Tweep’s Agreement

Starting work on a new essay about the politics of Jews in Hollywood during the blacklist era, I started thinking once again about the 1947 Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Historians nearly universally dismiss the Elia Kazan film as dramatic and preachy and staid. They favor the other philo-Semitic “message” picture of that year, Crossfire, because that film oozes with noir style. They are, of course, absolutely right. But to dismiss Gentleman’s Agreement because it’s boring is to miss a great deal. Kazan’s picture is a greater success if only because it is so overstuffed with messages, it is a remarkable distillation of Popular Front ideas about the intersection between ethnicity and social justice.

Consider one scene in which Gregory Peck’s goyish journalist protagonist Phil Green, who is writing an expose on anti-Semitism, encounters a scientist at a dinner party. The scientist’s features are clearly modeled after those of Albert Einstein, one of the physicists that were wildly celebrated in the press in the immediate postwar years. He is on a “crusade,” the scientist remarks, to deny his Jewishness to those that he meets, not because he is ashamed or ambivalent about his identity, but instead because he looks so stereotypically Jewish that such a remark would be a provocation to others to rethink their assumptions about race and “type” (what we call “ethnicity”). He then casually changes his mind however, telling Green that he must abandon his crusade because to claim Jewishness is a necessary moral principle, at least until anti-Semitism ceases to exist.  He explains that Jews today don’t claim to be Jewish because they are religious – he is not – but because the world makes it harder to be one. Nothing in Hollywood since has so shrewdly conjured the tensions and complexities among religious, ethnic, and humanistic or cosmopolitan identities.

I thought of this scene in particular because of the movement that appeared on Twitter in the past few days to signal one’s Jewishness by putting parentheses around one’s name. Such an act is meant to be a cooptation of an extreme right-wing practice of putting the names of left-wing Jews in parentheses as a means to “expose” such people as Jews.

Perhaps too hastily, I expressed apprehension about this counter-practice that has been picked up by my fellow Twitter users. Not because one shouldn’t express their identity on Twitter of course. To declare one’s ethnic identity on Twitter is, and should be, a means to combat bigoted, reactionary voices seeking to marginalize “others,” particularly in situations where such otherness has been a means to violence. And Jews have seen a share.

Yet one finds, in the history of the twentieth century United States, all sorts of disparate and contradicting ways in which Jewishness is signaled and deployed in political ways. In the worst cases, Jewishness has been deployed as means to elide projects and privileges of whiteness. In Roots, Too, Matthew Frye Jacobson described the ethnic resurgence that followed the Civil Rights eraand the ways that a range of newly revived white ethnicities — Jewishness among them — restored “innocence” for whites as a means to attempt a rollback of the welfare state. [1] As Jacobson and other historians including Eric Goldstein and Cheryl Greenberg have shown, the project of assimilation and social climbing in the United States — the understandable desire to become “allrightniks” — required Jews to look upwards as they ascended, and not back down. [2] Another concern is that the discourse of philo-Semitism today may just as easily be equated with Israeli jingoism as it might be with pan-ethnic and -racial solidarity.

In Gentleman’s Agreement, Green has a good friend, a Jew named David Goldman, played by John Garfield. If he were alive and on Twitter, Garfield would have parentheses around his name; he was born Julius Garfinkle. Goldman cautions Green: “It’s not just about the poor, poor Jew.” Goldman, wearing his dress uniform, and having recently returned from fighting fascism in World War II, understood what he called the “bigger picture.” The film goes further: it names the names of sitting Congressmen who opposed civil rights for African Americans, among them the vile John Rankin, a congressman from Mississippi, and Theodore Bilbo, the state’s governor. Such a practice was unheard of at the time in cinema. The film denounces Rankin for defending the poll tax (which of course lasted nearly another two decades), and Rankin paid the film back in kind. As a ranking member of the House Committee of Un-American Activities, he made sure that Gentleman’s Agreement would be denounced during the hearings of the “Hollywood Ten” later that year.

Gentleman’s Agreement was the Hollywood Popular Front’s great last gasp. It was an attempt not only to denounce anti-Semitism, but also a call for equal opportunities in housing and employment. (Green’s secretary, a Jew herself, is exposed as being opposed to hiring the “kikey ones,” presumably Jews that were less assimilated or Eastern-European.) It conjured the rhetoric of Henry Wallace, the cosmopolitan Rooseveltian socialist who would challenge Truman in the following year’s election. The film’s denouement comes in a speech from Anne Revere, who plays Green’s mother, in which she declares “maybe it won’t be the American century after all….Wouldn’t it be wonderful…if it turned out to be everybody’s century.” Revere alludes to Wallace’s famous denunciation of Henry Luce’s “American Century” — an idea still conjured by reactionaries today — in favor of what Wallace called the “century of the common man.”

Like the scientist of Gentleman’s Agreement, Paul Newman once said that he identified as Jewish because it was “more of a challenge.” I don’t know about that. I do it because I like to think that I bake a mean vegan mandelbread. But I’m pretty sure my friends on Twitter are doing the right thing: putting parentheses around their names as a means to oppose imperialism, and not support it, as a gesture of humanism and cosmopolitanism, not as a shirking of privilege, but as a fuck-you to those who engage in anti-Semitism as part of a larger project of shoring up their own “possessive investments” in whiteness. [3]

Notes

[1] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 197-99.

[2] Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006); Cheryl Greenberg, Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[3] George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).