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Q&A: Benjamin Ginsberg, the Author of ‘How the Jews Defeated Hitler’

His thoughts on Jewish strength, Jewish weakness, and the secret history of the Judeo-Episcopate in America

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American Jews have a particular sense of Jewish masculinity that is certainly at odds with the story you just told. In fact, people are generally shocked when they hear that that 600,000 American Jews served in the U.S. armed forces during World War Two—which is why if you talk to Jewish men in their late eighties they will all tell you how much they love Harry Truman for saving their asses by dropping atom bombs on Japan while they were waiting on a troop ship in the Pacific. So, why did this Jewish culture, which was perfectly well acquainted with masculine norms and guns and so forth, abruptly disappear? How do you analyze that psychologically and historically?

I think it happened because Jews in America became fully integrated into the urban liberal bourgeoisie, and that stratum as a whole—both its gentile and Jewish members—denounced war, denounced militarism, and distanced themselves from the use of force. So, the Jews were no different from their gentile compatriots in this realm.

That’s an answer that convinces me about 65 to 70 percent.

That’s a lot!

It’s true that you don’t see a bunch of WASP kids from Deerfield or Choate volunteering for the Marines. But neither do you find them sitting around their dorm rooms and talking about how of course we are physically weak and nebbishy, and that’s a funny, distinctive thing about us that we all like to celebrate. Why do Jewish men adopt this pose? I think in America, the Holocaust became something very shameful. It became a symbol of weakness, precisely because it didn’t happen here. And in a way, that made it even scarier to think about.

I can remember when my family came to America after the war. Our relatives said, “Don’t talk about it, because people don’t want to hear about that.” And that was an expression of shame: “You European Jews allowed this to happen to you because you were weak, whereas we Americans we are strong, and such a thing could never happen here.” That was the overt explanation. But perhaps they were thinking it can happen here too—so be quiet.

I think that the Holocaust powerfully shaped the psychology of American Jews, both leading to the embrace of the nebbishy “I’m not threatening, don’t hurt me” stereotype and then on the other side to the cohort of people who use Israel as a symbolic expression of some kind of hyper-masculine fantasy that compensates for their own inner feelings of inadequacy and weakness.

I think that’s true. The original reaction to Holocaust survivors among American Jews, the “be quiet about it”—that changed when Jewish organizations in the U.S. began to use the Holocaust as their major rallying point. They revived the Holocaust, if you will, and created heroes out of the survivors—and that was also false.

Holocaust survivors deserve all the respect in the world, as people who survived a terrible ordeal, and as living proof of the failure of Hitler’s evil scheme. At the same time, they are also just people—some of whom were saints, and some of whom necessarily did terrible things in order to survive. Anyone who grew up in communities with survivors or had survivors in their own family knows that many of these people, as individuals, bore terrible scars, and that some of them inflicted pain and suffering on others. I think the fetishization and appropriation of European Holocaust survivors as communal symbols by the American Jewish community had less to do with the recognition that these people deserved good medical care and housing—which many elderly survivors shamefully lack—than with the desire to compete in the great historical victimhood Olympics which has been so important in American law, politics, and culture since the 1960s. Jews have trouble with the idea that, in the American context, they are simply another wealthy and privileged white-skinned minority. After all we’ve been through, that’s unfair! It’s not us—even if we are wealthy and privileged. So, to negate this discomfort, the community built a gleaming museum to commemorate the suffering of European Jews during the Holocaust on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

My late mother was visiting, and I said, “Do you want to go to the Holocaust museum?” And she looked at me and said, “No, I saw the original.” That’s a good moment, right?

Something about an American Holocaust museum just feels wrong, because it isn’t actually part of this country’s history. It belongs in Berlin—or Warsaw, or Paris, or Moscow, depending on your point of view.

There is something disquieting about it, I agree. But I also discover dealing with college students, even very smart ones, that their knowledge of history is limited, and even the Jewish students will go to the Holocaust museum and say, “I didn’t know that happened!” So, it has some value, though now every medium-size city has to have its own Holocaust museum, and they fight over artifacts, so there’s something a little crass about it, too.

How do you think that the self-awareness of the global Jewish collectivity has changed since the Holocaust and was altered by the Holocaust?

The Holocaust increased self-awareness. But I would say that in recent years, as you know, some number of Jews are more concerned with being accepted by the liberal intelligentsia than they are in being Jewish. They call themselves anti-Zionists and shrink back from the activities of the evil Jewish state.

Which is so evil that it allows full civil rights to gay citizens simply as cover for their further oppression of Palestinians, which is frankly one of the most evil things I’ve heard of any state doing.

Every piece of land on the face of the earth was owned at one time by somebody else. We’re very much aware of the fact that Europeans stole this land that we are currently sitting on from the Native Americans, but the Native Americans aren’t around to argue about it, except in small numbers on government-controlled reservations.

I once wrote a long piece about Yasser Arafat. One of his favorite sayings was, “We are not the red Indians.”

I think the reason that the Palestinians weren’t the red Indians was that the Israelis weren’t the North Americans. Had they pursued a comprehensive campaign of extermination like the Americans and Australians did before them, then no one would be around to complain.

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Q&A: Benjamin Ginsberg, the Author of ‘How the Jews Defeated Hitler’

His thoughts on Jewish strength, Jewish weakness, and the secret history of the Judeo-Episcopate in America