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A Gentlemen's Agreement

"A Gentlemen's Agreement" won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1947. It is about a journalist, played by Gregory Peck, who writes a story about anti-semitism. To feel what it is like to suffer anti-semitism, he lives in New York City and pretends to be Jewish. When pretending to be Jewish, he finds that he is denied jobs, people do not allow him to rent an apartment, and when he tries to check into a five-star hotel he is lied to and told that the hotel is full, even though it clearly is not. What is more, his son is insulted by other children, and his in-laws shun him. I find it hard to believe that there was so much anti-semitism in New York City. About one-third of the people in New York City are Jewish, and they are very successful. If they are victims of anti-semitism, it is because others envy them, not because anybody looks down upon them.

One of the interesting themes of this movie was the ambiguity about who is Jewish, and what it means to be Jewish. Near the beginning of the film the Gregory Peck character explains to his son that nationality and religion are two completely different things. A person can be American, French, German, etc. because of the country in which he lives and the government that he obeys. On the other hand, a person's religion is related to the way in which he worships God. There are Catholics who are Americans, and there are Protestants who are Americans, and there are Jews who are Americans. That is what was said early in the movie. Later in the movie, however, it is shown to be more complex. There is a great Jewish physicist, much like Albert Einstein, who says that he does not practice the Jewish religion, yet is Jewish because of the way he looks - a large nose, etc.. For that man, Jewish is an ethnicity, not a religion. Also, there is much talk about being 'born a Christian'. This is strange, because though someone can be born in a certain country, and therefore be born an American, nobody could be born a Christian, because Christianity is a religion, not a nationality, nor an ethnicity. Roman Catholics baptize their babies, and thus they become Christian shortly after birth, but they are not 'born' Christian. Protestants, for whom personal faith in Jesus Christ is the essence of Christianity, would strongly object to the notion that some people are born Christian.

In the Middle Ages, the distinction between nationality and religion was less clear than it is today. After about the year 1000 (earlier in some areas, later in others), almost all Europeans were Christian, therefore the term Christian became almost synonymous with the word European. Almost, but never completely. There were always Christians in the Middle East who were not European, and there were always some people living in Europe who were not Christian. Most of the latter group - non-Christians living in Europe - were Jews. The Church and society in general treated the Jews in different ways. The worst was the pogroms, in which thousands of Jews were murdered. Perhaps the worst of these happened in Germany during the Crusades. Crusaders had to travel from Western Europe to the Middle East, which required them to cross either Italy or Germany. Some of those who crossed Germany grew impatient during their long journey and decided not to wait until encountering Muslims to start killing people. The Roman Catholic Church officially condemned these murders. At the local level, however, some Catholic clergy seem to have encouraged the violence. They were especially prone to encourage violence against Jews when they owed money to Jews and did not want to repay it. Thus, the greed of some unscrupulous clerics combined with the aggressive tendencies of certain crusaders to cause anti-Jewish violence in Germany. Again, it must be emphasized that the Roman Catholic Church officially condemned such injustice, yet it was members of the Catholic Church who committed the crimes.

The greatest intellectual of the Middle Ages - Saint Thomas Aquinas - wrote of the Jews that they should not be harmed, and they should certainly not be killed. Jews were people just like Christians and had human rights equal to Christians. They should be allowed to life as they wanted and practice their religion. There was a danger, however. The Jews, if given complete freedom, might be able to convert Christians to Judaism, thus causing some people to commit the sin of apostasy, the ultimate consequence of which could be eternal damnation. To prevent this, Aquinas recommended segregation. Jews would be respected and allowed to live and worship as they wanted, but they would be confined to certain parts of each town, and forbidden to influence young or naive Christians who were weak in mind and were vulnerable to conversion. Interestingly, though the Jews would be confined to their areas, Christian adults would be free to enter those areas when necessary to borrow money. Aquinas recognized that it was sometimes necessary to borrow money, and people do not normally loan money except if they hope to get repaid with interest, but he stated that charging interest on loans was sinful for Christians, therefore the presence of Jews in cities was beneficial and therefore good, because they loaned money to those who needed it, which Christians were not supposed to do because charging interest was sinful.

At the end of the Middle Ages, in Spain, a great effort was made by the King and Queen to convert Jews to Christianity by preaching to them. Dominican preachers were sent into Jewish synagogues where they preached the Christian Gospel and tried to convince Jews that it was true. This worked in some cases, but it seems to have failed in most cases. One explanation for the failures might be that the King of Spain required the Jews to pay the Dominicans' speaking fees. To be required to pay the preachers of a religion in which a person does not believe is an insult. Most Jews, rather than growing in love for Christians and Christianity, grew to hate both.