“Oppenheimer,” and the Lesson of Brainy Jews

As if the atomic bomb and its potential to destroy the world wasn’t enough tension, Nolan introduces another Jewish character, Lewis Strauss—the opportunist to Oppenheimer’s moral idealist.
August 6, 2023
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Finally, a movie about two Jews facing off in a war of ambitions, petty rivalries and contrasting moral absolutes—with actual wars in the background! (“Schindler’s List,” after all, is a film about two Nazis.)

Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” is a movie experience worth watching in old-school fashion—in a darkened theater, on a wide screen that does not allow for pandemic-streaming or impulsive pausing. Nolan, the director of “Interstellar,” “Memento,” “Inception,” and “The Prestige,” is the reigning master of movie thrillers that incorporate science, space, and the bending of time. (He’s also quite good projecting the moral agony of tormented protagonists, evident in “Oppenheimer” and, of course, his Batman trilogy.)

Now he has pointed his gravitational lens at the splitting of the atom, which brought a gruesome albeit definitive end to World War II. It also unleashed a nuclear arms race that forever changed the stakes of global warfare. Ever since then, the central figure credited with turning advanced science into mass murder has always been the enigmatic Robert J. Oppenheimer, often referred to as the father of the atomic bomb.

With this film, however, Nolan, perhaps inadvertently, revealed another kind of secret weapon: brainy Jews and their penchant for making Earth-shattering discoveries. Six of the eight principals of the Manhattan Project (the code name for the development and testing of the bomb) were Jewish physicists—with Oppenheimer functioning as a Moses in New Mexico’s Jordana del Muerto desert.

Many Jewish scientists, technicians and soldiers spent the war years in remote Los Alamos, New Mexico. (Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, was a machinist and communist stationed at the epicenter of the nuclear age, allowing him ridiculous access to share classified secrets with his brother-in-law. Security clearance, anyone?) It was at Los Alamos where Jews placed theoretical physics under a microscope, removed it from labs and loaded it with uranium.

All this triumphant alchemy wasn’t merely academic, or wholly patriotic. It was personal, too. Many were refugees from Hitler’s Europe, and some had family members in Hitler’s death camps—including Oppenheimer’s own relatives. Talk about Jewish payback. In the film, Oppenheimer is seen celebrating Japan’s surrender, but laments that his radioactive fireball of destruction was not first dropped on Germany.

The Pentagon selected the right people for the task and chose the best person to lead them. It bears remembering that when World War II began, the world’s most eminent physicist lived in Germany. The Nazis had an 18-month head start on building a bomb.  Jewish physicists in America knew the global stakes, recognized the urgency, and, frankly, had more foreskin in this game.

Ironically, Los Alamos, which was in the middle of nowhere, would never have had any trouble assembling a minyan—except that nearly all of these enlisted Jews had been AWOL from synagogues for decades. Largely Godless, although they spent a lot of time worshipping the cosmos. And a good many, to their eventual undoing, maintained an ideological commitment to communism.

No surprise. We’re talking about academics. Easily prone to ideology, adhering to the progressive politics of their time. Many were fellow travelers of more ardent comrades. After all, the critical race theorists and woke worshippers of today are Marxists, too.

The Jewish subtext, and plot conceit, of “Oppenheimer” thickens. As if the atomic bomb and its potential to spark a chain reaction, thus destroying the world, wasn’t enough tension, Nolan introduces another Jewish character, Lewis Strauss—the opportunist to Oppenheimer’s moral idealist. Strauss is no physicist. He is a political hack and anti-communist hysteric who headed the Atomic Energy Commission and was a bitter, underhanded nemesis of Oppenheimer who ruined his career and tarnished his legacy.

Such a battle worthy of an IMAX screen required polar opposites. Strauss was a long-serving president of Temple Emanu-El, the reform synagogue in New York City. Oppenheimer never had a bar mitzvah. Strauss was once a shoe salesman. Oppenheimer was an intimate of Albert Einstein.

Not unlike Roy Cohn, an anti-communist schemer operating at the same time, Strauss was pragmatic and conniving. Cohn advanced his career by prosecuting the Rosenbergs; Strauss sabotaged a national hero in Oppenheimer.

Jew versus Jew. The Jewish flirtation with power has always been a deadly resume line. Moses faced similar challenges with a tribal enemy in Korach.

The film confirms that Oppenheimer actually had only minimal ties to known communists. He, himself, was never a Party member. Some, like his wife, had affiliations that were dormant for decades. Nonetheless, the man responsible for ending World War II was stripped of his security clearance throughout the Cold War. Several of his Los Alamos colleagues had it worse, forced out of universities, casualties of the relentless and unforgiving Red Scare.

Oppenheimer may have been a scientific wizard, but with his head always staring up at the stars, he was defenseless against the dirty politics played on Earth.

For Israelis and Americans, “Oppenheimer” could not have premiered at a better moment. The movie serves as both worthy summer blockbuster and cautionary tale.

For Israel, the Start-up Nation, with its abundance of high-tech innovators and Manhattan Project problem-solving skills, “Oppenheimer” is a reminder of the true cost of this internal culture war over the Knesset’s judicial overhaul. Any talk of Israeli scientists leaving the country is unimaginable. A reverse aliyah to America—another divided country short on democratic consensus—and taking all that considerable brain power with it, is an affront to the Jews of Oppenheimer’s army who demonstrated how scientists are a nation’s ultimate weapon and first line of defense.

As for America, “Oppenheimer” should make some reconsider the disastrous consequences of “diversity, equity and inclusion” policies. Had such enforced rebalancing been implemented during World War II, we might all be speaking German and Japanese today.

Making our institutions more representative of America is a noble idea. And we should redress historical inequities when reasonable. But the Manhattan Project would not have been the place to do it unless the goal was an altogether different implosion—one that never left our continent.

Equity is righteous. Making oppressed groups feel better about themselves is virtuous. But if you want to achieve the impossible, math scores, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, actually serve America better. Objective, color-blind meritocracy will ensure that airplanes land safely, bridges remain upright, and kidneys won’t be mistakenly removed.

For those wishing to split the atom, cure polio, intercept rockets, and desalinate water, “Oppenheimer” is a telling reminder that it’s not a bad idea to start with Jews.

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro University, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.” 

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