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To some free speech advocates, he was a hero; to Richard Nixon, he was an ‘arrogant intellectual Jew’

Daniel Ellsberg, famous for the ‘Pentagon Papers,’ has died at 92

Daniel Ellsberg, the political activist who died June 16 at age 92, proved that Jewish identity can survive baffling permutations and digressions.

In 2008, Ellsberg admitted to journalist James Rosen that he had only visited a synagogue once in his life, to lecture about the Pentagon Papers, a U.S. Department of Defense history of American political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967, which he chose to make public, to much fanfare, in 1971.

Yet Ellsberg claimed: “My parents always said we’re Jewish, but not in religion.”

“I was a Jew and I am a Jew,” he said. “By [President Richard Nixon’s] definition, I’m 100 percent a Jew, as I would be under Hitler’s.”

Ellsberg, an officer in the U.S. Marines who supported the Vietnam War and later spent two years stationed there on a U.S. State Department military mission to win the struggle, changed his mind after deciding victory was impossible.

The leaked government papers showed that a series of U.S. presidents had reached the same conclusion over decades, but dissembled to the American public. Ellsberg’s action horrified then-President Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, a German-born Jew who was further embarrassed because Ellsberg had lectured at Kissinger’s defense policy seminars at Harvard in the 1960s.

In June 1971, according to recorded office tapes, Nixon ordered his minions to “destroy” Ellsberg:

“I don’t care how you do it.” Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman: “You can’t let the Jew steal that stuff and get away with it. You understand? People don’t trust these Eastern establishment people. [Ellsberg is] Harvard. He’s a Jew. You know, and he’s an arrogant intellectual.”

Indeed, Ellsberg had earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in economics, specializing in decision theory. He invented what would be called the Ellsberg paradox, suggesting that people are averse to ambiguity when they must make choices.

Paradoxes and ambiguities abounded in Ellsberg’s unorthodox experience with Judaism. He was born to parents of Russian Jewish origin who met in Denver, where his mother worked at the National Jewish Hospital. The Ellsbergs were leftist freethinkers who later embraced Christian Science.

In Denver, biographer Tom Wells states, the Ellsbergs “had nothing to do with Judaism,” liturgically and culturally speaking. They were the sole family in their neighborhood “who had no connection with Judaism at all.”

Instead Ellsberg’s paternal grandfather, a fervent socialist, bragged about having romanced the celebrated Lithuanian Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman. Young Daniel Ellsberg himself adulated the more establishment-leaning side of the family, represented by his uncle Edward Ellsberg, a rear admiral who was among the few early Jewish graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy.

His uncle’s example of military rectitude helped Ellsberg survive a childhood overshadowed by antisemitic taunts from classmates and his mother’s determination to make him a piano virtuoso to rival Vladimir Horowitz or Arthur Rubinstein.

Browbeating Ellsberg in what friends saw as classic Jewish stage-mother style, she hired a harsh keyboard taskmaster who gave the aspiring musician lessons for a decade, starting at age 5.

Finally, Mischa Kottler, a Ukrainian Jewish virtuoso, proclaimed that while Ellsberg could play a handful of pieces acceptably, if mechanically, his lack of sight-reading ability precluded a professional career.

Soon afterwards, Ellsberg’s mother and sister were killed when his father fell asleep at the wheel and crashed the family car in Iowa. Ellsberg mainly expressed relief at the loss of his willful, overpowering mother.

In a 2017 interview with the Financial Times, an octogenarian Ellsberg was still blaming his mother for stubbornly making bad choices that led to the fatal accident; he likened her precedent to world authorities who are driving humanity to the brink of nuclear disaster.

Ellsberg concluded to the FT reporter: “The human race would not go extinct from a nuclear winter. One or two per cent of us would survive, living on mollusks in places like Australia and New Zealand. Civilization would certainly disappear. But we would survive as a species.”

Exactly how to take such statements was anyone’s guess, due to Ellsberg’s longstanding habit of enigmatic discourse. By the time Ellsberg had reached Harvard in 1948, according to a friend, the poet Donald Hall, “[Ellsberg] didn’t know he was a Jew. He thought of Judaism [solely] as a religion. In his naïveté.”

At the time, Ellsberg was not especially interested in the new State of Israel; Hall recalled that Ellsberg “talked about being a Jew as if somebody else was a Jew, not him.” Hall found it odd that Ellsberg, at age 18, did not realize that “after Hitler, that the word Jewish did not just mean a flavor, like … a Methodist.”

After graduation, Ellsberg was hired by the RAND Corporation, a think tank that formulated military strategy. There, a colleague, the German Jewish political scientist Konrad Kellen, was shocked when Ellsberg announced in the late 1960s that the way African Americans were treated in the U.S. was “exactly like the Nazis treated the Jews.”

To which Kellen responded: “Dan. I mean, Auschwitz? Women, children, and old men being shot with machine guns and thrown into ditches that they had first to dig. I mean, how can you — a Jew, an intelligent person, and a man who has traveled — how can you say that?”

Kellen conceded that African Americans were clearly treated “very poorly” in the U.S., but questioned the terms Ellsberg chose nonetheless.

A habit of making questionable analogies, however well meant, would follow Ellsberg into old age. He would eventually liken his own actions in one historical context to dissimilar betrayals by later offenders like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

Kellen diagnosed Ellsberg with a “sort of exaggerated mind, somebody whose mind runs away with him in a strange way.”

Likewise, Ellsberg’s successful legal defender, attorney Stanley K. Sheinbaum, would recall in 1984 that Ellsberg could be a challenging conversationalist, constantly going off on tangents, although occasionally Ellsberg would drop a bon mot such as: “Conservatives are strict constitutionalists minus the first 10 amendments.”

After the much-heralded Pentagon Papers publication, Ellsberg was scorned as a “disgrace to the Jewish people” by Bernard Barker, a future Watergate burglar and undercover operative of Jewish origin.

A more astute observer, the political theorist Hannah Arendt, noted that governments lying were hardly anything new, nor did the Pentagon Papers really contain startling revelations, or evidence of sustained conspiracy by successive presidencies, despite Ellsberg’s claims.

Even so, Ellsberg’s name retained a prestigious aura for his risking imprisonment for truth-telling. In 2002, the political analyst Akiva Eldar asked, “Where Is Israel’s Daniel Ellsberg?” calling for a whistleblower to expose Gen. Ariel Sharon’s war on terror in the Middle East.

In 2021, Ellsberg released classified Pentagon documents from 1958 about a planned nuclear attack on China during tensions over the Taiwan Strait.

This late development proved that Daniel Ellsberg was lastingly inspired by an offbeat Jewish upbringing to become a constant opponent to the status quo.

In some ways like the Greek philosopher and societal critic Diogenes, also prone to publicity stunts, Ellsberg’s deeds had added panache inspired by Yiddishkeit.

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