Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: “Gentleman's Agreement” Abroad

This department—which reports on cultural and social trends and events—presents this month a discussion by Benno Weiser of the implications of a South American country’s reaction to the film Gentleman’s Agreement, a matter which has broader significance, perhaps, in view of similar doubts expressed over the showing of the film in Europe; and a survey by David Scheinert of Jewish cultural activity in Western Europe. Mr. Weiser, formerly a well-known newspaper columnist in Ecuador, is now with the Latin American department of the Jewish Agency. Mr. Scheinert is a young Belgian critic and novelist. Mr. Weiser’s article has been translated from German by Francis C. Golfing, Mr. Scheinert’s from French by Irving Kristol.

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Hablan todo el tiempo de judios—All they talk about is the Jews,” said the man who walked out before the movie was over. I looked at the few people who were waiting for admission in the vestibule. Most of them were foreigners. It was in Caracas. This was not a first—run movie house, and the film Gentleman’s Agreement (La luz es para todos in Spanish) had already had a fairly long run. Nevertheless I was struck by the lack of interest among the movie—loving caraqueños. Perhaps 947′s best film was not being appreciated in South America.

I myself greatly enjoyed the film; but there were moments, when the tension relaxed, which allowed me to feel somewhat bothered at seeing this film in Venezuela. I could imagine what extraordinary topical interest the theme would have in New York and in at least a large part of the United States, how a Broadway audience would absorb every word of this movie brimming with talk and discussion. The Venezuelans around me were confused, surprised, and in fact bored. A gentle snore to my right told me that someone had fallen asleep. Others laughed at the wrong moments. The film was not being understood.

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A jewish problem doubtless exists in Latin America as it does in the rest of the world. In Argentina—fortunately the tendency is now on the decline—it has at times taken on a European aspect, with discrimination in the universities and the civil service. Of late other countries have also gone through an anti-Semitic wave in which the Arab-Jewish conflict played a part. (Arabs, mainly Syrians and Lebanese, are fairly numerous in Latin America; and have gained considerable influence in the politics, economics, and journalism of several countries.) In other countries we find a milder form of stabilized, static anti-Semitism, together with periodic tides of xenophobia not confined to the Jews. And though, generally, the Church on this continent is not hostile to the Jews, there does exist here and there a very unpleasant sort of anti-Semitism with a clerical bias.

Discrimination in immigration policy, however, is common; sometimes it is open, sometimes hidden, sometimes it is chronic, sometimes sporadic. Even in countries that are very liberal toward the Jews already living in them, and that have expressed strong sympathy with the ideal of a Jewish homeland, discrimination is practiced in the admission of immigrants. A few states whose governments have an anti-Zionist bias have reached anti-Semitism by this route, and practice discrimination against travelers with Palestinian passports.

On the whole, however, it may be said that the official attitude toward Palestine has nothing to do with immigration policy. It is just as hard to get an immigration visa for those states that are friendly to Zionism as for those that oppose it. While one Latin- American diplomat at Lake Success was strongly supporting the Palestine partition plan, a countryman of his, speaking in another UN meeting on immigration problems, declared his country’s willingness to accept fifty thousand DPs—but only if they professed the Catholic religion.

Thus, though it would be wide of the mark to speak of a general Latin American anti-Semitism, most countries south of the Rio Grande do discriminate in some way, even racially, against Jewish immigrants. What lies at the root of this discrimination? For the most part, it seems not to be anti—Semitism in the usual sense of the term that is, based on an aversion to Jews—but rather to reflect specific ideas as to what constitutes desirable immigrants.

Most of the Latin American countries are underpopulated. Brazil, larger than the United States, has barely a third of its population. Countries from two to four times as large as Germany or France have only from a sixth to a tenth of their population. This discrepancy is not noticeable in the cities, some of which are larger than many European cities, but it becomes quite evident in the provinces, especially to those who travel by plane: one flies along certain routes for hours without seeing the least sign of human habitation. For this reason these countries look first of all for agricultural immigrants. They neither want nor need further growth in the centers of population. Furthermore, they want a rapidly assimilable type of immigrant, who will aid in the demographic growth of the nation.

Jewish immigration happens not to answer either of these requirements. Not that the Jews are the only ones who fail to measure up. Indeed so far none of these countries has succeeded in obtaining a large agricultural immigration. It may be partly because the farmer clings to his native soil more tenaciously than others. In some countries Jewish farmers have tried to colonize, but they have been defeated nearly everywhere by colonial conditions, which make agriculture profitable only for the big landowner whose relationship to the peon is not simply that of employer to employe, but also of overlord to serf.

In any case, Latin American officials take it for granted that Jewish immigrants are either unwilling to engage in agriculture or unqualified for it. Nor is it possible to shake this conviction by pointing to the work of colonization in Palestine. A South American foreign minister said to me once: ‘What the Jews have achieved in Palestine is magnificent. I have seen it with my own eyes. But Palestine’ is the only country in the world whose soil the Jews truly love.”

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No one could deny that Jewish immigrants have contributed much to the development of South American cities. Shortly before his election to the presidency of Ecuador, Galo Plaza Lasso said: “When I show my mother, who has been living all these years in the United States, our Quito as it is today, I’ll point out to her all the signs of progress and say, ‘this is the work of the Jewish immigrants.”’ And yet Plaza is opposed to any further large-scale Jewish immigration. Specifically Jewish trades, such as retail clothing, furs, and fabrics, have reached the saturation point everywhere. In many cities one may walk along streets lined with yard-goods stores. It isn’t that native merchants have been squeezed out: certain branches of trade in Latin America are virtually foreign monopolies, parcelled out among Syrio-Lebanese, Italians, Spaniards, Germans, and Jews. But while Latin American politicians like to buy in Jewish stores, they will nevertheless vote for any measure limiting their further increase.

What is even more disturbing to the generally mild local nationalism is the unwillingness or inability of the Jewish immigrants to assimilate themselves. And what is lacking here, in actual fact, is not so much the ability as the desire. This becomes very clear if we examine the group that arrived just ahead of the mass influx under Hitler. In this group mixed marriages are by no means rare and linguistic adaptation is well advanced. The Semitic “type,” if one may speak of it as such, becomes easily indistinguishable from the various Latin racial conglomerates, a large number of which contain Sephardic elements. Even the East European Jew assimilates very easily, in contrast to the great difficulties he has experienced in English and German-speaking countries: somehow the Spanish language does not lend itself to “typical” Jewish inflections.

Had it not been for the new wave of immigration that started in 933, assimilation would by now have been very far advanced, as can be seen in Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela. Mixed marriages that is, marriages between Jewish men and native women—work well on the whole, though they can hardly be regarded as acts of deliberate intention. In most such cases marriage has come after a common-law relationship and the birth of children. The native wives typically come from the lower social strata, not because middle-class women are inaccessible, but because the men driven to such relationships by loneliness have in the beginning no thought of marriage, and therefore take the path of least resistance.

With the increase of Jewish immigration this pattern of marriage disappeared. And for a variety of reasons the new immigrants had no great desire to assimilate. The Polish and Rumanian immigrants who came between 1930 and 1938 had no intention of remaining in the country. They wished to make a few thousand dollars and return to their homes as gevirim; the German-speaking immigrants, who began to come in 1933, and were followed in 1938 by Austrians and Czechs, at first had hopes of going back, and later thought of moving on. Moreover, Europeans tend to think of assimilation to Latin America as assimilation to a lower cultural standard. Wherever the standard was roughly equal to the European, as in Argentina, the willingness to assimilate increased. It is possible, also, that assimilationist tendencies might have increased if the idea of an independent Jewish state in Palestine had proven illusory.

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Whatever the reasons, the results of Jewish immigration have not been those desired by Latin American statesmen, who have not forgotten Sarmiento’s saying, “Gobernar es poblar—to govern is to populate,” but who see no way of putting it into effect. To reiterate, the Jewish problem in South America remains primarily an immigration problem. To the degree that real anti-Semitism exists in Latin America—and it comes and goes here as elsewhere, and is liable on occasion to become dangerous—it tends to be without a real basis in social practice. Discrimination of the sort exposed in Gentleman’s Agreement simply does not exist south of the Rio Grande.

It must be for this reason that the film finds little response. And this may be just as well, for those who do understand the film are unfortunately liable to be disabused of a myth which, on this Southern continent, has worked paradoxically enough very much to the advantage of the Jews. One residue of Nazi propaganda here is a widespread belief that the United States and Jewry are identical. It is by no means uncommon to hear intelligent and well-educated people ask such questions at this: “Why doesn’t the United States take a firmer stand in its policy toward Israel, since Truman is a Jew?” So while the “Yankees” are by no means popular in these countries, “Yankee” power has reflected a certain amount of prestige onto the Jews.

I remember a colleague of mine in an Ecuadorian newspaper office who believed for years that only fascists could be anti- Semites. And when he returned from a visit to the United States he showed not only surprise, but a slight contamination. He had been refused a room in a certain hotel because one member of his party was a Jew. He had discovered that anti-Semitism is not a Nazi monopoly. The groundwork had been laid for an incipient superiority feeling.

I myself had a notable opportunity to gauge the force of the myth that equates the United States and Jewry, when in 1945 I interviewed General Per6n in Argentina. Perón made his first statements about the Jews and Palestine in a discussion which covered general political questions. He later regretted his frankness and I was asked to forget that the interview had taken place. But he attached importance to one point: that his pro-Jewish statements should be given the greatest possible publicity. This happened at a moment when Argentina was very interested in bringing about a favorable shift of American public opinion.

Happily, Latin America is still a long way from the “gentleman’s agreement.” I only hope that the film completes its run without effecting en masse the same revelation that my Ecuadorian colleague’s visit to America effected individually. True racial discrimination is still inconceivable in these countries which give themselves somewhat proudly the name of Indo-America. In this regard, the Latin Americans are fortunately still a backward people.

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