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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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One of the most interesting dimensions of your book is the story of Jewish officers and their fame as exemplars in the Jewish world and beyond. You offer a novel reinterpretation of Alfred Dreyfus and the larger story of Jews in the French army, but apparently renowned Italian officers also came in for attention. And of course, there were Americans too—like Adm. Hyman Rickover, whom I recall my family talking about with great admiration.

Let’s not forget that the Dreyfus Affair, which unleashed torrents of anti-Semitic vitriol, was only made possible because the French state allowed Jews to become army officers. During the period of the Third Republic, there were 20 Jewish generals, and in 1895—the year Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island—there were 350 Jewish officers, 70 of them above the rank of captain. That might not sound like many, but given the small size of the Jewish population of France, Jews were overrepresented in the officer corps at least fourfold. Jewish officers were all over the French Empire—commanding gunboats in the North Atlantic, supervising fortifications in Algeria, marking the border between Indochina and Siam.

How did this happen? Although it had many anti-Semitic officers, the French army was officially meritocratic. Jews from poor backgrounds, the sons of rabbis and kosher butchers, were given full scholarships to the École Polytechnique, which produced artillery and engineering officers. Dreyfus’ story is tragic, but it was not typical. More representative would be that of Col. Émile Mayer, an artillery officer who persevered in the face of anti-Semitism and became a distinguished military theorist and a mentor to the young Charles de Gaulle.

In spite of Jewish loyalty to the nation and service to the modern state—which included funding wars, as you point out—you also emphasize Jewish cosmopolitanism. As the book reaches the 20th century, Jews found themselves on both sides of the world wars, but there is even more to your story. Like many recent historians, you have highlighted that Jews came to see themselves in modern times as an international political entity. How did Jews manage their multiple identifications in the 20th century?

This gets us back to my friend’s question that turned me to this project in the first place. As early as the French revolutionary wars, Jews proclaimed that the ultimate proof of their patriotism was their willingness to face other Jews in the field of battle. Jews continued to sound this note throughout the 1800s, and in World War I, Jews simultaneously declared their willingness to die for their countries and celebrated the heroism of Jews fighting for the other side. After the war, Jewish veterans formed national associations that came together for vast gatherings, which formed a transnational community of combat. At the international association of Jewish war veterans groups in 1935, held in the shadow of Nazi persecution of Germany’s Jews, the veterans honored the 12,000 German-Jewish soldiers killed in the war, and they were addressed by none other than Alfred Dreyfus, who died shortly thereafter.

Your book concludes with a treatment of 1948 as a “Jewish world war.” What do you mean? And how did the creation of the state of Israel then both confirm some of the trends your history lays out and lead people to forget how central the military has been for Jews in the Diaspora in modern times?

Israel could not have won the war without assistance from Diaspora Jewry. Almost 90 percent of the costs of weapons purchased by Israel in 1948 were provided by foreign, mostly Jewish, donations. Foreign volunteers known as Machal numbered only about 3500, but they comprised most of Israel’s infant air force. The Machal also included ground commanders, the most famous of whom was Mickey Marcus, who headed the Jerusalem front. But there were others, including the Canadian Maj. Benjamin Dunkelman, who commanded the 7th Brigade in the lower Galilee. And the ranks of the IDF were augmented by tens of thousands of new arrivals from Eastern Europe, some of whom had done military service before the war. So, in 1948 the line between an “Israeli” and a “Diaspora Jew” was a porous one.

In the years after Israel’s creation, the transnational nature of the 1948 war—and the general story of Jews as soldiers in modern armies—was forgotten. The Holocaust, so it seemed, demonstrated the futility of Jewish devotion to states that betrayed them. As anti-Semitism ebbed, American Jews felt less compelled to publicize their contributions to the nation. In an act of psychic displacement Israel became the focus of Jewish military pride, the epitome of Jewish valor and virility. Instead of commemorating the defense of states in the Diaspora, Jews celebrated Israel’s ability and determination to defend itself. In my book, however, I try to show that Israel’s military ethos is the product of not only the country’s geopolitical situation but also a long heritage of Jewish engagement with military affairs.

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