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The Jewish story behind ‘Oppenheimer,’ explained

(JTA) — Friday is not just “Barbie” release day — moviegoers are also planning to fill theaters across the United States to see Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” biopic.

Many hope it will answer a question that has long divided Americans and the country’s understanding of its history: Who exactly was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb?

Oppenheimer’s name has become “a metaphor for mass death beneath a mushroom cloud,” in the words of Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, whose 2005 book “American Prometheus” was adapted into Nolan’s film. But to fully understand the physicist, biographers have looked for clues in his belief system — an ethical code grounded in science and rationality, a fiery sense of justice and a lifelong ambivalence toward his own Jewish heritage.

Here’s a primer on his Jewish story, the other Jewish characters he met while developing the Manhattan Project and how the movie portrays it all.

The German Jew who was “neither German nor Jewish”

Oppenheimer was born in 1904 to German Jewish parents rapidly rising into Manhattan’s upper class. His father, Julius Oppenheimer, came from the German town of Hanau and arrived in New York as a teenager — without money or a word of English — to help relatives run a small textile import business. He worked his way up to full partner, won a reputation as a cultured fabrics trader and fell in love with Ella Friedman, a painter whose German-Jewish family had settled in Baltimore in the 1840s.

Their secular household embraced American society. The Oppenheimers never went to a synagogue or had a bar mitzvah for their son; instead, they aligned themselves with the Ethical Culture Society, an offshoot of Reform Judaism that rejected religious creed in favor of secular humanism and rationalism. Oppenheimer was sent to the Ethical Culture School in New York’s Upper West Side, where he developed an interest in universal moral tenets and a firm distance from Jewish traditions.

Although his parents were first- and second-generation German immigrants, Oppenheimer always insisted that he didn’t speak German, according to Ray Monk, the author of “Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center.” He also maintained that the “J” in “J. Robert Oppenheimer” stood for nothing at all — even though his birth certificate read “Julius Robert Oppenheimer,” indicating his father had passed on the Jewish name.

“To the outside world, he was always known as a German Jew, and he always insisted that he was neither German nor Jewish,” Monk told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But it affected his relationship with the world that that is how he was perceived.”

The real Oppenheimer shown in an undated photo. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Oppenheimer’s academic brilliance became a flimsy shield against the antisemitism that orbited his life. He entered Harvard just as the university moved toward a quota system over concerns about the number of Jews being admitted. Nonetheless, he kept to his studies and stayed aloof from the campus controversy, according to Monk. He even tried to befriend non-Jewish students, but the prevailing antisemitism mostly doomed those efforts and left him with a predominantly Jewish friend group.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1925, he conducted research at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and completed his PhD at Göttingen University — in pre-Nazi Germany — under Max Born, a pioneer of quantum mechanics. Before he got to Cambridge, though, a Harvard professor wrote him a recommendation that captured the institutionalized prejudice in academia: “Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications.”

Oppenheimer returned from Europe to teach physics at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley. While at Berkeley, he tried to secure a position for his colleague Robert Serber and was rebuffed by his department head Raymond Birge, who said, “One Jew in the department is enough.” He did not push back on the decision, later hiring Serber to work on the Manhattan Project.

The Nazi effect

Until the 1930s, Oppenheimer was resolutely indifferent to politics. Though he studied Sanskrit along with science and read classics, novels and poetry, he took no interest in current affairs. He later explained this at his infamous 1954 hearing before the United States Atomic Energy Commission — which, at the height of the McCarthy era, would end with him losing his security clearance over past associations with communists and support for left-wing causes.

“I was almost wholly divorced from the contemporary scene in this country,” he said. “I never read a newspaper or a current magazine like Time or Harper’s; I had no radio, no telephone; I learned of the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 only long after the event; the first time I ever voted was in the presidential election of 1936.”

But a profound shift occurred in Oppenheimer during the mid-1930s, as he watched family, friends and great scientific minds crushed under the tides of Nazism in Germany and the economic collapse at home.

“I had a continuing, smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany,” he said in his testimony. “I had relatives there, and was later to help in extricating them and bringing them to this country. I saw what the Depression was doing to my students… And through them, l began to understand how deeply political and economic events could affect men’s lives.”

In addition to rescuing family members, while teaching at Berkeley, he earmarked 3% of his salary to help Jewish scientists escape Nazi Germany. By World War II, his drive to defeat Germany would propel him to direct the Manhattan Project — the top-secret development of an American atomic bomb — at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico.

He was an unlikely candidate for the post. The FBI had already marked him as politically suspect for communist sympathies. He was a theoretical scientist, not an applied scientist with experience leading a laboratory. He wasn’t yet 40 years old. But Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Groves chose Oppenheimer as the Manhattan Project’s director in 1942 partly because he showed a burning sense of imperative.

“Oppenheimer said to Groves, ‘Look, the Nazis will have their own bomb project and it will be led by Heisenberg, who’s one of the leading nuclear physicists in the world. We need to move and we need to move quickly,’” said Monk.

Other prominent Jewish scientists felt compelled to join. Six of the project’s eight leaders were Jewish, along with a significant number of Jewish technicians, scientists and soldiers up and down the ranks, some of them refugees from Europe.

The Strauss feud

Although two atomic bombs ultimately dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not Germany — and Germany had already surrendered by then — Oppenheimer was hailed as a hero for his role in ending World War II.

But only nine years later, he was humiliated before the Atomic Energy Commission and stripped of his security clearance. Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the AEC, became suspicious of Oppenheimer for opposing the development of a hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer pressed for international control of nuclear weapons, believing the purpose of the atomic weapon was to end all war.

But Strauss had a different objective: U.S. supremacy over the Soviet Union.

Robert Downey Jr. portrays Lewis Strauss, who clashed with Oppenheimer. (Universal Pictures)

“Oppenheimer said you’d have to be crazy to use a weapon that was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. So his case was, ‘We can’t develop this thing,’” said Monk. “Lewis Strauss was inclined to think that the only person who would advocate the U.S. not developing a hydrogen bomb was somebody who had the interests of the Soviet Union at heart.”

Strauss also developed a personal hatred for Oppenheimer, who could be arrogant and supercilious. They came from very different Jewish backgrounds: Strauss was a committed Reform Jew with modest origins, who worked as a traveling shoe salesman instead of going to college. He identified closely with his faith and served as the president of New York’s Temple Emanu-El from 1938 to 1948.

“I think Strauss also had to navigate being Jewish in an American society that didn’t totally embrace Jews, and I think it was somewhat of a threat to him to have somebody like Oppenheimer whose approach to dealing with his Judaism was to hide it, basically,” physicist and rabbi Jack Shlachter told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In the film, Strauss is portrayed as having secretly orchestrated Oppenheimer’s downfall at the hands of the Atomic Energy Commission, in part by collaborating with Hungarian-Jewish physicist Edward Teller, who agreed with Strauss on the necessity of the hydrogen bomb.

How Nolan’s film portrays the story’s several Jewish characters

Bird writes an account of Oppenheimer running into Albert Einstein, one of the most famous Jewish figures of the 20th century, shortly before the 1954 hearing. The two men were friends and colleagues at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study; Einstein joined the faculty after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, while Oppenheimer became the institute’s director in 1947.

Einstein had signed a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, written by physicist Leo Szilard, that urged the development of a fission bomb in 1939. Einstein later regretted signing it.

According to Bird, Einstein urged his friend not to go before the AEC. He said that Oppenheimer had already done his duty for America, and if the country repaid him with a witch hunt, he “should turn his back on her.”

Oppenheimer’s secretary Verna Hobson, who witnessed the conversation, said he could not be dissuaded. “He loved America,” she said, “and this love was as deep as his love of science.”

Einstein responded by calling Oppenheimer a “narr,” or “fool” in Yiddish.

The movie makes considerable hay out of Oppenheimer’s relationship with Einstein, played by Scottish actor Tom Conti. The two men have frequent run-ins both during and after the development of the bomb.

Another Jewish physicist friend and colleague, Isidor Rabi, attributed Oppenheimer’s lifelong loneliness and bouts of depression to the distance he created from other Jews — a community that might have given him some solace from his own government’s rejection.

“Isidor Rabi said that his problem was that he couldn’t identify fully as Jewish,” said Monk. “Although Rabi wasn’t religious, when he saw a group of Jews, he said, ‘These are my people.’ And Oppenheimer could never do that.”

In the film, characters repeat Oppenheimer’s insistence that the “J” stands for “nothing,” rarely interrogating him on his Judaism. He never encounters any overt antisemitism directed at him. Yet the movie’s version of Oppenheimer, played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, does not seem as tortured by his Jewish identity as Rabi said he was in real life. At several points in the film, Oppenheimer bonds with other characters in his orbit over their Judaism and expresses anger at Hitler’s treatment of German Jews.

A group of physicists at Los Alamos in an undated photo, from left to right: Sir William Penney, Bea Langer, Emil Konopinski and Lawrence Langer. (Corbis via Getty Images)

The film’s Oppenheimer also claims to read German well, including the ability to read Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” in its original language. It’s part of the character’s lifelong fascination with languages, which also informs his famous utterance of the Bhagavad Gita quote, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

The only language the film’s Oppenheimer seems to have no interest in learning is Yiddish — a fact that Rabi (played by Jewish actor David Krumholtz) ribs him about at their first meeting in prewar Germany, when Rabi tries to bond with Oppenheimer over feeling like their kind isn’t welcome.

In the movie, Oppenheimer is also shown welcoming multiple Jewish refugee physicists to the Manhattan Project facility. Teller, played by Jewish actor Benny Safdie, is one of them, even though he becomes a key adversary.

As for Strauss’ character, played by Robert Downey Jr., he proudly mentions his key Jewish resume point early on in the film.

“I’m the president of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan,” he exclaims.


The post The Jewish story behind ‘Oppenheimer,’ explained appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Iran Attacks Israel: CNN Host Minimizes Barrage & Fake News Goes Viral

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel, April 14, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Iran launched an unprecedented direct attack on Israel on Saturday, sending at least 300 drones and missiles towards the Jewish state.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) coordinated with other militaries, including the US and UK, to intercept most of the projectiles, which were also supplemented by further rockets fired from Iranian terror proxies in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah also joined the assault, and announced that it had fired two barrages of rockets at an Israeli military base in the Golan Heights.

Hamas gained support for Oct 7 by inciting fear among Palestinians about Israel’s intentions for the Temple Mount.

Tonight, Israel protected their holy sites from missiles fired by Hamas’s patron Iran. pic.twitter.com/sluuiXgbzb

— HonestReporting (@HonestReporting) April 14, 2024

Fake News Goes Viral Overnight

As the skies above and surrounding Israel were lit up with rockets overnight, social media was also alight with fake news, videos, and photos purporting to be of the extraordinary attack.

While the majority of outright false information came from users on the platform X (formerly known as Twitter), Qatari mouthpiece Al Jazeera was also caught publishing a video that it falsely claimed showed rockets hitting Tel Aviv.

Meanwhile, infamous pro-Hamas influencer Jackson Hinkle was among the X platform users to share fake footage that he said showed “Israelis panicking” as the Iranian barrages hit Israel. BBC Verify journalist Shayan Sardarizadeh confirmed the video was actually of crowds in Argentina waiting to meet a musician. 

This video, posted by Jackson Hinkle and others and viewed nearly 5 million times, claims to show “Israelis panicking” as Iran’s missiles and drones reach Israel.

in fact, it shows Louis Tomlinson fans near Four Seasons Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina last week; verified by… pic.twitter.com/11tX9bL0sh

— Shayan Sardarizadeh (@Shayan86) April 14, 2024

Hinkle, who was recently banned from Instagram, posted numerous messages of support for Iran throughout the attack, including several posts praising Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and AI-generated images of planes dropping bombs.

Unsurprisingly, Iran’s state TV was behind the spread of many videos that purported to show catastrophic damage in Israel, including one that was actually of a fire in Chile that was filmed in February.

On the left: Iranian state media claiming this is footage from an Iranian missile which hit Israel.

On the right: the same footage from a fire in Chile in February.

𝐑𝐞𝐦𝐢𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐫 𝐭𝐨 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐈𝐫𝐚𝐧𝐢𝐚𝐧 𝐑𝐞𝐠𝐢𝐦𝐞: our defense systems intercepted 99% of their missiles. pic.twitter.com/xpLXGO3qd0

— Israel ישראל (@Israel) April 14, 2024

Perhaps hoping to ratchet up the tension, a number of users shared claims that Israel had immediately launched a drone counterstrike on Iran, including sharing videos of what they claimed was a fire in Tehran.

Others shared footage of the 2020 Beirut Port explosion, which they said showed Israel’s Mossad bombing the Iranian capital.

BREAKING: A massive drone strike has occurred in Iran’s capital, Tehran. The Israeli Mossad has already claimed responsibility for it. pic.twitter.com/Q9VdxI6heV

— GSPs Backup (@ConLibCon) April 13, 2024

The international media responded to the overnight attack with breaking news updates and rolling live coverage.

While most of the reporting stuck to the facts, there were a few instances of the media either downplaying the attack or obscuring the sequence of events that preceded Iran’s assault.

CNN pundit Christiane Amanpour, for example, ludicrously described the attack as “entirely targeted,” even though hundreds of thousands of Israelis were forced into shelters as large parts of the country remained under threat.

“It seems to be entirely targeted; it wasn’t an attack directed at the whole of Israel.”@amanpour, try telling that to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who were forced into bomb shelters or the 7-year-old girl critically injured by shrapnel to her head. pic.twitter.com/XtZaPY8zmR

— HonestReporting (@HonestReporting) April 14, 2024

The BBC and ABC News Australia did not specify in their headlines that Iran had fired hundreds of drones and long-range missiles at Israel, instead vaguely referring to the weapons as “objects.” Furthermore, ABC News Australia’s headline failed to mention Iran at all.

“Objects.”

Well done, @BBCNews. https://t.co/289O02VZRl pic.twitter.com/oo16CLpxk4

— HonestReporting (@HonestReporting) April 14, 2024

The New York Times, in its coverage, suggested that the attack was somehow justified by asserting that Israel had “bombed an Iranian embassy complex” in Damascus. In reality, Israel targeted a building near the embassy that was being used by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) leaders to coordinate attacks on Israel.

The Observer published an editorial mere hours after the attack, calling for any further escalation to be prevented:

Amid the present tumult, it should not be forgotten that this Iranian attack was provoked, according to Iran’s leadership at least, by Israel’s unacknowledged bombing on 1 April of an Iranian embassy annex in Damascus that killed several senior commanders. In Tehran’s not unreasonable view, that attack crossed a red line by targeting diplomatic premises.” [emphasis added]

Let us be completely clear: there is nothing “unreasonable,” as The Observer suggests, about Israel striking the infrastructure of the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism that was being used to mastermind attacks on Israel. Suggesting it was merely a diplomatic facility is nothing short of absurd.

According to @ObserverUK, “this Iranian attack was provoked, according to Iran’s leadership at least, by Israel’s unacknowledged bombing on 1 April of an Iranian embassy annex in Damascus that killed several senior commanders. In Tehran’s not unreasonable view, that attack… pic.twitter.com/sXidFByZTZ

— HonestReporting (@HonestReporting) April 14, 2024

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

The post Iran Attacks Israel: CNN Host Minimizes Barrage & Fake News Goes Viral first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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Hamas Leader Haniyeh Set to Meet Turkish President Erdogan

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, March 26, 2024. Photo: Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

i24 News — Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of the Palestinian Islamist terror group Hamas, is scheduled to visit Turkey for talks with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, according to reports from broadcaster NTV.

Erdogan had earlier confirmed the upcoming meeting while addressing lawmakers from his AK Party in parliament, reaffirming Turkey’s stance on Hamas as a “liberation movement.”

The meeting comes in the wake of a phone call last Wednesday, during which Erdogan offered condolences to Haniyeh after three of his sons were reportedly killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza.

“Israel will definitely be held accountable before the law for the crimes against humanity it committed,” Erdogan told Haniyeh, according to the AFP news agency.

Confirming the fatalities, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) stated that the three operatives killed in the strike were indeed the sons of Haniyeh, the chairman of Hamas’ political bureau. One of Haniyeh’s sons was allegedly involved in holding Israeli hostages. The IDF described all three as terrorist operatives in Hamas’ armed wing.

Erdogan’s support for Hamas has been evident amid renewed tensions between Turkey and Israel. Although the two countries announced the normalization of relations in August 2022, Erdogan has resumed his verbal attacks on Israel since the onset of the war in Gaza.

In one of his speeches, Erdogan harshly criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing him of committing atrocities in Gaza and dubbing him as the “butcher of Gaza.”

The post Hamas Leader Haniyeh Set to Meet Turkish President Erdogan first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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CAIR Accuses ADL of Spreading Hate, Despite Controversial Oct. 7 Comments

Nihad Awad, co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Photo: Screenshot

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has accused the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of fanning the flames of hate and called for the firing of its CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, for a recent comment he made that it was unacceptable for someone wearing a keffiyeh to chant “death to the Zionists.”

The accusation against one of America’s most prominent Jewish civil rights groups came after CAIR, another well known nonprofit, received widespread criticism late last year when its executive director said was “happy” to see Gazans “break the siege” during the Hamas terror group’s Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel.

CAIR on Monday released a letter with more than 60 other organizations, labeling Greenblatt, who is widely perceived as politically liberal, as an “extreme [supporter] of the Israeli government” who has “smear[ed] Palestinian human rights advocates.”

The letter alleged that Greenblatt “analogiz[ed] the Palestinian keffiyeh to the Nazi swastika” during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe television program late last month.

On the show, Greenblatt said that people should be concerned about the tactics of anti-Israel activists on college campuses because when they graduate they would be joining “your board rooms, they’re going to editorial boards, they’re going to the assignment desk of news networks.”

He argued that “if you wouldn’t tolerate” someone saying “death to the Zionists, I wish for that and worse” while they were “wearing a swastika on their arm, I’m sorry, you should not tolerate it if you’re wearing a keffiyeh on their head.” He further noted it was wrong to call for “death to” anyone.

CAIR’s letter did not directly quote Greenblatt’s comment, instead only opting to include the group’s  interpretation of it. 

The letter also alleged that the ADL chief has refused to clarify what he said.

Greenblatt responded to CAIR’s claims in a statement to The Algemeiner.

“Comments I made weeks ago are unsurprisingly being taken entirely out of context by CAIR, an organization that seems to specialize in fiction rather than fact,” he said. “To be crystal clear: hate speech calling for the death of people should not be tolerated whether the person is wearing a Nazi armband or a keffiyeh, a kippah or a cross, or anything else for that matter.”

“I’m not comparing the garb,” Greenblatt emphasized. “I’m comparing the hate speech and how it shouldn’t be tolerated from anyone, period.”

This week’s spat between the two organizations came after the head of CAIR said he was “happy” to witness Hamas’ rampage across southern Israel on Oct. 7, when the Palestinian terrorist group invaded the Jewish state from neighboring Gaza, murdered 1,200 people, and kidnapped 253 others as hostages.

“The people of Gaza only decided to break the siege — the walls of the concentration camp — on Oct. 7,” CAIR co-founder and executive director Nihad Awad said in a speech during the American Muslims for Palestine convention in Chicago in November. “And yes, I was happy to see people breaking the siege and throwing down the shackles of their own land, and walk free into their land, which they were not allowed to walk in.”

Awad was referring to the blockade that Israel and Egypt enforced on Gaza after Hamas took control of the Palestinian enclave in 2007, to prevent the terror group from importing weapons and other materials and equipment for attacks.

About a week later, the executive director of CAIR’s Los Angeles office, Hussam Ayloush, said that Israel “does not have the right” to defend itself from Palestinian violence. He added in his sermon at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City that for the Palestinians, “every single day” since the Jewish state’s establishment has been comparable to Hamas’ Oct. 7 onslaught.

CAIR has long been a controversial organization. In the 2000s, it was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation terrorism financing case. Politico noted in 2010 that “US District Court Judge Jorge Solis found that the government presented ‘ample evidence to establish the association’” of CAIR with Hamas.

According to the ADL, “some of CAIR’s current leadership had early connections with organizations that are or were affiliated with Hamas.” CAIR has disputed the accuracy of the ADL’s claim and asserted that CAIR “unequivocally condemn[s] all acts of terrorism, whether carried out by al-Qa’ida, the Real IRA, FARC, Hamas, ETA, or any other group designated by the US Department of State as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organization.’”

The post CAIR Accuses ADL of Spreading Hate, Despite Controversial Oct. 7 Comments first appeared on Algemeiner.com.

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