Strange conversation

I had an amazing conversation at breakfast at the Faculty Club at the Hebrew
University Givat Ram campus this morning, the most interesting since I have
been going there every week practically for 3 years. There are only a few
tables so another visitor sat next to me. He introduced himself as Prof.
Belletri from Italy but working in Germany, and he is an expert on
German-Jewish relations. Of course, I mentioned to him that I had just read
the book by Amos Elon (a Prof. at the HU) entitled “The pity of it all..: a
history of the German-Jewish epoch 1743-1933.” I was surprised that he had
not heard of the book, but we discussed the interaction of the Jews and
Germans, and he told me that the first Jewish Professor Emma Cohen was
appointed in Germany in 1876. This accords with the fact that as far as
Jews were concerned Germany was the most liberal country in Europe (probably
including the US) between the 1870’s and 1910’s.
At this point we were interrupted by another visitor, an Israeli Arab
Professor of Astronomy Ahmed Hakarala (?) who graduated in Heidelberg, and
said he could not help overhearing our conversation, and he wanted to pose
a question that had been bothering him for some time, namely what would
have happened if Germany had used German Jews to help them perfect the
atomic bomb early enough to use in WWII. Now one has to ask why such
a question would be important to an Israeli Arab astronomer, but I did
not raise that issue.
I told him that this question was not entirely new to me, and that I had
had an ongoing discussion many years ago with a German woman, wife of
one of my friends, when we were students in Cambridge. She said
that the Jews were responsible for the development of the atomic bomb,
and therefore responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people.
It seemed to me that this was an attempt to diffuse German guilt for the
murder of 6 million Jews by trying to blame the Jews for something, just as
many Europeans today blame Israel for the “suffering” of the Palestinians.
Since I had argued this topic many years ago I had some answers to his
1. Jews were not entirely responsible for the development of atomic
knowledge, in fact Madame Curie and her husband had discovered radioactivity
and yet one does not blame them or “the French” for the deaths of many
people due to their discovery. If that is so why blame “the Jews.” Also,
only a few Jewish physicists (e.g. Lise Meitner) were capable of
contributing to atomic knowledge at the time, therefore to blame all Jews is
essentially a racist attitude.
2. He countered that those who developed the atomic bomb were mostly Jews,
such as Oppenheimer. I pointed out that the development of the bomb was not
a Jewish concern, but a National US concern, governments develop such bombs
not individuals. In fact, the person in charge of the Manhattan project was
General Groves, who was not Jewish, and there were many Jews and non-Jews
involved in the project, which ones should be blamed?
3. One cannot predict history, it is unpredictable. So one cannot presume
that IF the Germans had made faster progress, and IF German Jews had been
forced or agreed (as good Germans) to work on the atomic bomb,
and IF they had made sufficient progress, that they would have been able to
produce a bomb that the Germans could in fact deliver before 1945.
4. To illustrate this last point I told them about the play “Copenhagen” by
Michael Frayn that we saw in London two years ago. This concerned a
conversation that took place in 1940 between Niels Bohr, the half-Jewish
Danish originator of the theory of atomic structure, and his former student
Werner Heisenberg, a famous physicist and then the director of the
German/Nazi atomic program during WWII. No-one knows what was said during
this conversation, but it made Bohr decide immediately that he must escape
Denmark, which he did in a small boat to Britain. It is speculated that
during this conversation, for which Heisenberg went specifically to Denmark,
Heisenberg revealed the status of the German atomic program and asked for
Bohr’s help in checking their calculations. It has been shown by looking at
the original papers that the Germans had made a mistake in the calculation
by a factor of around 10 for the amount of U235 required to sustain a chain
reaction. At that time it would have been impossible for the Germans to
isolate that amount of U235 from natural uranium, and so they could not
develop the bomb. Now if Bohr had told Heisenberg of this mistake the end
of the war might have been different. It is speculated that his sudden
change of mind to escape Denmark was so that he could not be arrested and
under torture reveal to the Germans their mistake, and also that he wanted
to pass the information urgently on to the allies. Whatever the reasons,
this one conversation could have changed the course of history. So history
is unpredictable and one should not base assumptions about a group’s guilt
or innocence on possible alternatives to what actually happened in history.
5. Further, atomic knowledge, like all scientific information, is not evil
in itself, it is the use to which it is put that is potentially evil.
This was a very amicable, intellectual and intense conversation, I wonder
what its true significance was.


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