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Jewish Themes in The Graduate (1967)
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The 1967 film The Graduate was a landmark in Jewish cultural subversion (see also Edmund Connelly’s treatment). By the time of the film’s release, Jewish film-makers in Hollywood were becoming more explicit in their antipathy for White Americans and their culture, and this was increasingly reflected in their output. In 1963, the Jewish producer Larry Turman came across the 24-year-old Californian Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate which, he claimed, “had an emotional coloration for me like [the Jewish playwright] Harold Pinter. The book was funny, but it made you nervous at the same time.”[1]Alec Scott, “When ‘The Graduate’ Opened Fifty Years Ago, It Changed Hollywood (and America) Forever,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2017.

In his novel, Webb looks back in anger at his gilded California lifestyle as the son of a Pasadena cardiologist. His semi-autobiographical protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, a 20-year-old recent graduate from an East Coast college, returns to his Californian home for a long, hot summer over the course of which he stumbles into a passionless affair with the much older Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner. Braddock becomes infatuated with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine who reciprocates his feelings but rebuffs him after learning of his relationship with her mother. Mrs. Robinson sends Elaine off to college at UC Berkeley, where she becomes engaged to her classmate Carl Smith. A desperate Benjamin crashes their wedding and elopes with Elaine to the great distress of her family.


Turman bought the rights to the book for \$1,000 and sent it unsolicited to Jewish director Mike Nichols (born Mikhail Peschkowsky) who signed on to the project. Turman’s search for financing led him to Jewish film mogul Joseph E. Levine—“the schlockmeister of the world”—who put up \$3 million. Turman’s impulse purchase of the rights led to one of the most consequential films ever. Released in December 1967, The Graduate grossed almost \$105 million (equivalent to almost \$1 billion today), the third-highest ever at the time, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture and acting nods for stars Anne Bancroft, Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, plus an Oscar victory for director Nichols. The Graduate has since become one of the most referenced films in the popular culture lexicon of the Western world.

Nichols assigned Jewish screenwriter Buck Henry (born Henry Zuckerman), then writing for the TV spy spoof Get Smart, as screenwriter. Henry ended up sharing writing credits with the non-Jewish Calder Willingham who had written a rejected first script. Songs by the Jewish duo Simon and Garfunkel were used for the soundtrack. Given the many Jews involved in the film’s production, it’s hardly surprising that Jewish sensibilities and ideological fixations pervade the final product.

The Graduate was not meant to read Jewish in the novel: the non-Jewish Charles Webb wrote the 1963 novel when he was just out of Williams College, which at the time is alleged to have been “notoriously anti-Semitic, even at the administrative level.”[2]Laurie Gwen Shapiro, “50 Years Later, Just How Jewish Was ‘The Graduate?’” Forward, November 15, 2017. In the hands of director Mike Nichols, however, the story became a scathing critique of bourgeois WASP American culture and the oppressive burden it purportedly imposed on young Americans. Nichols employs two recurrent visual metaphors to symbolize this oppressive culture: black-and-white stripes and water. The former representing prison bars confining Benjamin, while the latter (the numerous scenes referencing pools, aquariums, Scuba diving and rain) are said to symbolize the oppressive weight of societal expectation. The “troubled water” theme recurs throughout the film, with Benjamin floundering in a toxic social order where “he is submerged, underwater, trapped,” his world appearing “claustrophobically enclosed like a fish in a small water tank.”[3]Gus Cileone, “What does the water imagery in ‘The Graduate’ express about the 1960s youth mindset and destiny,” The Take, October 7, 2015.

Nichols’ prison bar metaphor
Nichols’ prison bar metaphor

The film resonated with a generation of young people concerned, as recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock is, about their place in the adult world they were reluctantly entering. Beverly Gray, author of the 2017 book Seduced by Mrs. Robinson: How “The Graduate” Became the Touchstone of a Generation, claims the film “strikes me as having a Jewish soul.” Laurie Shapiro, writing for the Forward, agrees, observing that “Despite the All-American storyline of the novel, The Graduate, the film version has always signaled a very Jewish sensibility to me, starting with Dustin Hoffman oddly cast in the lead as super-Waspy Connecticut kid Benjamin Braddock.” Referring to its Jewish director Mike Nichols, Gray notes how:

The film seems to me Jewish in a social sense, in terms of the Jewish outsider, which is certainly the way Mike Nichols viewed himself. Nichols was feeling a bit askew among the comforts of bourgeois America. It’s important to remember Nichols as a very young refugee from Nazi Germany. He never really got over the experience of fleeing Berlin at age 7. I’d go on to add that Nichols has made the following comment: “Dustin has always said that Benjamin is a walking surfboard. And that’s what he was in the book, in the original conception. But I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a short, dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself.” It’s a provocative statement, because Nichols was neither short nor dark, though clearly he felt a strong inner discomfort about the way he presented himself to the world. He certainly identified with the angst felt by Benjamin Braddock.[4]Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit.

The perennial theme of Jewish alienation from a WASP-dominated mainstream American society played an important role in how the character of Benjamin Braddock—and the entire film—were conceived by Nichols—though this only became fully apparent to him after the film had been made. “My unconscious was making this movie,” Nichols later recalled. “It took me years before I got what I had been doing all along—that I was turning Benjamin into a Jew. I didn’t get it until I saw this hilarious issue of MAD magazine after the movie came out, in which the character of Dustin says to the character of Elizabeth Wilson, ‘Mom, how come I’m Jewish and you and Dad aren’t?’ And I asked myself the same question, and the answer was fairly embarrassing and fairly obvious: Who was the Jew among the goyim? And who was forever a visitor in a strange land?”[5]J.W. Whitehead, Appraising The Graduate: The Mike Nichols Classic and Its Impact in Hollywood (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011) 58.

It was with his casting of Benjamin Braddock, described in the book as a tall, blonde, and athletic, that Nichols took his biggest risk. Unable to resist the urge to engage in Jewish ethnic networking, he passed over Robert Redford for an unheralded, diminutive 29-year-old Jew, Dustin Hoffman. Nichols cast Hoffman, “despite the fact that he was virtually unknown and looked nothing like the leading man described in the script, which called for a tall, blond track star, not a short, Jewish guy with a schnoz for the ages.”[6]Steve Almond, “Remembering Mike Nichols And The Cinematic Landmark That Was ‘The Graduate,’” wbur, November 21, 2014. Hoffman later recalled telling Nichols, “The character is five-eleven, a track star. … It feels like this is a dirty trick, sir.” The director replied, “You mean you’re Jewish, that’s why you don’t think you’re right. Maybe he’s Jewish inside.” Nichols claimed that casting Hoffman emphasized Benjamin’s alienation from the WASP middle class world around him and its oppressive expectations. For the Jewish director Steven Soderbergh, Nichol’s choice was “the seminal event in the defining of motion picture leading men in the last 50 years.”[7]Scott, “When The Graduate Opened Fifty Years Ago,” op cit.

Director Mike Nichols on set with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft
Director Mike Nichols on set with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

A number of early reviews of The Graduate described Hoffman as “ugly.” An article in Life magazine referred to him as “a swarthy Pinocchio,” and made humorous reference to his prominent nose. According to Gray, however, “What was important was the way young audiences embraced Hoffman, big nose and all. Suddenly it was okay not to look like Robert Redford and still play a romantic leading role.”[8]Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit. Hoffman’s anti-heroic character gave the green light for Hollywood to promote “the ethnic Jewish matinee idol and youth icon in the forms of George Segal, Elliot Gould, Richard Benjamin, Charles Grodin, and Gene Wilder.”[9]Whitehead, Appraising The Graduate, 63. These Jewish romantic leads were invariably paired onscreen with beautiful non-Jewish actresses like Marsha Mason, Candice Bergen, and (in the case of Dustin Hoffman) blondes like Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway, Susan George, and Meryl Streep. The new era was boon for Jewish actors, who, as Gray points out, suddenly

no longer had to fret about not resembling the WASP ideal, nor did they need to hide (as such stars as John Garfield and Kirk Douglas had done) behind anglicized names. The casting of Dustin Hoffman as The Graduate’s leading man was a shock to Hollywood, which had spent decades trying to sidestep the Judaic roots of its founders. But in the wake of The Graduate, young Jewish males were suddenly everywhere, and often they were playing characters with backgrounds similar to their own. This was the era that launched Richard Benjamin (Goodbye, Columbus, 1969), and Richard Dreyfuss (The Goodbye Girl, 1977), along with Grodin. It was all part of what film critic J. Hoberman, paying tribute to Elliott Gould in the Village Voice, wittily called the Jew Wave.[10]Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit.

While celebrating the “Jew Wave” inaugurated by Hoffman’s casting as Benjamin Braddock, Shapiro laments that Hollywood’s enthusiasm for casting Jews as romantic leads didn’t extend to Jewish women, who, she contends, “still struggle to be cast in a lead if they don’t look like Natalie Portman, Mina Kunis or (yes, she’s Jewish) Scarlett Johansson. Men can keep their original noses and surnames (Ben Stiller, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Adam Brody, Adam Levine) but Jewish women elect for plastic surgery to ‘correct’ what Hollywood execs like Harvey Weinstein deem ‘unfuckable’ looks, and then hide their names and heritage.” Shapiro also resents that some Jewish biopic female roles have been handed to non-Jews like Nicole Kidman (as Diane Arbus) and Felicity Jones (as Ruth Bader Ginsburg)—despite the existence of Jewish actresses that “meet or even surpass most people’s standard of beauty” like Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis. This is largely, she insists, because “Hollywood seems to have never gotten over its infatuation with blondes, especially when paired with dark-haired men.”[11]Ibid.
(Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit.)

Hollywood did make efforts in the 1960s to promote Jewesses as romantic lead characters. The Jewish film historian Neal Gabler notes, for example, in his book Barbara Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power, how, in the late sixties, Streisand was repeatedly cast by Hollywood studios who deliberately attempted to make her Jewish ethnicity part of her public appeal. Gray notes that “In the wake of her success, many young girls thought twice about requesting a nose job as a Sweet Sixteen gift. But I would argue that Streisand started no trend toward the acceptance of other leading ladies who defied the WASP standard of physical attractiveness.”[12]Ibid.
(Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit.)

Dustin Hoffman certainly defied the WASP standard of male physical attractiveness, and Nichols sympathized with the young actor’s view of himself as an alienated Jew in a gentile world, and Hoffman, in turn, was able to comprehend the role once “he caught Nichols and Henry’s vision of Benjamin as the ultimate outsider—not a part of the culture, but not a part of the counter-culture either.” Nichols and Henry envisioned the Braddock character as a “genetic throwback” among the “walking surfboards” of angular, blond vigor—the American WASP mainstream. Nichols wanted Hoffman to project an estrangement that began in the blood. Renata Adler, writing in The New York Times, was the first to openly state the reality of Benjamin’s Jewish identity—with the Jewish film critic J. Hoberman endorsing Adler’s observation, identifying Benjamin as an obvious “crypto-Jew” and “an example of an ascendant Jewishness” in Hollywood.[13]Whitehead, Appraising The Graduate, 63.

Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock: “an example of ascendant Jewishness”
Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock: “an example of ascendant Jewishness”

Hoffman won the role over Charles Grodin, another Jewish actor who was no model of conventional WASP good looks. On the morning of Hoffman’s screen test for the role, he was marched into the makeup chair, where experts worried over his thick eyebrows, muscular neck, and less-than-perfect features. Hoffman recalled Nichols fretting, “Can we do anything about his nose?” Two hours later, when he went before the camera alongside co-star Katharine Ross, matters got worse: “The idea that the director was connecting me with someone as beautiful as her, it became an even uglier joke. It was like a Jewish nightmare.” Trying to ease the tension between them, he pinched or patted Ross’s buttock (accounts differ), leaving her furious. Nor did his reading of the role of Benjamin run smoothly. Just before the film’s release, when Ross was asked about her first impression of Hoffman, she pulled no punches: “He looks about three feet tall, so dead serious, so humorless, so unkempt.” She remembered thinking “This is going to be a disaster.”[14]Beverley Gray, Seduced By Mrs. Robinson: How “The Graduate” Became the Touchstone of a Generation (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2017), 42-3.

While Benjamin Braddock might have been, according to Nichols, Jewish on the inside (and on the outside to the extent of his casting Hoffman), the Braddock and the Robinson families were supposed to be representative of WASP middle class America. Despite this, Jewish characterizations even crept into the portrayal of these characters, and Gray notes how

the film is basically Jewish in a Lenny Bruce sense: New York neurotics are all Jewish, whatever their ethnic and religious background. Interestingly, the two overtly New York characters in the movie, in terms of speech patterns, are Ben’s father and Mrs. Robinson. I can certainly see Mr. Braddock (played by William Daniel) as an upwardly mobile “Jewish” man, enjoying the fruits of his labors. And of course Mrs. Robinson is the very definition of neurotic. But her husband and daughter don’t seem in any way Jewish to me, despite their presence in a Beverly Hills mini-mansion of the type that Jews of that era favored and that I recognized all too well.[15]Shapiro, 50 Years Later,” op cit.

As those who have seen the film know, Benjamin Braddock sleeps with Mrs. Robinson but loves her beautiful daughter, Elaine, who is disgusted when she learns what her mother and boyfriend have done. Elaine ends her relationship with Braddock and becomes engaged to Carl Smith, portrayed by the decidedly non-Jewish actor Brian Avery.

Carl Smith (Brian Avery) with Elaine (Katharine Ross)
Carl Smith (Brian Avery) with Elaine (Katharine Ross)

Undaunted by Elaine’s rejection, Benjamin pursues Elaine and crashes her wedding. This scene, as conceived by Nichols, is laden with Jewish symbolism and socio-political fixations. Hoffman’s character invades the sanctity of the church (a metaphor for the Jewish infiltration of Western societies?) to take Elaine from Carl who is depicted as Braddock’s physical and ethnic opposite (a tall and blonde Nordic archetype). Benjamin uses Christianity’s most sacred symbol (a crucifix) as a weapon to fend off the wedding attendees’ attempts to stop this profane intrusion. He then thwarts their attempts to reclaim Elaine by jamming the crucifix into the door of the church, leaving them barricaded inside and allowing him to flee with Elaine (see lead photograph).

The wedding scene of The Graduate

Such overt anti-Christian imagery jarred with the film’s first audiences—but was only the start of Hollywood’s disparagement of Christianity, and seems tame by today’s standards. Such efforts culminated in depicting nuns in sexual roles. Notoriously, the opening scene of the pilot of Californication, a program starring and produced by the Jewish actor David Duchovny (whose father was a publicist for the American Jewish Committee), depicts a nun performing oral sex on Duchovny’s character Hank Moody in a church. This pornographic debasement of Christian symbols by Jews is a blatant way of defiling Christian culture.

The wedding scene in The Graduate is supposed to be a triumphant moment: two young people rebelling against and liberating themselves from the oppressive expectations of their parents and their pathogenic culture. The conclusion to The Graduate glorifies breaking away from familial, cultural (and implicitly ethnic) constraints in favor of individualism. The Graduate’s core theme can be broken down to a general societal and political defiance. In the first scene of the film, Benjamin rides to the left on an airport conveyor belt as everyone else accedes to the airport’s public announcement system’s request to “Please stay to the right.” The political symbolism is obvious.

The Graduate was made at a time when the New Left was ascendant in the United States, and when the ideas of Jewish intellectuals like Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse were displacing orthodox Marxism in leftist movements throughout the West. Indeed, Nichols’ film can be seen as a subversive exposition of ideas espoused by Marcuse in his seminal 1964 work One Dimensional Man. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marcuse’s work was probably the most influential social theory of its day and enjoyed a wide readership. In One Dimensional Man, he argued that advanced industrial societies like the United States repress their populations by creating false needs via mass advertising, industrial management, and modes of thought which resulted in a “one dimensional” universe of thought and behavior which stifled people’s capacity for critical thought and oppositional behavior. Marcuse advocated what he called the “great refusal” as the only effective opposition to these all-encompassing methods of social control. He championed sexual and ethnic minorities and outsiders “to nourish oppositional thought and behavior.”[16]Douglas Kellner, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Herbert Marcuse, One-dimensional Man: Studies in Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge, 1991), xi.

A generation of young radicals took up Marcuse’s texts as “essential criticism of existing forms of thought and behavior,” and Marcuse himself identified with the New Left and defended their politics and activism. For Marcuse, the traditional European family structure served “to legitimate authoritarian institutions and practices” and predisposed individuals to “accept social authority.” Alongside fellow Frankfurt School intellectuals Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, he viewed the traditional Western family was an important institution “for the production of ‘authoritarian personalities’ who are inclined to submit to dominant authorities, however irrational.”[17]Douglas Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 110.

Herbert Marcuse
Herbert Marcuse

There are also strong points of intersection between Marcuse’s ideas and those of Jewish post-Freudian intellectual Wilhelm Reich. In his 1933 book The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich argued that the authoritarian family is of critical importance for the authoritarian state because the family “becomes the factory in which the state’s structure and ideology are molded.”[18]Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (London: Penguin, 1970) 64. Crucial for Reich was the repression of childhood sexuality, which, in his view, created children who are docile, fearful of authority, and in general anxious and submissive. Reich claimed the role of traditional “repressive” Western sexual morality was “to produce acquiescent subjects who, despite distress and humiliation, are adjusted to the authoritarian order.” Marcuse agreed with Reich that the “liberation of sexuality and the creation of non-hierarchical democratic structures in the family, workplace and society at large would create personalities resistant to fascism.”[19]Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, 111.

Marcuse, like Nichols, a refugee from National Socialist Germany, is said to have been “extremely sensitive to the dangers of fascistic tendencies” and his work was an important part of the great cultural shift from the affirmation to the repudiation of inherited values.[20]Ibid., 296.
(Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, 111.)
The familial, religious and ethnic ties of White people were presented by Jewish intellectuals like Marcuse (and Hollywood writers and producers) as an oppressive burden imposed by the past—a way in which parents encumber their offspring with an inheritance of dysfunctional norms.

Frankfurt School intellectuals, including Marcuse, held that the psychologically healthy White person was someone who had broken free from these dysfunctional norms (i.e., the traditional Western moral code), and realized their human potential without relying on membership in collectivist groups. The embrace of radical individualism among non-Jews, promoted by the likes of Marcuse, was, of course, conducive to the continuation of Judaism as a cohesive group. Yet while Marcuse promoted individualism and condemned White racial feeling as deeply immoral, he was a committed Zionist who strongly supported “the establishment of a Jewish state, capable of preventing the repetition of a holocaust.” Marcuse justified supporting ethnic nationalism for his own tribe on the basis that “The United States didn’t do a goddamn thing under Roosevelt about the persecution of Jews before and during World War II,” and because “There is a continued effective anti-Semitism that could explode at any time in a neo-fascist regime. … Anti-Semitism is rampant in all states, and still exists in all states.”[21]Herbert Marcuse & Douglas Kellner (Ed.), The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse (London: Routledge, 2004), 180.

This line of thinking motivated the activism of Jewish New Left leaders like Mark Rudd who actively promoted Marcuse’s ideas. Rudd claimed that for him and his New Left colleagues, “World War II and the Holocaust were our fixed reference points. We often talked about the moral imperative not to be good Germans. We saw American racism as akin to German racism towards the Jews.”[22]Philip Mendes, Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance (Melbourne, Victoria; Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 254.

Alongside intellectual activists like Marcuse and political activists like Rudd, Hollywood has played an incredibly important role in this Jewish campaign to attack and destroy the fabric of White American society. Hollywood’s guiding principle, as articulated by Jewish Hollywood director Jill Soloway, resides in the perceived necessity of “recreating culture to defend ourselves post-Holocaust.”[23] This ethnic “defense” has entailed the promotion of radical individualism for White people, racial diversity and mixing, the denigration of Christianity, the hypersexualization of popular culture, the glamorizing of sexual non-conformity and the breakdown of traditional gender roles—all alongside constant reminders of “the Holocaust” with its concomitant themes of Jewish victimhood and unsurpassed German (White, European) evil. This is Jewish ethnic warfare waged through the construction of culture. The Graduate was an early shot fired in this ongoing war.


[1] Alec Scott, “When ‘The Graduate’ Opened Fifty Years Ago, It Changed Hollywood (and America) Forever,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2017.

[2] Laurie Gwen Shapiro, “50 Years Later, Just How Jewish Was ‘The Graduate?’” Forward, November 15, 2017.

[3] Gus Cileone, “What does the water imagery in ‘The Graduate’ express about the 1960s youth mindset and destiny,” The Take, October 7, 2015.

[4] Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit.

[5] J.W. Whitehead, Appraising The Graduate: The Mike Nichols Classic and Its Impact in Hollywood (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011) 58.

[6] Steve Almond, “Remembering Mike Nichols And The Cinematic Landmark That Was ‘The Graduate,’” wbur, November 21, 2014.

[7] Scott, “When The Graduate Opened Fifty Years Ago,” op cit.

[8] Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit.

[9] Whitehead, Appraising The Graduate, 63.

[10] Shapiro, “50 Years Later,” op cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Whitehead, Appraising The Graduate, 63.

[14] Beverley Gray, Seduced By Mrs. Robinson: How “The Graduate” Became the Touchstone of a Generation (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2017), 42-3.

[15] Shapiro, 50 Years Later,” op cit.

[16] Douglas Kellner, “Introduction to the Second Edition,” Herbert Marcuse, One-dimensional Man: Studies in Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (London: Routledge, 1991), xi.

[17] Douglas Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) 110.

[18] Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (London: Penguin, 1970) 64.

[19] Kellner, Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, 111.

[20] Ibid., 296.

[21] Herbert Marcuse & Douglas Kellner (Ed.), The New Left and the 1960s: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse (London: Routledge, 2004), 180.

[22] Philip Mendes, Jews and the Left: The Rise and Fall of a Political Alliance (Melbourne, Victoria; Palgrave MacMillan, 2014), 254.


(Republished from The Occidental Observer by permission of author or representative)
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