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Anti-Semitism at the Movies?

Guest Blogger • Jan 06, 2010

by Glenn Hutchinson

Have you seen An Education yet? It’s a charming coming-of-age film with a great cast and an engaging story. It’s getting nominated for awards. But just one thing-well, it reeks of anti-Semitism.

Writer Nick Hornby (About a Boy) and director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) make a movie out of the memoir of British journalist Lynn Barber. Set in the early 1960’s, the film tells the story of Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16 year-old with dreams of studying English literature at Oxford. Jenny focuses on her studies in the British suburb of Twickenham until she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a 30-something in a nice car, and everything changes for her.

The acting is great, including 24 year-old Mulligan (who is being compared to Audrey Hepburn) and her portrayal of a teenager. Yes, there’s some creepiness to this Lolita-like relationship, but Sarsgaard’s David seduces Jenny and also her parents into liking him.

What really surprised me, though, was the significance of David being Jewish, something he immediately tells Jenny. Then Jenny’s father talks of the “Wandering Jew,” which refers to the centuries old folklore about a Jewish man who mocked Jesus before the crucifixion and was forced to roam the earth until the second coming.

Most mainstream reviewers ignore the anti-Semitism. True, the film, based on a memoir, reflects the time period of the early 60’s. And we must laugh at the absurdity of Emma Thompson’s head schoolmistress who warns Jenny, “You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?” Even though Jesus was a Jew, the schoolmistress dismisses this information as “malicious and untruthful propaganda.”

But what is so troubling is that the film does not delve very deeply into this theme of anti-Semitism. David, the only Jewish character, is the villain. Besides the questionable behavior of dating a 16 year-old, David steals to make his living. Also, he encourages black immigrants to move into neighborhoods so he can scare the elderly white widows and make money off of their fear.

Sure, these details connect with Barber’s memoir and her real-life older man who was part of this Rachmanism (the term used for Peter Rachman, a Jewish landlord who made money off of immigrants). But when the memoir becomes a movie, we must pause to ask some questions.

The main story is about a young girl who nearly ruins her life by choosing a man over her education. However, the sole Jewish character, David, is a liar, a cheater, and the opposite of the gentile characters’ values. And at the end of the movie, we learn that he has another terrible secret.

So, even though it is based on Barber’s experience, the film uses anti-Semitic stereotypes and does very little to say anything more about them. In JewishJournal.com, reviewer Irina Bragin comments, “’An Education’ wraps old, anti-Semitic messages in a pretty new package.”

It’s an interesting, engaging movie that starts to explore some provocative ideas, but An Education leaves us hanging. Why does the film bring up David’s identity as a Jew and anti-Semitic themes if it’s not going to find some way to counter balance them? And why are so many reviewers ignoring this topic?

Sure, it’s just a movie, but we need to be asking questions about the stories we see on the silver screen and what they are saying about us, about different minority groups, especially as a film racks up awards and critical acclaim.

Glenn Hutchinson is an Assistant Professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina
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