Benjamin Ginsberg is a brilliant gadfly and social critic who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University. In The Captive Public and Downsizing Democracy, he laid out a biting analysis of the marginalization of citizens in a modern American centralized state serviced by media-manipulating flacks and political courtiers who serve the needs of corporations rather than the voters. While Ginsberg’s analysis bears some marked similarities to that of Noam Chomsky, he is more a libertarian than an old-fashioned Marxist. He also sees himself as a Jew, and as a strong supporter of the state of Israel. And so I was eager to meet him and to discuss the odd brilliance of his latest book, How the Jews Defeated Hitler.
David Samuels: Tell me a bit about what impelled you to write How the Jews Defeated Hitler? I thought the Red Army defeated Hitler.
Benjamin Ginsberg: The immediate reason was that during a discussion of Nazism in one of my classes, a student asked the usual question: Why didn’t the Jews resist? He was a big strong guy, so he obviously wanted to resist. I said, it depends on where you situate resistance and how you define it. If resistance is narrowly defined and situated in ghettos and concentration camps, then the Jews sometimes fought bravely but their impact was small—a scattering of unarmed individuals in a city ghetto or death camp without the means to resist—and this is where people accuse the Jews of not resisting, in a place where no one could have resisted. But if you define “resisted” a bit more broadly, then Jews resisted quite vigorously. I was so impressed with my answer that I said, “There’s a book here, and I’m going to write it.”
I think that’s a question that all Jews in America grow up with. Why didn’t the Jews resist? I’ve been doing some research recently about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and I feel strongly now that, from a historical perspective, the question is bullshit. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the first uprising anywhere in occupied Europe. Not only did Jews resist, they resisted first—and they did so in countless other places, with whatever weapons and other strategies were available to them. Even the leaders of the Judenrat in most places saw their choice as a strategic one, and no matter how wildly and tragically wrong they were, it is also wrong to compare them with collaborationists in Vichy France or in Holland, say, who believed that the Nazis were doing good work.
The French resisted more in a literary frame, and many of their best songs were written by Jews, it turns out. But Jews also had a very significant impact on the outcome of the war itself, and they did so through several vehicles, one of which was the Soviet Red Army. There is no question in my mind that without the Jews, the Soviets could have been defeated. The Soviet victory in WWII came not because of overwhelming Russian numbers, since the Red Army was not numerically that superior to the Germans. It wasn’t because of the Russian winter, which makes it seem like the Germans fought in Siberia but the Russians fought in Palm Beach. The winter wasn’t that easy for anyone.
The Russians won because they had superior weapons, and these weapons were almost all designed and built by Jewish engineers who had been trained at the major engineering school after the revolution, when they were allowed to attend. They invented the best tank of the war and the Katyusha rocket launcher. My father fired Katyushas in the Second World War, so I knew about this even as a little kid. It was a multi-barrel rocket launcher that terrified the Germans—and the Russians, too. Many of the Soviet fighter planes and bombers were built by Jewish aeronautical engineers—the famous MiG fighters, for example, were built by Mordechai Israel Gourevich.
If the Red Army and the Manhattan Project together win the Second World War, then it’s hard to say that Jewish scientists and engineers don’t play a huge role in both, and therefore in the Allied victory. So, I take your point. But another thing that struck me about your book was the article in the title: How the Jews defeated Hitler. Isn’t that what Hitler said? He was fighting a war against “the Jews,” right?
As I say in the introduction, the Jewish response that I discuss here is an example of what I call cumulative rather than collective action. There was no “the Jews,” there were no Elders of Zion directing the effort. “The Jews” were created because Jews responded to a common threat. The alternative of course is to leave out the article “the” and simply say “Jews,” but I thought that the response I wanted to discuss was not simply disparate individuals acting independently of one another. Rather, they were a collectivity formed in a reactive way–they were Jews responding to “the Nazis,” which makes them “the Jews.” And there was also clearly a measure of communal awareness.
Political scientists say that you can mobilize anything. I used to tell students you could mobilize the short people against the tall people and they would always write this down and snicker, but then you have the Hutu and the Tutsis in Rwanda. You can mobilize any attribute—ethnicity, race, what have you. But Jews are a little bit more than that, because Jews are conscious of themselves as a collectivity. We’re the last of the biblical tribes. We are aware of this to a greater or lesser extent, but we lack a single national leadership. We are not a state. Israel is a state, but many Jews don’t live in Israel.
So, for the Jews in this book, there was no Israel, there was no one who claimed to lead “the Jews,” but there was a measure of communal awareness and a measure of understanding that they were responding to a common threat. I was struck by the German Jewish physicists who worked on the atom bomb mainly because of what the Germans were doing to their fellow Jews.
Russian Jews and Soviet Jews rarely exist in American Jewish public discourse as anything other than refusniks or helpless captives. It’s like everyone was Anatoly Sharansky. My family, for example, was a military family before Soviet times; they then served proudly in the Red Army, as well as in various other capacities. Jews played a very important role in the formation of the Soviet state, and in some of its most lethal departments.
In the prewar Soviet Union, Jews among other things ran the security services—they were the backbone of the NKVD, and so forth. Like the Sikhs and Gurkhas in India, Jews were a persecuted minority who could be trusted to shoot at their fellows. The commissars knew this full well and cheerfully engaged the Jews in these activities until later Stalin purged the Jews from the most important positions.
During the war the Jews fought at first where no one else would, precisely because they and their families had no choice. At the beginning, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers thought they could surrender and all would be well, since the Germans were well known to be a great civilized people. But they learned quickly that wasn’t so, and then that, coupled with the NKVD blocking units Stalin put behind them, got them to fight. But the Jews fought from the beginning and fought fiercely, which is why they earned more medals on a per capita basis than anyone did—until Stalin noticed, and said too many medals were being awarded to Jews.
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.
I want to look back at one other aside in your book that I found really, really fascinating and kind of generative, because it was the one thing in this book that I’d never thought of before.
If I had known that, I wouldn’t have written the rest of the book.
Well, this idea really could and should be a book of its own: In America today, the major East Coast ruling class faction is a fusion of Jews and WASPs. I call it the Judeo-Episcopate, and its manners are kind of fascinating. When I first encountered this grouping as an undergraduate at Harvard, there were clearly two sides—there were Jewish private-school kids from New York and L.A., and there were WASPy kids from prep schools in New England. I think it was more common for the Jewish men to date the WASPy girls, but it sometimes went the other way, too. As I’ve seen that class continue to cohere in the professional sphere, I say to myself, “Oh, that was a coherent social group, which turned out to wield some real power.”
My son graduated from Harvard recently enough, and I quizzed him about this and he sort of looked blank. To him, the Jews and the WASPs are now the same people.
I vaguely located the formation of this group sometime in the 1970s and imagined that once you’ve eliminated quotas at Harvard and Yale, all these Jewish kids came in and they had money and they were smart and then the WASP ruling class picked off the bright ones and let them into their finals clubs and other institutions. But you located the formation of the WASP-Jew alliance much earlier, in the Second World War, back when the quotas still existed, and the moment you suggested that in your book I thought, “Oh my God, he’s right.” So, what I want you to do is to flesh out that argument.
The relationship goes back even further, to the period after the Civil War, when you had the “Our Crowd” group, the German Jewish families who were very closely allied financially and even socially with WASP industrialists. They all stole together and built railroads and whatnot.
Then there was this horrible influx of filthy Eastern European Jews.
Yeah, that was one factor—the Yids. So, the old aristocracy accuses the WASP robber barons of being no better than the Jews. This, after a series of political struggles, leads the WASP part of the first WASP-Jewish alliance to cast the Jews off and to ally themselves instead with the old WASP aristocracy. They create a system of “exclusive” institutions, meaning no Jews—exclusive clubs, exclusive hotels, and exclusive boarding schools—which are sort of run by the old aristocrats but funded by the new ones. So, it takes the Jews a long time to recover. During the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, the Jews, even if they have some money, are very much at the social margins. But then just before the beginning of the Second World War, the Jews and the WASPs re-ally again—against the Nazis.
They re-ally not just against the Nazis, but internally they form an alliance against the American masses, who want no part of saving either European Jews or England.
Right. And they find they also have other things to agree about. This is solidified in the 1950s, when you have two strands of anti-Communist crusading. You have the HUAC strand, which was created to investigate Nazism but was seized by Southern Democrats who used it to investigate the liberal wing of the Democratic Party—labor unions, urban machines—and there were a lot of Jews in that part of the Democratic Party. So, the HUAC hearings are very anti-Semitic. They list all the Jews, the real names: “Edward G. Robinson, well his real name is … Goldenberg!”
Then there’s the McCarthy strand. McCarthy is the weapon of the Taft wing of the Republican Party against the East Coast Establishment, and there are no Jews in the East Coast Establishment. McCarthy has no anti-Semitic rhetoric, and in fact his chief assistant is Roy Cohn. But when you put HUAC and McCarthy together, the Jews and the WASPs once again had a common enemy, and this is when they re-coalesced, more or less permanently. And they did so in the media campaign against the witch hunters. People argue that the media is controlled by the Jews. Well, not exactly, but the Jews and the WASPs together did control the media. Then, in the civil rights movement, the Jews and the WASPs also had common enemies, namely the Southern conservatives. And after that, they let you into Harvard.
One of the things that’s fascinating about my WASPy friends and compatriots is that so many dislike the State of Israel, to varying degrees. It bugs them. What interests me is trying to suss out the underlying or psychological impetus or sense of injury beneath these feelings, which are frankly less common in general among American gentiles than they are among American Jews. When I’ve asked them, “Why does this particular injustice bother you so much – why not Tibet?” the answers are very interesting. They come down to something like, “Why on one hand do you Jewish people come to us and say we have to be democratic and inclusive because otherwise we’re anti-Semites, and then back in the old country, where you go on your family vacations or Birthright trips, you get to strut around with automatic weapons and oppress everybody else, which isn’t fair, and is probably what we would want to do here, in some secret corner of our WASPy brains.”
That is a very good line, and I think it’s totally true. The animus is some form of displaced anti-Semitism.
Is that what I’m saying? I actually think that American Jews are in this sense way too quick to label such feelings as anti-Semitism, even when the effects may be anti-Semitic.
I think you’ve characterized it very well. It’s not 1930s anti-Semitism, but it’s a resentment. It’s a resentment of a particular evil that the Jews have done, which is the Jews have undermined WASP America but refuse to do the same thing in their own country.
You know, there’s an old joke: Three elderly Jewish Communists in the Bronx are talking. They’re in their eighties. One is in a wheelchair. So they say, “Abie Cohen, have you heard from him lately?” “Abie, he’s had some health problems but he’s living in Los Angeles in a nursing home, still working for socialism.” “All right, what about Mike Abramowitz, have you heard from him?” “Well, you know Mike is in rehab, he fell, he broke his hip, a lot of problems. But even in the nursing home he’s fighting for socialism!” So someone says, “What about Moe Goldberg?” “Oh, Moe, he moved to Israel, didn’t you know that?” “Well, is he fighting for socialism?” The guy answers, “In his own country? What kind of man do you think he is?!”
So I think as Jewish humor often does, that captures the point that you made. I’ve actually had students say exactly this. They say, “How come in my high school we couldn’t sing Christmas carols; however, in Israel they can establish a religion?” And they believe that it was the Jews who brought this about in the United States. And are they wrong? No.
I want to get back to this sense of Jews globally as a collectivity and what the touchstones of that collectivity are now. You have the Holocaust, and you have Israel. And then you have, for one segment, actual Jewish religious beliefs and practices—but even if the proportion is growing, that’s still a global minority.
This to me has always been an absolutely fascinating question, and I write about it in my next book. The Jews, who are scattered all over the place, do have a sense of communal identification, because of a set of institutions that depends upon and works hard to maintain that identification. Absent the Jews, these institutions would have no constituency. And this goes back to the Babylonian exile.
This came to me in an inspiration one day. I was sitting bored to tears at the bar mitzvah of a son of a friend of mine, and the Haftorah for that day, I forget what the portion is but it’s the complete rules of how to treat Amorites that you might have captured. I was thinking it’s been a long time since we captured any Amorites. But then I realized, what happened here was that the entire middle-upper stratum of the Jewish kingdom is transported to ancient Babylon and they stick them in a suburb and say, “OK, do whatever.” So, you had a leadership with no coercive institutions—no army, no police force—and they made a religious symbol of the law, they ensorcelled the law. And all the Jews would sit and listen to a recitation of the laws of a kingdom that didn’t exist. And that’s still what we do today. We’ve still got to remember how to treat the Amorites. It’s as though somebody took the local zoning ordinances and recited them as a central communal ritual.
My bar mitzvah parsha was the single longest possible combination of texts—Vayakhel Pekudei, Parshat Ha-Chodesh. It was, like, 250 psukim long, and what made it even more entrancing was the fact that it was the complete set of building instructions from the mishkan. I was literally reading lists of construction materials for a portable sanctuary in the desert aloud to an assembly of American Jewish suburbanites in New Jersey, 3,000 years later.
That is the ensorcellment of the building code, which has the purpose of creating communal identity and continuity in the absence of a state, which would normally do those things. The Jewish religion has been a terrific religion for a people in exile.
Israel, in a peculiar way, represents a challenge to that. After the creation of Israel there was a big struggle between the American Jewish leadership and the Israeli leadership, which led Ben Gurion to say, “I’m tired of people from Cleveland telling me what to do!” So, an accommodation was reached. The American Jewish leadership wouldn’t tell Israel what to do. Instead, they would raise money for them and Israel would serve as a symbol, a good symbol, for fundraising. Everybody goes there once a year to check their heritage. But that’s become problematic because the politics of Israel and the politics of America have diverged so sharply. When Israel was a nice little Socialist state that grew oranges and people worked on the kibbutz, there was no problem.
New Deal Democrats could get down with that!
Even European socialists used to go there. But when Israel became a fairly serious military power, it moved out of its socialist phase and became an American military satellite. At the same time the American Jewish community was very carefully allying itself with the WASPs so you could go to Harvard, too. So, now the American Jewish community is divided on Israel. Some have decided that they are Jews first and liberals second, and those people are becoming Republicans, and they’re becoming more religious. Others have decided that they’re liberal Democrats first and Jews second. But it’s tough to be both these days.
You don’t think that Michael Lerner and J Street have provided a third way by which liberal Democratic Jews in America can identify with the State of Israel as it should be—meaning, an instrument through which we Jews will continue our holy mission of tikkun olam, repairing the world?
No. They are a stepping stone for Jews to leave the Jewish people. They’re a stepping stone into WASP-hood. That’s all they are. The third way is false. Sometimes there are only two ways. You can be a Jew, or you can be an American liberal.
Whoa, there. First off, I like WASPs. I love sailing, Triscuits, and Martha’s Vineyard—although I like the Jewish parts of the island better than the WASPy parts. Second, I think that the Democratic Party itself, like all two of the American political parties, is a fractious coalition that encompasses at any given point three or four large-scale blocs, which compete with each other for power and influence and control of messaging. In turn, the terms of those coalitions’ agreements within the party often determine the level of national support for the party as a whole. When I look at the Republican Party, I see one group that obviously supports Israel and is in favor of a robust American presence in many parts of the world. I see another faction that seems to dislike the Israelis—the Baker-Scowcroft-oil money-Carlyle Group-George H.W. Bush contingent. Then there are those nasty Buchananites. So, I’m hard-pressed to see why Jews can be Republicans but they can’t be liberal Democrats.
I would say that at the present time the Republican Party is friendlier to Israel than the Democratic Party. Also that, for Jews, adherence to the Democratic Party has become a kind of secular religion. Politics is not about friends, it’s about interests, and I think Jews are not acting in accord with their interests when they strongly support the Democratic Party.
I think that if you are a Palestinian you would have a lot more reasons to see the George W. Bush Administration as having been productive than the Obama Administration.
Bush launched major wars against enemies of Israel and maintained a large American presence nearby. So, from an Israeli perspective, he was an excellent president. Of course, most American policy in the Middle East is explained by a three letter word, which is not “Jew.”
Which is what?
Oil. America fights to maintain privileged access to Saudi crude, to put it crudely. Now, what you say may be true at the moment, but I think that the Democratic Party has been moving toward a more even-handed position in the Middle East and that the number of Democrats who are staunchly pro-Israel has diminished, while the number of Democrats who agree with the Mearsheimer thesis has increased. On the Republican side, though there certainly are Buchananites and so forth, at the moment at least they are a very minor group. As I recall, Ron Paul did not do so well in the Republican primaries. Republicans for the most part are strongly pro-Israel, both for philosophical reasons and because they still regard Israel as a strategic asset.
One last question for you.
I thought you said there was only one thing in the book that you didn’t know!
On the one hand, when other people talk about “the Jews” or use phrases like “the Jews,” we immediately use language like, “You disgusting anti-Semite, take it back, there’s no such thing as ‘the Jews.’ ” But then, when we sit in our conclaves, like we are doing right now, we always talk about “the Jews” and how “the Jews” should feel or what “the Jews” should do. In the end there’s an interesting ambivalence about this idea of Jews as a collectivity—there’s obviously a fear that it is something that will be used to persecute us. On the other hand, it’s something that we are proud of.
I think whether you regard this as insulting or not is contextual. If someone is saying, “Oh, the Jews all have long noses,” well, all right. But if someone is referring to collective goals, collective interests, I don’t find that insulting. There are ways in which the Jews even today, as was true in the 1940s, have a collective consciousness—they look to the same sets of institutions and have a common religion. So, I don’t find it offensive to talk about “the Jews.” “The Jews” are the last of the ancient tribes.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor, and the Editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th century newspaper.