Lawrence Newman was an anti-Semite. It was his job to be an anti-Semite. As personnel manager for a prominent New York corporation near the end of the Second World War, it was his duty to make sure that no Jews or other undesirables were hired by the company. He prided himself on his ability to pinpoint a person’s ethnicity with a mere glance.
When his discriminating eyes began to fail him in his 40s, and it was both his downfall and the making of him. He resisted getting glasses for the simple reason that they made him look Jewish, something completely intolerable for him. But after noticing his difficulties at work, his boss forced him to get glasses, and then promptly demoted him to a back office where he would not be seen. The corporation had an image to keep up, after all.
As much as Newman revelled in the status he got from working for “The Corporation,” his natural dignity would not accept the demotion, so he quit. But before he left, the long-time bachelor had a bewildering encounter with an attractive young applicant. He thought she was a Jewess, but he fell in love with her anyway. She thought he was a Jew, and resented his desire. They met again later, cleared up the confusion, and eventually married, but the fact that he had fallen in love with a woman he had seen as a Jew, troubled and ultimately changed him.
He was also changed by his only Jewish neighbour, Finkelstein, who ran the corner candy store and news stand. His neighbours, even more anti-Semitic than Mr. Newman, were organizing a gang to force the Finkelsteins out of the neighbourhood, and after Newman got his glasses and married a Jewish-looking girl, he was put on their list too. In one pivotal conversation, Finkelstein, thinking Newman is part of the group trying to drive him out, wondered:
You look at me and you don’t see me. You see something else. What do you see? That’s what I don’t understand…. What do you see that makes you so mad when you look at me?
Newman had no answer for that because he was beginning to realize that prejudices have no reason. He also began to see that the white supremacists in his midst were ignorant hoodlums, not least because they took him and his wife for Jews. He begins to question both judging by appearances and not judging by appearances. Because Finkelstein was a Jew, Newman had never before seen that he was neat, clean, honest, self-respecting—all the things a Jew was never supposed to be. He had been seeing what wasn’t there and not seeing what was there.
In the end, both he and Finkelstein are attacked across the street from each other, and in his indignant defensive fury he finally resolves his inner conflict between not wanting to be perceived as a Jew but also not wanting to participate in anti-Semitism any more. Determined not to be driven away and refusing his wife’s entreaties to simply go to the organization and prove that he’s not a Jew, he goes to the police station to make a report. When the policeman takes him for a Jew along with Finkelstein, Newman does not correct him, and he feels a great weight lifted from his shoulders.
That is the essence of Focus, a short but powerful book about this man’s journey from one side of prejudice to the other, and the freedom that comes from standing with the oppressed. In the beginning of the book, Newman is a portrait of neurosis, desperate to prove his solid middle-class credentials—job, home, good grooming, good manners, and a perfectly maintained car. It is hard to imagine him ever waking up from his nervous stupor, but by the end of the story he is a new man, standing back to back with a Jew against the mob, and proud to finally be fighting the narrowness that kept him afraid his whole life. Alas his wife does not undergo a similar transformation—she is not concerned with truth, she simply wants to be “at the right end of the broom” when the neighbourhood is “cleaned up.” It seems clear that, as much as he treasures his lately-won wife, when Newman sides with Finkelstein against his neighbours he is breaking with her too.
It’s a moving book, and the device of the glasses is the perfect metaphor for Newman’s “corrected” vision. You can trace Newman’s progress through his glasses: when he wears them and when he takes them off, when they get damaged by ruffians, and when they get jammed into the flesh of his nose, almost becoming a permanent part of him. The message of the book is unmistakable and challenges all of us, for we all harbour prejudices of some kind, but it does not come across as a polemic. There is no sense of the author in the book. It is a tense and gripping story in which it is never certain whether the protagonist will meet injustice with defiance or fear. I greatly enjoyed it and now look forward to seeing the film version.
UPDATE: Lest we think Focus is a historical piece, the same thing is happening right now in Malmö, Sweden, and other European cities, where Muslim immigrants are driving Jews, including Holocaust survivors, out of their communities. We are still in need of Lawrence Newmans to stand back to back with Jews and fight the hatred. So far Europeans are just letting it happen. Have we learned nothing?