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‘Nazi Town, USA,’ a new PBS documentary, examines the 1930s heyday of Hitler’s acolytes in the US

(New York Jewish Week) — Picture a group of children having fun at summer camp, learning archery, swimming and playing tug of war, all while the Nazi flag flies next to the American flag. Or a packed crowd at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, where men and women of all ages give the Hitler salute. 

These are some of the real-life disturbing images depicted in “Nazi Town, USA,” a new documentary about the German American Bund — a pro-fascist, pro-Nazi organization that, at its peak, had some 100,000 members in the United States — that premieres on “American Experience” on PBS on Tuesday.

The German American Bund (bund is German for “organization”), founded by German immigrant Fritz Kuhn in Buffalo in 1936, was created to promote pro-Nazi ideology within the United States. Kuhn and his cronies relied upon patriotic imagery such as George Washington and the American flag to attract Americans of German descent as members — but as Kuhn himself said, the organization’s goals were to create a “socially just, white gentile-ruled United States” and a “gentile-controlled labor union free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination.”

Filmmaker Peter Yost, who wrote and directed “Nazi Town, USA,” told the New York Jewish Week that he first became interested in the history of Nazi organization while helping his friend Marshall Curry with his Academy Award-nominated short documentary “A Night at the Garden,” which used archival footage, some of which can also be seen in “Nazi Town, USA,” of the 1939 “Pro-American Rally” at Madison Square Garden held by the Bund. 

“It’s amazing footage and it’s incredible that there are 20,000 of these Bund members inside Madison Square Garden,” Yost said. “It certainly begs the question, ‘If you can get 20,000 of them in this one spot, what the heck is going on in America at the time more broadly that enables that to happen?’” 

That’s the central question Yost explores in “Nazi Town, USA.” Using archival footage and photos of the Bund’s activities — many of which were shot by the Bund itself for promotional purposes — as well as interviews with historians, the film chronicles the rise and fall of the organization from its beginning through its peak and its ultimate collapse in 1941. 

The Bund was just one of hundreds of right-wing and fascist-friendly groups in the United States in the 1930s, but by focusing on one group, Yost was able to explore how and why fascism was so appealing to Americans at that time. “Often the best films, in my opinion, are ones that use a narrow story to tell a much bigger story,” he said. “While the Bund matters and is interesting, it really is a means to get at these bigger questions and explore these bigger ideas.”

Headquartered in New York City, the Bund was organized into 50 districts nationwide — indeed, the film’s name “Nazi Town, USA,” is meant to indicate that Nazi ideology, for a time, was widely embraced across the country.

“It resonated here for a reason,” Yost said. “It tapped into a lot of elements in America that were fascist-friendly, like the racist Jim Crow laws or very restrictive and race-based immigration laws. These were things that Hitler and the Nazis admired and even in some cases adopted for their Nuremberg race laws. They saw in many ways America as fertile ground for their ideas.”

A postcard depicting Camp Siegfried, a pro-Nazi summer camp in Yaphank, Long Island, in the 1930s. (Courtesy the Longwood Public Library’s Thomas R. Bayles Local History Room)

According to historian Bradley W. Hart, who appears in the film and is the author of “Hitler’s American Friends: The Third Reich’s Supporters,” certain “dark impulses” in American society come to the surface under the right circumstances — which is exactly what happened in the 1930s.

“This was a period of incredible turmoil in the U.S. You have the Great Depression, you have people who have lost everything,” he told New York Jewish Week. “At this moment, when you have dictators in Europe, people like Hitler and Mussolini, who are preaching hate and preaching that they have a solution to the real pain that people are feeling, it’s inevitable, unfortunately, that some will be attracted to that message.”

Enough people were interested in the Bund to make a business out of summer camps for families and children across the country, the most famous being Camp Siegfried in Yaphank, Long Island — a Suffolk County hamlet that also had a community called German Gardens with streets named after prominent Nazis.

“They had everything you would expect in a summer camp,” Hart said, emphasizing that many of the campers were city kids. “And this was a period when if you lived in the inner city, you didn’t necessarily have a car. You were looking for recreational activities for you and the kids. You were looking to get out of the city when there was no air conditioning.”

Reports from those camps are unsettling today precisely because of how relatable they are, he added.

“The accounts are anodyne-sounding in some ways: It’s a bunch of guys sitting around and drinking beers and the kids are playing and they’re talking politics,” Hart said. “It’s the kind of politics we find deeply appalling today, but the scene itself isn’t that different perhaps than what we might expect to go on in a camp — but then you have this deep ideological current of Nazism running underneath everything.” 

At these camps, Nazi flags were flown on flagpoles and swastikas adorned the bungalows’ roofs. What’s more, according to Hart, the Bund didn’t conceal their antisemitism in part because they thought many Americans would agree with them.

“They couch it as anticommunism,” he said. “They’re open about the kind of antisemitism that they think is going to appeal to a broader swath of Americans.”

The strategy worked, for a while: When the FBI investigated the Bund because they were looking into Nazi activities in the United States, director J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t that interested in shutting down the organization because he was so anti-communist.

While it’s easy to draw parallels between the 1930s and today — the rise in antisemitism, the divisive American politics — such comparisons aren’t explicit in the film. But viewers can draw their own conclusions.

“It’s a film about fascism and non-democratic politics. It’s a film about a moment in America where a number of people wondered if the American experiment was failing,” Yost said. “We were looking at a specific moment in time, and exploring why these ideas captured the imaginations of some people at that time, and so it engages a number of big questions that in many cases we’re still asking today.”

The documentary also shows that many Americans were willing to stand up to Nazism and fascism, such as journalist Dorothy Thompson, who warned about Hitler in her articles and who was also at the Madison Square Garden rally, heckling. There was a group of tough Jews known as the Minutemen who would break up meetings of the Friends of New Germany, a precursor organization to the Bund, and the Chicago Daily Times reporters John and James Metcalfe went undercover and infiltrated the Bund so they could report on their plans. 

Isadore Greenbaum, a 26-year-old Jewish plumber, risked his life to rush the stage at Madison Square Garden to yank the cables from Kuhn’s microphone. He was immediately beaten by the Bund’s security team, though the NYPD intervened and escorted him out.

“He really tries to strike the first blow against fascism in the United States — this is still years away from the U.S. fighting fascism in a physical way anywhere as a country,” Hart said. 

As large as the Madison Square Garden rally was, the fighting there represented a turning point for the German American Bund.

“That’s an incredibly powerful moment … because it reveals what the Bund is,” Hart said. “When that violence erupts on the floor of Madison Square Garden — the most important, I would argue, political and social venue in the country in 1939 — people can’t turn away from that. It becomes clear that the Bund is not just a perhaps eccentric cultural organization that has some views that most people don’t agree with, it truly does have a violent undertone to it.”

The Bund collapsed shortly after the rally, when Kuhn was found guilty of embezzlement and tax evasion. Though its heyday is largely forgotten today, Yost hopes that this documentary will help serve as a reminder and a wakeup call about the precarious nature of democracy.

“It can be disturbing to see how deep the roots are for some of these ideas in America,” he said. “But it can be somewhat comforting to see that America has faced great challenges before, and has raised deep existential questions about our system of government, and has come out the other side.”

“Nazi Town, USA” premieres on “American Experience” on Tuesday at 9 p.m. 

The post ‘Nazi Town, USA,’ a new PBS documentary, examines the 1930s heyday of Hitler’s acolytes in the US appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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DeSantis exits presidential race, potentially boosting Nikki Haley’s support among anti-Trump Jewish Republicans

(JTA) — Ron DeSantis’ decision to end his presidential campaign leaves Nikki Haley as the only serious challenger to Donald Trump, potentially consolidating her support among Jewish voters and donors who seek an alternative to the former president.

DeSantis announced his exit on Sunday after he came in a distant second last week in Iowa, the first nominating contest in the Republican primaries. The announcement capped a campaign in which the Florida governor was initially seen as the most serious threat to Trump but saw his support steadily decline as the primaries neared.

He had long staked out positions popular among pro-Israel conservatives and repeatedly traveled to Israel to demonstrate his support.  He has also aggressively taken on culture-war positions, including about abortion, LGBTQ rights and book bans, that have traditionally not resonated as much with Jewish voters. At one point, his campaign fired an aide who made a video promoting him that featured a Nazi symbol.

He has thrown his support behind Trump.

Haley, the former South Carolina governor and Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations, who has close ties to the pro-Israel establishment, has been a favorite among Jewish and pro-Israel donors who want to avoid a second Trump-Biden matchup in November. She garnered more support than any other candidate from the leadership of the Republican Jewish Coalition, according to a Haaretz report last summer, and multiple prominent Jewish Republicans have organized fundraisers on her behalf.

Whether those fundraisers take place will likely depend on the outcome in New Hampshire. Trump currently has a double-digit lead in polls. After his decisive win in Iowa, he said during his victory speech that he would end the current conflict in Israel “very fast” if he becomes president, without elaborating on how he would do so.

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Time to Huddle: Antisemitism on the Field

Daniel Peretz, goalkeeper for the Israel national team and Maccabi Tel Aviv, playing his last match at Maccabi Tel Aviv against NK Celje in the UEFA Conference League – Playoffs before his historic transfer to FC Bayern Munich in Tel Aviv, Israel, on August 24, 2023. Photo: Raddad Jebarah via Reuters Connect

JNS.orgAs unsettling and painful as the current wave of global antisemitism that followed the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in Israel is, it’s still important to remember that those bestial atrocities were an episode in, and not the fundamental cause of, the renewal and remodeling of this ancient superstition.

Where it all began remains a matter of debate. Many analysts nod to the U.N. World Conference Against Racism in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, where several of the memes visible in today’s pro-Hamas protests were rudely on display, as the point of origin. Others go back further, into the Cold War, when the Soviet Union ran a vicious campaign of anti-Zionist propaganda centered on the claim that Zionism is a form of Nazism. And one can go back even further, to the antisemitic riots and revolts targeting Jewish communities in British Mandate Palestine in 1929 and 1936. The point is that the basic message—Jews as colonial interlopers who must be destroyed—hasn’t really changed.

The other consideration is that certain sectors are more amenable than are others to anti-Zionist antisemitism, or antizionism, as I prefer to call it. Over the last two decades, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement seeking to quarantine Israel alone among the world’s nations has been the most tangible and energetic expression of contemporary opposition to Zionism. In the worlds of culture and academia, especially, boycotts of Israel and shrill rhetoric denouncing Zionism (or more precisely, a caricature of Zionism) have been the order of the day.

Regardless, then, of where and when we believe the current wave began, that discussion is less important than an assessment of where we are headed—and specifically, which spheres of human activity alongside art and education will start to echo the growing antisemitic chorus, both in their words and in their deeds.

The world of sport is emerging as the next battleground. It is a much more fearsome prospect; a row over an art exhibition featuring antisemitic caricatures or a lecture at a provincial campus promoting antisemitic tropes is, let’s be honest, a picnic compared to a row involving an athlete with instant, global name recognition.

Someone like the French soccer icon Karim Benzema, a former Real Madrid striker and winner of the coveted Ballon d’Or football (soccer) award who now plays in Saudi Arabia, and who this week announced that he would be suing Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin. A devout Muslim, at least outwardly, Benzema fired off an angry social-media post denouncing Israel’s “unjust bombardments” in the Gaza Strip. When Darmanin was asked about the post in an interview with a conservative broadcaster, he lambasted Benzema for his silence on the Oct. 7 atrocities in Israel and then charged that the player retained close links with the Muslim Brotherhood, the global Islamist network that includes Hamas.

Benzema angrily denied any links with the Brotherhood, accusing Darmanin of exploiting his fame—and notoriety—to push an Islamophobic smear. Now Darmanin may have to answer in court for his impulsive statement (it would have been more prudent to describe Benzema as an “echo chamber” for the Brotherhood) in a spectacle that will draw the French and international media like bees to honey. Benzema will present himself as the victim and will enclose the Palestinian population of Gaza in his victimhood in a circus that will only compound the fear prevailing among French Jews and bolster the view among hundreds of millions of soccer fans that the State of Israel is a criminal enterprise—whether or not he wins or loses any eventual court case.

The demonizing discourse about Israel now percolating in the world of sports is, alarmingly, being matched with acts of discrimination against Israeli and Jewish athletes—just as Jewish and Israeli academics, artists and musicians have suffered discrimination as a result of antisemitic agitation in their spaces.

Last week, Sagiv Jehezkel, an Israeli winger playing for the Turkish soccer club Antalyaspor, was arrested by security forces before being booted out of both his contract and the country. Jehezkel’s offense was to score an equalizing goal in a match against Trabzonspor and then celebrate by displaying his bandaged wrist to the cameras. On the bandage, Jehezkel had scrawled a Star of David and the words “100 days” (a reference to the continuing plight of Israeli hostages in Gaza) and “7/10” (the date of the Hamas pogrom.)

The reaction in Turkey was furious. Jehezkel was abused as a “Zionist dog” and accused of violating Turkish sensibilities. Should he ever return to Turkey, he will likely face arrest and prosecution. But it is unlikely that he will go back, just as it is unlikely that any Israeli soccer talent will find its way to Turkey for the foreseeable future. Sports in Turkey are effectively Judenrein.

There are good grounds to fear that a similar situation is emerging in South Africa, too, where the U-19 Cricket World Cup is currently being hosted. One week before the tournament commenced, Cricket South Africa (CSA), the sport’s domestic governing body, announced that it was removing David Teeger, the South African team’s sole Jewish player, from his role as captain, citing “security fears” about angry protests by Hamas supporters targeting Teeger as the official reason.

This was—in a word summed up by MLB Hall-of-Famer Kevin Youkilis, who declared his solidarity with Teeger—“bullsh*t.” Shortly after the Hamas pogrom, Teeger was the subject of a complaint submitted to CSA by pro-Hamas campaigners who objected to his remarks at a Jewish communal award ceremony, where he lauded “the State of Israel and every single soldier fighting so that we can live and thrive in the diaspora.” They argued that Teeger had brought the game into disrepute, though an independent commission reporting to CSA duly found that Teeger had not violated CSA’s code of conduct with his speech, clearing the way for the talented young batsman to be appointed as captain the following month.

Even so, the political pressure from the ruling ANC was unrelenting. It is no accident that Teeger was humiliated in the same week that South Africa launched a legal case against Israel at the International Court of Justice on the trumped-up charge of “genocide”—elegantly, if inadvertently, illustrating the inevitable domestic impact of an antisemitic foreign policy.

Here in the United States, Jewish professional athletes are unlikely, for the moment, to experience this kind of discrimination. Yet as the recent antisemitism scandal involving the NBA’s Kyrie Irving (and others in different athletic arenas before him) demonstrated, our sporting scene is as vulnerable as anywhere else to antisemitic propaganda, often of the crudest sort. It’s definitely time to huddle.

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Incredible Imbecility

Albert Einstein. Photo: Wiki Commons. – “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” — Euripides

“Two things are infinite: The universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe.” — attributed to Albert Einstein

As the fighting in the Gaza Strip drags on into its third month, it appears that the Israeli leadership is determined to jettison common sense, past experience and logical reasoning. Indeed, Israel’s leaders seem to have set their sights on adopting the failed, fatally flawed formulae of the past for “the day after” the fighting finally subsides.

A collection of collaborators and traitors

For example, one of the most prominently cited “plans”—for want of a better word—involves transferring the post-war civilian administration of Gaza to various heads of clans not affiliated with Hamas, who would be responsible for different parts of the Strip.

Those with a longer historical perspective will be struck by the remarkable resemblance between this proposal and the past attempt by Israeli authorities in the late 1970s and early ‘80s to install an Israel-sanctioned Palestinian administration, known as the Village Leagues, as an alternative to the PLO. The initiative, which initially had support from both the Israeli and Jordanian governments, eventually petered out in 1983.

Although the details might differ, the underlying principles of the Village League and clan leadership plans are very similar. Accordingly, there is little reason to believe that the overall outcome of the current plan will be any different. Just as the leaders of the Village Leagues were treated with suspicion and hostility by much of the Palestinian population, it is more than likely that this will be the case with any future Israeli-approved clan-based civil administration. According to one analyst: The Village Leagues consisted of “a coalition of rural thugs … who had no standing in the community.” The Palestinians saw the Leagues as a collection of collaborators and traitors.”

It is thus hardly surprising that some of the village leaders were assassinated by disgruntled kinfolk; a fate that could well await any compliant clan leader who chooses to collaborate with the “Zionist invader.”

90% of Hamas committed no war crime?

The likelihood of such hostility is greatly enhanced by the pervasive approval of Hamas—and the carnage it committed—among massive sectors of the Palestinian population. In a survey conducted on Dec. 13, 2023, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) found that 72% of the Palestinian public believes that Hamas’s decision to launch the Oct. 7 massacre was correct. In addition, while a staggering 95% of Palestinians think Israel committed war crimes during the current hostilities, only 10% think Hamas was guilty of such crimes. Conversely, only 4% think Israel has not committed such crimes, while 89% think Hamas did not commit any post-Oct. 7 war crimes.

Clearly, under such conditions, any artificially appointed administration, formed specifically to stymie a return to power by Hamas, is likely to face widespread enmity and distrust from the very population over which it rules.

But beyond the a priori implausibility of the clan-based proposal, there are grave questions as to its long-term sustainability. How long will the population in each clan-controlled section be confined to that section? What will regulate movement between sections? Clearly, an arrangement whereby a local population is subject to an externally imposed civilian administration and a foreign security regime is not a sustainable political arrangement and is hardly likely to foster any amicable sentiments towards Israel in the future.

No initiative approved by Israel will be acceptable

Significantly, the failure of the Village League experiment was not the only instance in which a move by Israel to appoint/anoint a pliant Arab ruler failed to attain its intended outcome.

After Israel’s 1982 invasion of southern Lebanon following the assassination of its ambassador Shlomo Argov in London by Palestinian radicals, Israel essentially endorsed the candidacy of Bachir Gemayel for president of Lebanon. It did so under the assumption that he would be a more cordial ruler towards Israel than any other. Significantly, one Lebanese deputy accused Gemayel of reaching the presidency “on the back of an Israeli tank,” while a pro-Palestinian academic compared him with Phillipe Petain, the French marshal who, as head of the Vichy government, collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

Shortly before Gemayal took office, he was assassinated in a bombing committed by a member of a pro-Syrian organization. Any notion of a Pax Israeliana (an Israeli-induced peace) was buried under the rubble.

As if anything further is required to consign the foolhardy clan-based scheme to well-deserved oblivion, the final nail in its coffin was hammered home by the prospective administrators themselves. The scheme was recently rebuffed with a caustic amalgam of utter rejection and universal ridicule.

According to sources in Gaza, “No initiative that Israel is behind will be acceptable.” In a gruff public statement, representatives of the Gaza clans rejected the Israeli plan, describing it as “ludicrous.” The statement went on to declare: “Talk by some of the leaders of the occupation that heads of clans will administer the civilian life in Gaza is utterly contemptible and totally unacceptable.”

Merely sound political science

Clearly, it is time for Israel to bite the bullet.

Israel must forego its illusions that somehow the Arabs will deign to pull its chestnuts out of the fire. Its leaders must finally realize that the political solution to the Gaza conflict is to be found by the inexorable logic of an almost mathematical algorithm hitherto studiously and tragically ignored by Israeli policy-makers: The only way Israel can ensure who governs Gaza is for Israel to govern Gaza.

Significantly, the only obstacle preventing this outcome and frustrating the overt desire of many Gazans is the hard-hearted callousness of Egypt. Cairo seems bent on compelling the hapless masses, huddled against its sealed border gates, to suffer the travails of war and hunger, pestilence and pollution, rather than let them seek their salvation elsewhere, outside the confines of the hapless enclave.

This is not radical right-wing extremism. It is merely sound political science.

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