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How Israel’s Military Success Erased the History of the Diaspora’s Jewish Warriors

A discussion with historian Derek Penslar about why their valor has been forgotten, even though it made the Jewish state possible

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Posters in English and Yiddish, produced in Montreal during the World War I, show a soldier cutting the bonds from a Jewish man, who strains to join a group of soldiers running in the distance and says, “You have cut my bonds and set me free – now let me help you set others free!” Above are portraits of Rt. Hon. Herbert Samuel, Viscount Reading, and Rt. Hon. Edwin S. Montagu, all Jewish members of the British Parliament. (Library of Congress)
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The historian Derek J. Penslar starts his masterful new book, Jews and the Military: A History, with an anecdote. He gave a lecture about Jewish soldiers at a synagogue in Toronto, in the presence of many who had seen fighting in World War II and the Korean War—conflicts that were some the most vicious imaginable. But it was another man, who announced that he had served in the Harel Brigade in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, who received all the applause.

The episode, Penslar writes, stuck with him as an illustration of how “fierce pride” in Israel’s tradition of wartime success, however understandable, “casts a shadow over the millions of Jews who throughout modern times have served, as conscripts or volunteers, in the armed forces of their homelands.” As a result, he argues, the service of millions of Jews in the armies of the states of the West since the French Revolution is a dramatic story that has never been told in its entirety—in part because the collective memory of Jewish valor in the Diaspora almost been blotted out by the success of Israel’s self-defense, despite the fact that it paved the way for Israel’s fighting prowess.

Penslar reconstructs the story with an impressive blend of broad synthesis and targeted investigation. Most of the familiar elements of the story of modern Jewry, including emancipation, “assimilation,” achievement, persecution, genocide, and statehood, are there but look different thanks to Penslar’s novel angle on them. We are used to stories of the great social success that the emancipation process from 1789 on allowed in spheres like business, science, and the arts, but Penslar remedies our forgetfulness of the military as another sphere—and one of great importance—in which Jewish citizenship often meant national military service, at least for men. The modern state was long defined by its capacity to wage war, and Jews were emancipated into this aspect of citizenship too; indeed, the point of Jewish service was to prove that Jews were full members of the modern states where they made their homes.

One of Penslar’s key arguments is that, in the era of the 20th century’s world wars, the Zionist movement drew on the Diaspora tradition of serving the great powers, now in hopes of stimulating their diplomatic investment in a Jewish state. Penslar cites the Jewish Legion of World War I, founded after Vladimir Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor lobbied the British government to let Jewish volunteers participate in the liberation of Palestine from Ottoman rule, as proof of his point. If Jewish victimhood commonly justifies the state of Israel, Penslar shows that Diaspora traditions of Jewish warfare contributed to making it a controversial reality.

I invited Professor Penslar, who has taught for many years at the University of Toronto and recently assumed a new appointment at the University of Oxford, to discuss the importance of recovering this crucial aspect of Jewish history.

How did you come to write this book?

About 10 years ago an old college friend and I were chatting about what I might write about next, and he said he was intrigued by the moral dilemmas faced by Jews in modern armies who for the first time faced the prospect of fighting other Jews in the enemy army. This idea resonated with me, and it eventually became the subject of one of this book’s chapters.

There is a back story, though. Since graduate school I’ve been thinking about Jewish history in the context of the modern state and the tensions between Jewish solidarity, on the one hand, and acculturation and state patriotism, on the other. I like thinking about how the environment in which Jews live has influenced how they ran their communities and, eventually, the Zionist movement and state of Israel.

My books have in one way or another been about the relationship between Jews and state power. My first book was about the origins of Zionism’s technocratic elite, which was less visible than the political-military elite but still tremendously influential. I wrote another book about modern Jewish economic life that showed how important financial success was as a justification for Jewish emancipation and a source of power in the form of philanthropy. When my friend made his suggestion I realized that in my work I had always avoided dealing with the most blatant and destructive form of power, that of armed force. And so I decided to write this book.

Your discussion of power reminds me of David Biale’s 1986 classic Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History, which covers two millennia of Jewish attitudes to force but gives service in modern armies short shrift.

I read Biale’s book when I was in graduate school, and it’s been enormously influential. Biale presents Jews as subjects as well as objects, as wielders of power and not only its victims. By focusing on Jews as soldiers, I’m showing how deeply they were integrated into the modern state and how under certain circumstances Jews could exult in battle, conquest, and empire. This level of identification with the state was found mainly in Western Europe; in the Russian Empire, Jews saw the army much more as a curse, though even there most of them served honorably.

For me one of the most interesting features of the book is how the geography starts with Jewish emancipation into particular European states or empires and ends with perspectives on Jews and arms requiring transnational, international, or even global frames. How does the idea of military service as a dimension of state citizenship affect how we should think about the story of Jewish emancipation?

The modern idea of citizenship was inseparable from military service. One of the major issues in debates about Jewish emancipation in the late 1700s through the mid-1800s was whether Jews would be willing to fight and die for their countries. In Prussia in the 1840s, the government was inclined to bar Jews from the military in order to justify not emancipating them, but Jewish leaders urged the government to draft them, precisely so their rights could not be denied to them.

Also, we can’t separate Jewish emancipation from 19th-century concepts of masculinity. Women were not conscripted and were not thought to be political and social equals. Jewish community leaders and simple soldiers alike were proud that military service would give them the chance to prove the Jews’ valor, which was a key component of male patriotism.

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