Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Fish that Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen

This is a biography of Sam Zemurray, a Russian Jewish immigrant who became 'the banana man'.  Mr. Zemurray is objectively an outstanding success, a clear exhibit of the fulfillment of the American dream about one who started with nothing and gained fantastic financial success.  This book is a story, a history of the "Banana Republic", how business and government clash and collude to manipulate people and events.  It is a story of hot wars and cold wars, of revolutions and tyrannies.

The author is ambivalent about the protagonist.  Clearly the author is impressed with Mr. Zemurray's accomplishments - from a generation with drive and determination, vision to see real opportunities when no one else sees them.  As the details emerge, however, about mercenaries, social manipulation and crude crass and bald power the author becomes dismayed.  He shows the urge to criticize the protagonist's shortcomings - the disappointment of not raising a Jewish family or Jewish legacy even though Zemurray is instrumental in helping found the Jewish State of Israel through his fantastic philanthropy practically anonymously.

What seems clear to the author is that the example of United Fruit Corp. represents the worst of what America can be.  I found his analysis to be akin to 'monday morning quarterbacking' using hindsight and contemporary values from the Left to excoriate Zemurray.  Zemurray is depicted as fearless doer!  He is a tough Jew, not one to tremble at the sight of a challenge. His shear determination is limitless.

I found it fascinating that the author linked the murder of Huey Long with Zemurray which cast the 'banana man' as a very shadowy figure.  Chaim Weizmann, however, shows the generous side of Zemurray telling how copiously and effectively he gave to Zionist causes.  Tulane University owes much to Mr. Zemurray because it was one of his profound philanthropies.

I agree with the author about Zemurray not leaving a personal Jewish legacy - none of his surviving offspring practice Judaism but rather identify themselves as Christians.  One may conclude that the freedom of the USA and the relative quiet from Anti-Semitism contributes to such assimilation.  The priority and desire of a Jewish education, however, is probably more important in establishing a Jewish future and legacy, something that clearly did not occur to Mr. Zemurray.

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