The Tumblr-ization of the Second World War is underway, thanks to Oppenheimer discourse.
None of that made sense to you? Let me explain: The new blockbuster movie about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a principle physicist behind the atomic bomb, has inspired something of a cultural conversation about the Second World War and what that was all about. Is it really possible to speak of good guys and bad guys when actually the Allies were like super problematic, too?
I want to say yes, it is possible to do this. It’s also possible to keep multiple thoughts in your head at the same time, about the necessity of defeating Nazi Germany and the Axis; about the specific horror of the Holocaust; and about the fact that wars have innocent victims on all sides.
It should be obvious that even the people on the right side of the Second World War were products of their time, and held views that a 2023 progressive would find abhorrent. The same United States that helped defeat the racist Nazis stuck with its own explicitly racist legislation—the Jim Crow laws—until the 1960s. None of this is even getting into whether we think Joseph Stalin was a nice person. (Reader, we do not.)
In any case, we have this odd situation where some are funnelling the events of the 1930s and 1940s into a very-online, US-centric, 2020s-focused lens, producing interpretations that boggle the even mildly informed mind. Most notably, on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter (now “X,” a story for another time), there was the “uncomfy” tweet:
As one or two others pointed out before me, Oppenheimer was Jewish, a trait that rather reduced the white male privilege of people living during the Second World War, at a time when the Nazis and their many collaborators were committing genocide against Jews, and doing so on the basis of racial antisemitism.
Now whether the relevant fact was—as the reader-added “context” explains—that Jews were not viewed as “white” at the time is a separate matter. This, too, seems to channel things into a framework that doesn’t quite fit. Nazi racism was not the same as anti-BIPOC racism, in that Jews were not always a visible minority in Europe. Thus the yellow star, the Nazi way of establishing who was who, precisely because physical features didn’t suffice. This didn’t make Nazi racism any less vile—or deadly. Obviously. I say “obviously” but is anything obvious these days?
As for Oppenheimer’s own Jewishness, this has not led to a tremendous amount of casting choice hand-wringing, despite actor Cillian Murphy being (particularly) gentile.
Or has it??? There is, because of course there is, a piece, in the Times of Israel, with the headline, “Yes, White Actors Playing Jewish Roles Is Whitewashing.” The argument itself is whatever but what’s striking is the included image, credited to something called “Decolonized Zionism,” attempting to demonstrate, via an array of Ashkenazi celebrities (Amy Winehouse, Ilana Glazer, Sacha Baron Cohen, etc.), that Ashkenazi Jews aren’t white.
It’s like there’s almost a point to be made—the idea that Ashkenazi Jews are ‘the white ones’ oversimplifies what Jews with different backgrounds actually look like. But then you see this kind of bonkers image and it looks maaaaybe a bit Photoshopped (was Winehouse really that tan?), and there’s the inconvenient fact that most in the photo do look white by contemporary North American standards.
Still less convenient is that Oppenheimer himself looked a bunch more like Cillian Murphy than like Sacha Baron Cohen. People look all different ways, what are you going to do. Neighbourhood parents often ask me if such and such kid at the playground is mine and it’ll be a non-Jewish white kid of my acquaintance and I will be like no, that’s not my child, and I look—ethnically, at least—like a boring middle-aged non-glamorous-person version of the late, great Amy Winehouse. What are you going to do?