Martha Cohen
Martha Cohen

Anti-Semitism – something old that’s new again

“Lots of things are pretty tough, Kathy. This is just a different kind of war.”

— Dave Goldman

The quote is familiar to people who have seen the 1947 movie “Gentleman’s Agreement.” It is a story about the insidiousness of anti-Semitism in the United States post World War II. The story follows a journalist, played by Gregory Peck, who finds a good hook for a story he wants to tell. A Christian, he will live as a Jew for 10 days. Because he has just arrived in New York from California, there will be no history to cloud his new identity. He is a widower; his mother and his young son agree to go along with him. Even the people he works with at the magazine will know him only as a Jew.

What he experiences in this 10-day period is what you could call being Jewish on steroids. It affects his personal life. He falls in love with a young woman — the Kathy who Dave Goldman is addressing in the quote above — who actually gave him the angle for the story but doesn’t understand that disgust encased in silence cannot fight this centuries-old hatred.

The story was written by Laura Z. Hobson and produced by Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck, who was not Jewish, was the only movie mogul who had the guts to take this story to the screen. The Jewish studio bosses were afraid to touch it. The film includes a scene, set in the editor’s office, that reflects the other moguls’ attempt to convince Zanuck not to produce it. Thank goodness he didn’t listen.

Many people today have no idea about the daily anti-Semitism that pervaded the country, not excluding New York City. Like many of you, I was born at a time where anti-Semitism seemed like a thing of the past. Only ignorant people, like “All In The Family’s” Archie Bunker, and other kooks held these beliefs. We felt sure that when they spoke up, all the nice people, the good people, would speak up, too.

After all, we didn’t grow up, like many of our parents, in a time when want ads clearly said “only Christians need apply.” My own mother encountered this when she wanted a job as an operator at the phone company. None of us think of whether we should or shouldn’t wear a Jewish star for fear of being ostracized, or whether to wear a cross necklace in order to be considered for that phone company job. And who would think that we would be called Christ-killers or denied a place to live based on our names? In fact “gentleman’s agreements” — potent if unwritten understandings — ensured that no Jew would sully the neighborhood. Thus, we cannot truly understand the impact a strong, vibrant Israel has on our daily lives unless our parents or grandparents explained to us the impact of anti-Semitism on their lives.

We have been lucky. All those worries seemed to belong to history.

So why has a film released in 1947 suddenly become relevant?

Though there are many heart-wrenching anniversaries this summer, including the 15th anniversary of the Sbarro’s restaurant bombing, the 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots, and the 22nd anniversary of the AMIA bombing, it is the Olympics that stirred the thought of “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

Finally, after 44 years of unrelenting work led by Ankie Spitzer and Ilana Romano, widows of two of the Israeli athletes murdered in 1972, the International Olympics Committee held a commemorative ceremony in the athletes’ village before the official start of the Rio Olympics. It was not the moment of silence at the beginning of the opening ceremonies the widows had been working for all these years — a commemoration on the world stage — but it is a beginning.

And yet, at the same Olympics, we would see the Lebanese team bar the Israeli delegation from sharing the bus to the opening ceremonies. What were the consequences for this obvious breach of the Olympic spirit? Rather than cut the Lebanese team from the ceremony unless it shared the bus, the Israeli team was sent in a separate vehicle!

Other incidents included the refusal of the Egyptian judo competitor to shake hands with his Israeli opponent and unconfirmed reports of a Saudi athlete forfeiting his match rather than competing with an Israeli. The Egyptian judoka evoked an IOC reprimand, but only after the Egyptian Olympic Committee recalled its athlete to Egypt. There were no other official responses reported. Considering the number of incidents and the IOC’s insufficient reaction, we must ask if a de facto Gentleman’s Agreement has permeated the Olympics.

And so, the absolute necessity of the moment of silence for the massacred Israeli athletes at the beginning of the televised opening ceremonies is obvious. The good people of the world must not be silent, like the fictional Kathy. They must demand it. It must be crystal clear that no “gentleman’s agreement” will be tolerated at the Olympics, now and by generations to come. We must fight for it because only that would be the ultimate repudiation of the heinous act — antithetical to what the Olympics are supposed to stand for — practicing sport without discrimination.

Honoring the memories of these athletes, whose murders were completely incompatible with the Olympic movement, will be a reminder to any athlete that nothing but mutual understanding and respect will be allowed at any Olympic game. Couple this with the explicit understanding that any athlete who does not act within these guidelines will not only be expelled from the games but will be joined by his or her country’s entire contingent of athletes.

Is this tough punishment? Perhaps. But considering that hatred that plays out on the field of sport rarely stays there, we have to win this different kind of war before it develops into the old, ordinary, very deadly kind. And this time, we must all lead in this battle. We can’t count on having another Darryl Zanuck.

About the Author
Martha Cohen is an award winning producer and creative executive. She is a Berrie Fellow and currently sits on the JFNNJ JCRC and StandWithUs East Coast Boards. She chaired the JFNNJ Partnership2Gether when the Young Leadership program was developed and executed; and, continues to be closely involved. Martha and her husband David live in Fort Lee with their son, Harry.
Related Topics
Related Posts