Jewish Journal


December 2, 2009

British Film Gives ‘An Education’ in Anti-Semitism


Carey Mulligan as Jenny and Peter Sarsgaard as David in “An Education.” 
Photo by Kerry Brown, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Carey Mulligan as Jenny and Peter Sarsgaard as David in “An Education.”
Photo by Kerry Brown, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Jenny: “Oh, and by the way ... David’s a Jew, a wandering Jew. So watch yourself.”

We were only 15 minutes into the film and this was the second reference to the “Wandering Jew,” an age-old, European anti-Semitic stereotype. The British coming-of-age film, “An Education,” had gotten rave reviews, yet the more I watched, the more the character of David Goldman resembled the parasitical Jew of “Der Ewige Juden” (“The Eternal Jew”) — one of the infamous 1930s Nazi propaganda films I had studied in Peter Loewenberg’s class at UCLA.

From the moment David starts following the teenage Jenny in his fancy car, the pudgy, effete David Goldman (played by Peter Sarsgaard) proclaims his ethnicity. (Jenny: “I’m not a Jew.” David: “No, I am. I wasn’t ... accusing you.”) Like the predatory creature characterized in “Der Ewige Juden,” Goldman pretends to adopt the values of his host culture in order to turn its treasures into his profit. He offers Jenny “three five-pound notes” to drive her cello home safely out of the rain; “I’m a music lover,” he tells her. Then he proceeds to corrupt the innocent gentile girl (played by Carey Mulligan) with expensive flowers, gifts, concerts, art auctions and trips to Oxford and Paris.

David enriches himself by ruining good English neighborhoods, deflating property values and looting cultural treasures from displaced widows. He moves blacks into white neighborhoods: “Shvartzes,” he tells Jenny, “have to live somewhere; it’s not as if they can rent from their own kind.” The only identifiable Jew in the film, he constantly uses the collective “we” to justify his wickedness: “This is how we are, Jenny,” Goldman editorializes. “We’re not clever like you, so we have to be clever in other ways, because if we weren’t, there would be no fun.” He uses the word “stats” for old ladies he victimizes. They “are scared of colored people; so we move the coloreds in and the old ladies out and I buy their flats cheap.” Along with his partner, Danny, David barges into a house, military style, and speeds away with precious relics. “We have to be clever with maps,” he tells Jenny. An ancient map, he rationalizes, “shouldn’t spend its life on a wall…. We know how to look after it…. We liberated it.”

Is it possible that the film attempts to link the predatory Jew with his purloined Jewish homeland?

In his book “Anti-Semitic Stereotypes” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), Frank Felsenstein explains that “stereotypes stress the difference between the dominant group and the other…. The ‘true born Englishman,’ is the ideal ‘counter-stereotype’ of the Jew. The wandering-Jew stereotypes were constantly invoked in anti-Semitic narratives to present the homeless Jews as living proof of God’s declared intention that these were once his chosen people and should not be granted respite until they recognized the true Messiah.”

In “An Education,” Jenny’s values, and those of her middle-class parents, teachers and first boyfriend, are antithetical to those of the crooked Jew. The Brits are refined, attractive, honest, sober and hard working. Boyfriend and classmate Graham, “a handsome boy,” according to the script, plays the violin, is modest and clean-cut and presents Jenny with the same plainly wrapped Latin dictionary for her birthday as her parents.

Miss Stubbs, an English teacher, encourages Jenny to pass her “A” levels and earn her way into Oxford in the same honest way she once got into Cambridge. Like Graham and Jenny, Miss Stubbs is “attractive,” “bright” and “animated.”

By contrast, writer Nick Hornby, who initiated the film project based on a woman’s personal essay that he changed to suit his themes, confesses that he feared “no conventional male lead would want to play the part of the predatory, amoral, lonely David.” David’s wife, Sarah, “a homely looking woman in her early 30s,” shows no surprise when her husband’s fiancée, Jenny, shows up at her door. As alien a creature as David may be, the dark, curly haired Jewess is accustomed to her man’s infidelities. 

The climactic scene after David proposes, when Jenny, unaware of his treachery, informs her school’s headmistress that she plans to marry a Jew, is blatantly anti-Semitic:

Headmistress: “He’s a Jew? You’re aware, I take it, that the Jews killed our Lord?”

Jenny: “And you’re aware, I suppose, that our Lord was Jewish?”

Headmistress: “I suppose he told you that. We’re all very sorry about what happened during the war. But that’s absolutely no excuse for that sort of malicious and untruthful propaganda.”

The pretty girl makes no attempt to defend her fiancé’s human dignity, no effort to profess her love for him. As a depersonalized, demonized Jew, David has no qualities worth defending. Instead, Jenny suggests she prefers spending the Jew’s money over studying her Latin.

“My choice is to do something hard and boring or marry my Jew and go to Paris and Rome and ... eat in nice restaurants and have fun.”

The articulate headmistress, played by Emma Thompson, defends the native values that the rootless Jew tempted her student to abandon. “Nobody does anything worth doing without a degree,” she warns Jenny.

As movie blogger Joe Baltake points out, the film “seems to go out of its way to justify Thompson’s anti-Semitic outburst.” Baltake is one of a minority of critics to acknowledge the film’s anti-Semitism (many of the glowing reviews fail to even mention that Jenny’s seducer is Jewish, or that the word “Jew” appears in the film). A little more subtly, David Edelstein, of New York Magazine, writes, “The story’s most obvious lesson is: Beware of Jews bearing flowers….”

Despite the advertising campaign’s promise of a seduction film, there is nothing erotic about David. True to another ugly stereotype, Goldman turns out to be wimpy, “fruity,” “babyish” and disgusting. He calls Jenny “Minnie,” and wants her to call him “Boobaloo.”

Squeamish about the possible shedding of blood, he first tries to take Jenny’s virginity with a banana. “I thought we might get the messy bit over with first,” he tells her. “I don’t want to lose my virginity to a piece of fruit,” Jenny responds. The Jewish seducer of young gentile girls cannot be allowed to be seductive. As Felsenstein points out, “The bipolarity with which Jews are stereotyped is frequently impressive. They are bankers and capitalists; they are communists and agitators; they are tough and full of chutzpah; they look wretched and sickly….” 

“An Education” wraps old, anti-Semitic messages in a pretty new package.

My husband and the two friends with whom I went to see “An Education” did not initially recognize the stereotypes in the film. They had never experienced anti-Semitism; they had never felt like strangers in an inhospitable culture. They had never seen a Nazi propaganda film. The wandering Jew was unfamiliar to them — and perhaps meaningless in America, a land of immigrants, pioneers and vagabonds. 

On the other hand, my close friend, Julia Ribak, daughter of a Holocaust survivor, found the movie deeply disturbing. Her mother had often described the hateful images of Jews that resulted in Auschwitz. “The movie is a magnificent and nasty creation of propaganda,” Julia e-mailed me. “The writer managed to include everything ... everything that would make the viewer of the film walk away hating Jews!”

Irina Bragin is an L.A. tutor and writer who teaches English and public speaking at Touro College Los Angeles. She can be contacted at irina.bragin@touro.edu.

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