Review: a Jewish Fruit Mogul and ‘Berserker’ Who Toppled Regimes

Rags to Riches: Sam Zemurray grew up poor Russian Jewish immigrant. He got into the fruit business and would up involved in all manner of global intrigue. (Photo via The Jewish Daily Forward)

Whether or not you’re likely to pick up the author and essayist Rich Cohen’s latest book, “The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King,” Austin Ratner’s review in The Jewish Daily Forward is an entertaining read in itself. As Ratner explains, Cohen tells the story of Sam Zemurray, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who came to America in 1891 with nothing but brains and ambition and went on to become a banana mogul at the helm of the United Fruit Company.

He was a font of rugged masculinity, a warrior, a “tough Jew,” as Cohen likes to say. He was, according to Cohen, “a berserker, who says, ‘if you’re going to fight me, you better kill me.’”

Cohen portrays the little-known Zemurray as a major figure in American history, Ratner explains.

Zemurray began with nothing. He was a Russian-Jewish immigrant from the shtetl. He peddled cast-off bananas in the American South, played the game of chicken with every enemy and problem, and eventually helmed the largest fruit conglomerate in the world.

Along the way, he overthrew the sovereign government of Honduras (in 1911), possibly had Huey Long killed, leveraged the United Nations votes needed from Central and South America to pass Resolution 181 (which acknowledged Israel’s independence) and overthrew the sovereign government of Guatemala (in 1954), unintentionally inspiring Che Guevara and Fidel Castro to communist revolution.

Ratner, who is himself a novelist, goes a step further than Cohen by drawing a connection between Zemurray’s ruthless consolidation of an industry built around an easily destroyed fruit crop and Israel’s military might.

Zemurray and others took size and strength as the anodyne against the banana’s fragility. They bought more plantations; they brutalized their competitors and detractors. Is this not also the comfort that Jews take in Israel? After centuries of vulnerability from exile, ostracism and genocide, the Jews consolidated their numbers and, for the first time since antiquity, raised an army. Does the correspondence between susceptibility and martial strength in fact lie close to the aching heart of masculinity itself?

Cohen raises the implicit question but is too wise to answer it directly. (I’m not. The answer is yes.)

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