WHO WAS ROBERT OPPENHEIMER?
Julius Robert Oppenheimer was a scientist who led the research into the atomic bomb in the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico for the Manhattan Project between 1942 and 1945. He is known as the “father of the atomic bomb.”
Oppenheimer was born to two Ashkenazi Jews, Ella Oppenheimer and Julius Oppenheimer, an immigrant who came to the United States from what is now Germany in 1888. Though Julius arrived to the United States with nothing, he worked from the ground up and raised his son in a middle class environment.
Though Jewish, the Oppenheimer family sought hard to assimilate. This was par for the course for many American Jews at the time, who had left behind 2000 years of relentless antisemitic persecution in Europe and wanted nothing more than to fit in as regular Americans. Nevertheless, systemic antisemitism at the time was widespread in the United States.
According to author Louisa Hall, “He grew up in a family that was very successful and therefore felt like they had a lot at stake, a lot to protect and to hold on to, and showing their Jewishness was not part of that equation. It seems like that success changed their relationship to their heritage and to Judaism.”
After developing the first nuclear weapon, Oppenheimer spent his last years advocating for peace and against the development of the hydrogen bomb. He also advocated against the United States pursuing a nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union. For this, his Jewishness, and his past communist affiliations, Oppenheimer was targeted during the McCarthyist period. He lost his security clearance and was regarded an enemy of the state, until the United States reversed this position in 2022.
THE PROBLEM WITH THIS PERSPECTIVE
Race is a social construct. While many continue to debate the race of white-presenting Jews today — a debate unrelated to this post, so please do not derail the comments — Oppenheimer wouldn’t have been considered white in the 1940s by any stretch of the imagination. This was true in both the United States, where Jews continued to be racially categorized as “Hebrews,” and certainly in Germany, where the Nazis had placed Jews at the very bottom of their racial hierarchy.
Oppenheimer simply did not experience life as a white man. During his lifetime, Jews experienced housing, economic, and professional discrimination, including academic and employment quotas. During his lifetime, two out of three Jews in Europe were exterminated over the span of less than six years. The United States rejected Jewish refugees — because they were Jewish — even after the Holocaust was over.
It’s also reductive to describe Oppenheimer’s complicated feelings regarding the Manhattan Project as the musings of a heroic white man. We know for a fact that Oppenheimer was well-aware of the Nazi persecution of Jews; in fact, in 1954, he told the United States Atomic Energy Commission that he had a “continuing, smoldering fury about the treatment of Jews in Germany.” The Nazis were carrying out a genocide against his own people at a pace never before seen in history as the entire world stood idly by; it’s not hard to see why working on the Manhattan Project would be appealing to a Jewish scientist.
Oppenheimer likely never even imagined that the atomic bomb would be used on Japan. He joined the Manhattan Project with the understanding that the Americans (1) hoped to create a nuclear bomb before the Germans would, and (2) that such a bomb, if it were used, would be used on Nazi Germany.
These are not the musings of a “privileged white man.” This is the experience of a deeply marginalized Jewish man who saw the world stand in silence as the genocide of his people was unfolding. Jewish stories too are deserving of nuance.
Additionally, it’s pretty outrageous to charge Oppenheimer’s story with “servicing white supremacy and the military industrial complex.” First, antisemitism is quite literally in the foundation of white supremacy. Oppenheimer’s story is a very Jewish story of the time period — on the one hand, he and his family worked hard to assimilate; on the other, he experienced serious prejudice and his work was motivated by the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. His story is in no way “in the service” of white supremacy. Quite the opposite.
Second, the “military industrial complex” quite literally abandoned Jews to die during the Holocaust. For more on this, see my post THE HERO NARRATIVE. Oppenheimer did what he did because he, unlike the American military, wished to save his people. Not only that, but to equate Oppenheimer with the American military seems suspiciously close to dabbling in antisemitic tropes about Jewish control and manipulation of world governments.
It’s interesting to me that the first people to say “race is a social construct” are also the first to continue perpetuating extremely rigid and Americentric ideas about race.
Please note: first, this is not a review of the movie as a whole. I’m not a film critic. This is simply a review of the Jewish representation in the film. Second, this is all obviously my opinion. You are welcome to disagree with me so long as you keep your disagreement respectful. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
The depiction of the Jewish experience in the Oppenheimer movie exceeded my expectations, but only because my expectations were really, really low, given the director and writer, Christopher Nolan, is not Jewish, and I don’t know how much he did or did not consult with Jewish historians regarding the Jewish experience of the time period.
I was glad that the movie emphasized that Oppenheimer was Jewish — I was genuinely afraid that they wouldn’t — and I was also glad that they mentioned the big role that the Nazi persecution of Jews played in his motivations, though I felt that this could be emphasized much more, since the real life Oppenheimer himself mentioned that he had a “smoldering fury” about Hitler’s treatment of Jews, which is definitely a strong choice of words. I also wish they had explored Oppenheimer’s desire to assimilate, and his lack of success with this.
It frustrated me that they completely bypassed the antisemitism and marginalization that Jews experienced in the United States during the period. For example, before Oppenheimer was admitted into Cambridge University, a professor included the following recommendation: “Oppenheimer is a Jew, but entirely without the usual qualifications.” We also know that when Oppenheimer tried to secure a position for a Jewish physicist friend at Berkeley, the head of the department told him that “one Jew in the department is enough.”
Richard Feynman, another of the Jewish scientists depicted in the film, for instance, was not accepted into Columbia University because of the Jewish quota. The head of the physics department at Princeton University was hesitant to admit Feynman specifically because he was Jewish. Another professor assuaged his concerns, writing in a letter, “[Feynman’s] physiognomy and manner, however, show no trace of [Jewish racial] characteristics.”
There was also no mention of how intricately connected the Red Scare and antisemitism were in the United States post-World War II. Jews were disproportionately targeted in these anti-communist campaigns, and given Oppenheimer was delegitimized and marginalized over his past communist affiliations, I think this would’ve been something worthy of mention and exploration.
SHOULD OPPENHEIMER HAVE BEEN PLAYED BY A JEW?
There is fierce debate within the Jewish community regarding whether only Jewish actors should play Jewish roles, or whether only Jewish actors should play Jewish roles when the Jewishness of the character is important to the story.
It’s true that there are plenty of Jewish actors in Hollywood; after all, Hollywood was literally created by Jews because, at the time, we were barred from working in other industries. However, many of us feel that Jewish representation in Hollywood is largely whitewashed to appeal to the wider public, contributing to both antisemitic stereotypes and misunderstandings of who the Jewish people actually are.
There is a long history of Hollywood whitewashing the Jewishness of Jews in show business, as well as whitewashing the Jewishness of Jewish characters. During the McCarthyist anti-communist campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s — ironically, much of the time period depicted in the Oppenheimer film — 10 Hollywood figures were cited for contempt of Congress and blacklisted in Hollywood; six of the 10 were Jewish. This is because McCarthy and his supporters wanted to make an example out of “Jewish Hollywood.” To protect themselves, the Jews that stayed in Hollywood switched to non-Jewish pen names.
Since the earliest days of Hollywood, Jewish Hollywood producers sought to make the Jewishness of the industry more “palatable” to the American public. For this reason, they largely whitewashed the Jewish experience.
Neither the actor who played Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) nor Einstein (Tom Conti) in the film are Jewish. Though they both did an excellent job, perhaps casting Jews would’ve added to the depth and nuance of the film. However, I think the biggest mistake of the film was not involving Jews in the writing process, as there were so many missed opportunities for tension and extra nuance relating to the Jewish experience.
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