The centerpiece of this chapter is something most of us dodge at every opportunity: the dinner-table politics argument.
Every week, the Jewish News is recapping the latest episode of HBO’s “The Plot Against America,” which airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. EST and is available for streaming after on HBO Now. Catch up with episodes one, two and three.
It’s September 1941, and cousin Alvin has returned to Newark minus a leg and his last shred of dignity. His attempts at wartime heroism seem to have made hardly a dent on the psyches of the American Jews he so desperately wanted to fight for, while FBI pressure (they’re mad at him for fighting a war against America’s interests) successfully gets him ousted from a job with his own family. Adding insult to injury, Alvin must not only shelter under the Levins once more, but he’s also powerless to stop Sandy, the preteen cousin who once admired his rebelliousness so much, from journeying to the other side of the aisle and start shilling for all the values Alvin fought against.
Yes, Sandy is now the willing face of the Just Folks program, eagerly telling his schoolmates and synagogue about all the fun he had during his summer on the goyim family’s farm in Kentucky: “the people of ‘real America,’” as he so deftly puts it. And Aunt Evelyn is just beaming at all the wonderful potential her new model citizen has for this program, which promises to be her and Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s ticket into President Lindbergh’s inner circle. But it’s not until the happy couple dine with the Levins when they have to face any kind of opposition from the Jewish community for their political actions.
Thus, the centerpiece of this chapter of The Plot Against America is something most of us dodge at every opportunity: the dinner-table politics argument. A showdown between the slinky, soft-spoken Bengelsdorf and the principled, perpetually outraged Herman Levin was guaranteed to end in (rhetorical) bloodshed, and now we get to see it play out in real time. Bengelsdorf’s cheerful embrace of the Confederacy, correctly noting that many American Jewish landowners during the Civil War were happy to support slave-holding states, is a worrisome enough start to get Herman’s nostrils flaring — and a telling reminder that the true theme of David Simon’s show isn’t anti-Semitism but the persistent strand of bigotry that runs through people’s appeals for power in society.
But he’s just getting warmed up. Bengelsdorf’s later attempt to placate Herman goes disastrously wrong, as all his talk of assimilation and trying to help the Jews help themselves creates an unnavigable rift between the two men. Who has the right to tell the Jews they haven’t assimilated properly? On what basis? And how is such an opinion even tolerable in the United States?
Looking at the scene through today’s lens, the parallels to the Trump administration’s immigration policy are obvious … maybe overly so. But then Sandy rebels against his parents for refusing to allow him to attend a state dinner between the U.S. and Germany, calling them “ghetto Jews” and “worse than Hitler.” Suddenly, it’s clear that the reason bigotry and ignorance are such powerful weapons isn’t because they’re exerted upon us by some sinister outside force, like a presidential administration. It’s because they emerge from within us.
And that state dinner? Here we get the show’s first in-the-flesh glimpse at a Nazi historical figure, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who in real life brokered Germany’s WWII alliance with Italy and Japan and non-aggression pact with Russia. Plot’s horror show of a gala, in which “Herr” von Ribbentrop is honored at the White House while flanked by Nazi and U.S. flags, while Evelyn willingly offers a camera-ready dance to the man responsible for the slaughter of her own people, invites the question of how this man’s “diplomatic” magic could have worked if he’d had the chance to ensnare our country in it.
Notably, Lindbergh is barely seen at the dinner and completely brushes off Bengelsdorf despite constant assurances from the First Lady that the president really does care about the Jews. This fantasy the rabbi holds, that he could find a pathway to the president’s ear despite everything he knows about the man, appears to have always been just that: a fantasy, a naïve or calculated belief that access to power could make a bigot capable of introspection. Instead, all we get is a string of expected anti-Semitic invective from Henry Ford (appointed Secretary of the Interior in this show’s alternate history), and that photo seen round the world, which will finally turn Elizabeth against her own sister for good.
And Elizabeth is just about ready to turn on America for good, too, as she implores Herman to once again consider moving the family to Canada before it’s too late. But Herman is still too stubborn, or too rooted in his unwavering faith in the American ideal, to retreat to the Great White North. “It’s another place, another country,” he tells his wife. “It’s not my country.” But is America their country? With every passing day, it seems a little less likely.
Visit TheJewishNews.com every Monday evening for a weekly episode recap, and join the discussion on our Facebook page. And stay tuned: We’ll have a special surprise for the final episode.