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Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is a widowed journalist who has just moved to New York City with his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) and mother (Anne Revere). Green meets with magazine publisher John Minify (Albert Dekker), who asks Green, a gentile, to write an article on antisemitism ("some people don't like other people just because they're Jews"). He's not very enthusiastic at first, but after initially struggling with how to approach the topic in a fresh way, Green is inspired to adopt a Jewish identity ("Phil Greenberg") and writes about his own first-hand experiences. Green and Minify agree to keep it secret that Phil is not Jewish; since he and his family are new to New York, it should be easy to hide.
At a dinner party, Phil meets Minify's divorced niece Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire), who turns out to be the person who originally suggested the story idea. Minify provides her with a large apartment and money. Kathy "works" as a pre-school teacher. The next day, Phil tries to explain anti-Jewish prejudice to his young, precocious son - directly after displaying some anti-female prejudice of his own. Green tells his mother that he's struck by the odd notion that the idea for the article came from "a girl" at the magazine. His mother replies, "Why, women will be thinking next". Phil and Kathy begin dating.
Phil has considerable difficulty getting started on his assignment. Every angle he thinks of ends in a stone wall. It is only when his mother has heart pain in the middle of the night and he must summon a doctor, that he realizes that he can never feel what another person feels unless he experiences it himself. He recalls having "lived as an Okie on Route 66" or as a coalminer for previous writing jobs, instead of tapping a man on the shoulder and making him talk. That's when he decides to write, "I Was Jewish for Six Months".
Though Kathy seems to have liberal views, when he reveals what he intends to do, she is taken aback and asks if he actually is Jewish. The strain on their relationship due to Kathy's subtle acquiescence to bigotry becomes a key theme in the film.
At the magazine, Phil is assigned a secretary, Elaine Wales (June Havoc), who reveals that she too is Jewish. She changed her name in order to get the job (her application under her real, Jewish-sounding name, Estelle Wilovsky, was rejected). After Phil informs Minify about Wales' experience, Minify orders the magazine to adopt hiring policies that are open to Jews. Wales has reservations about the new policy, fearing that the "wrong Jews" will be hired and ruin things for the few Jews working there now. Phil meets fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), who becomes a good friend and potentially more, particularly as strains develop between Phil and Kathy.
John Garfield and Dorothy McGuireAs Phil's assignment proceeds, his childhood friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who is Jewish, moves to New York for a job and lives with the Greens while he looks for a home for his family. Housing is scarce in the city, but it is particularly difficult for Goldman, since not all landlords will rent to a Jewish family. When Phil tells Dave about his project, Dave is supportive, but concerned.
As time goes on, Phil experiences several incidents of bigotry. When his mother becomes ill with a heart condition, the doctor discourages him from consulting a specialist with an obviously Jewish name, suggesting he might be cheated. When Phil reveals that he is himself Jewish, the doctor becomes uncomfortable and leaves. Also, when Phil wants to celebrate his honeymoon at a swanky hotel for rich people in the country, the manager of the hotel refuses to register Phil, due to his being a Jew. Also, when kids at school learn that Tommy is Jewish, he becomes the target of bullies. Phil is troubled by the way Kathy consoles Tommy, telling him that their taunts of "dirty Jew" are wrong because he isn't Jewish, not that the epithet is wrong in and of itself.
Kathy's attitudes are revealed further when she and Phil announce their engagement. Her sister Jane (Jane Wyatt) invites them to a celebration in her home in Darien, Connecticut, which is known to be a "restricted" community where Jews are not welcome. Fearing an awkward scene, Kathy wants to tell her family and friends that Phil is only pretending to be a Jew, but Phil prevails on Kathy to tell only Jane. At the party, everyone is very friendly to Phil, though many people are "unable" to attend at the last minute.
Dave announces that he will have to quit his job because he cannot find a place for his family. Kathy owns a vacant cottage in Darien, but though Phil sees it as the obvious solution to Dave's problem, Kathy is unwilling to offend her neighbors by renting it to a Jewish family. She and Phil break their engagement. Phil announces that he will be moving away from New York when his article is published. When it comes out, it is very well received by the magazine staff.
Kathy meets with Dave and tells him how sick she felt when a party guest told a bigoted joke. However, she has no answer when Dave repeatedly asks her what she did about it. She comes to realize that remaining silent condones the prejudice.
The next day, Dave tells Phil that he and his family will be moving into the cottage in Darien and Kathy will be moving in with her sister next door to make sure they are treated well by their neighbors. When Phil hears this, he reconciles with Kathy.