Having successfully separated impressionable Jewish youth from their families, the Just Folks program now moves into its next, more chilling phase.
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, three and four.
Having successfully separated impressionable Jewish youth from their families, the Just Folks program now moves into its next, more chilling phase: separating Jewish families from their communities. Now renamed “Homestead 42,” this centerpiece legislation of the Lindbergh administration is compelling companies employing large numbers of Jews to transfer their Jewish employees to offices in rural America. As Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf sees it, this will “absorb American Jewry into the mainstream;” as Interior Secretary Henry Ford sees it, this is a way to finally get rid of those pesky Jews once and for all.
The Motor City mogul has a big scene here, chairing a meeting where he scoffs at the idea that the Jews have no choice in the matter of their own futures. “If the Jewish people want to keep these jobs, they have the opportunity to move to where the jobs will now be. Or not,” he says, articulating how fascist concepts might look in a society like ours: paychecks and cash flow creating the illusion of free will. Bengelsdorf can no longer have the luxury of pretending he doesn’t hear the dog whistles all around him. (Is it any surprise why President Lindbergh would stock his cabinet with crypto-fascist businessmen who share his inclinations about Jews?)
It’s all blanket bigotry to Ford. But for our heroes the Levins, Homestead 42 is a specific kind of retribution, as Herman’s insurance company informs him that in order to keep his job, he must relocate the family to Danville, Kentucky — just a stone’s throw away from where Sandy spent his magical summer on a farm. Aunt Evelyn targeted them, sending the family away because she thinks it’s for their own good.
As the parents contemplate what Jewish life in Danville must be like (“Synagogue? I’m sure there isn’t a minyan”), Philip pays a visit to Evelyn himself to try to save his family. He begs her — successfully, it will later turn out — to sacrifice his dweeby next-door neighbor Seldon in their place, forcing his widowed, retired mother to move her son to Danville just to keep her tiny pension.
But Herman has one more trick up his sleeve, and it’s the one Ford himself suggested: the power to quit. Finally coming to the conclusion that company loyalty means nothing in a capitalist society (the same employers who offered him a hefty promotion at the series outset are now perfectly willing to throw him aside to appease Lindbergh’s cronies), he leaves his longtime career to take up manual labor at his brother’s warehouse. Thus, he’s freed the family from the obligation to accept the “offer” of the transfer … and also unwittingly doomed Seldon’s family to an ominous future in rural Kentucky by themselves.
There seems to be only one hope left for America in Herman’s eyes: his favorite talk-radio host, the fiery anti–fascist personality Walter Winchell. In real life, the Jewish Winchell was indeed one of the first media figures in America to attack Hitler, the Nazis and the rising fascist movement on the homefront, and was also a supporter of Civil Rights legislation, although his politics were not as clear-cut as all that (he later became a vocal proponent of McCarthyism). Winchell was not above a bit of yellow journalism himself, frequently resorting to name-calling and flinging inflammatory allegations at his political enemies.
In the Plot Against America universe, Winchell is forced off the air for attacking Lindbergh and decides to mount a presidential campaign himself. (Hey, stranger things have happened in 2020 politics... or 2016 politics.) But imagine how the first Jewish presidential candidate in American history would have been received in 1942, with or without a fascist president. Now try to be shocked about what happens in this case: a Winchell rally in Newark met with a violent, pro-Lindy street gang and cops who seem all too happy to look the other way as attendees are brutally beaten.
In history class we often wonder how everyday German civilians could have been so complacent in the face of Nazi rule. But we need to remember that this response is what awaits those who would dare openly challenge a demagogue, in any society. The people who think he has their back tend to fight tooth and nail to keep their man in power. So, if the time came, what would we do?
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