in which the Hebrew language and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar are paramount. Jewishness viewed only as “Judaism” goes against the visceral self-understanding of most Jews as progeny of an ancient people, for whom Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is not analogous to the designation of numerous Muslim-majority states as “Islamic” in some theological sense.
Yet, as was pointed out by one or other of the two older scholars, the notion of Jews as simply a religious group was easiest to convey in movies and the larger society. This religious emphasis was adopted as a strategy by the organized Jewish community. More than one writer has written on how Jews became accepted as being “white.” And with the memory of the Holocaust still fresh in those years, viewing Jews as a distinct ethnic group had to come uncomfortably close to the concept of race, which had turned so poisonous under the Nazis and has had such an unhappy history in this country as well.
The second movie, “Crossfire,” was about a murder investigation that uncovered an antisemitic motive. During the Q & A, it was pointed out that antisemitic violence, or the threat of violence, was all too common in early to mid 20th century America. But in my understanding, the most pervasive manifestations of antisemitism included the restrictive covenants against Jews in housing and in access to hotels and resorts, restrictions against Jews being employed in many law firms and on Wall Street, and quotas against Jews being admitted to first-rank universities and medical schools.
Jews shared with African Americans being targets of discrimination, and forged an alliance in the civil rights movement based on this common interest. Major Jewish organizations–such as the ADL, American Jewish Congress and A. J. Committee–played important roles in support of civil rights, especially in the area of legal action.
As an aside, and as a commentary on how far we’ve come from those years, I attended a talk at the CUNY grad center in which a sociologist discussed how Arab Americans are being encouraged to write themselves into the Census forms as being of “Arab race,” as a tactic to obtain more clout for their community. Although I wouldn’t advise this tact for Jews, I think that we should find ways (whether we are religious or not) to identify ourselves as a distinct minority group that is vulnerable to discrimination or worse.
The contention that the American Jewish community constitutes one of the three major American faith groups–along with Catholics and Protestants–is no longer functional for us as Jews, as well as out of date (Muslims and Hindus are increasingly significant in this country).
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