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Who is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf?

March 16, 2020
4 min read

While the grounds of morality are not completely black and white, there are some things that never fall in the grey area. There is a simple yes or no, right or wrong to some questions and how someone can fail to see what’s right in front of them is beyond comprehension sometimes. We meet such a character in ‘The Plot Against America’, in the form of Rabbi Bengelsdorf. In the alternate reality where Lindbergh runs for presidency against FDR, the rabbi supports the man who leans towards the oppression of Jews. Can a rabbi really fall in line with such ideologies? Could Lionel Bengelsdorf be a real person? Here’s the answer.

Is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf a real person?

No, fortunately. The rabbi is not a real historical figure, unlike Charles Lindbergh, with whom he forges a strong connection. He is fictional character and the reason that he features so heavily in the story is to prove a very important point.

The story of the show revolves around the possibility of a fascist regime and how it takes hold of a country that was founded on the principles like freedom and liberty. For what happened in Nazi Germany, people often question how Germans could have fallen for his beliefs. While picturing the same prospect in America, Roth takes this question a step further and through the rabbi’s character questions how a Jew himself can be so blind as to fall for an anti-Semitic. And if a Jew can support Lindbergh then it doesn’t take much to see how someone else could be with him too.

But the rabbi’s inclination for Lindbergh isn’t something that just Roth just throws on us at once. There is a pattern in his beliefs which shows that he is prone to supporting the wrong ideologies, blinding himself to what actually lies beyond it. He is described as the man who stood against the suffrage movement because he believed that “if men are not capable of handling the business of the state, why not help them become so. No evil has ever been cured by doubling it.” One of the characters calls him a “pompous son of a bitch” who “knows everything—it’s too bad he doesn’t know anything else.”

Bengelsdorf sincerely, though mistakenly, believes that Lindbergh doesn’t really hate Jews, even if he spits out fire against them in his rallies and speeches. Instead of acknowledging his own neglect, he focuses on Lindbergh’s ignorance, even believing that he can change them. Further proof of the rabbi’s complete delusion regarding Lindbergh’s intentions and his allegiance comes from the fact that the rabbi has told himself that Lindbergh’s visits to Germany before his return to the homeland were not as a sympathiser, but as a spy for the US government.

“Far from his betraying America, as the misguided and the ill-intentioned continue to charge, Colonel Lindbergh has almost single-handedly served to strengthen America’s military preparedness by imparting his knowledge to our own military and by doing everything within his power to advance the cause of American aviation and to expand America’s air defences.”- This is what he thinks and this is why when the idea of projects like “Just Folks”, which is just another version of Hitler Youth, is introduced through him, he doesn’t bat an eye.

Roth’s intention in creating a character would have been to highlight our own blind-spots towards the wrongs that happen right in front of our eyes, but we choose to ignore them. Though he had not written the story as a political commentary of any sort for any government, the sentiment resonates perfectly with the current scenario. The character of Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf is to force the viewers towards their own blind-spots, to confront the wrong in front of them, and not make the mistake of supporting a man who spreads hatred through his words.

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