The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Lawrence Freed­man

IN 1938, the Bri­tish govern­ment had be­lat­edly ac­cepted that war with Ger­many was prob­a­ble and so the armed forces were rearm­ing and re­cruit­ing. My fa­ther wanted to fight the Nazis and was not short of am­bi­tion, so he de­cided to ap­ply to be an of­fi­cer in the Royal Navy. He was, how­ever, an un­likely can­di­date: Jewish, work­ing-class, from the north-east of Eng­land and an early school-leaver. At the time, how­ever, he was an ap­pren­tice sur­veyor and the re­cruit­ment board as­sumed, in­cor­rectly, that this mean he un­der­stood log­a­rithms. So it was that he was ac­cepted for the Royal Navy Staff Col­lege and soon be­came the first Jewish of­fi­cer in the Fleet Air Arm. He flew in the Sword­fish bi­plane, aptly known as the “string­bag”. It went so slowly that he was able to walk away from a num­ber of crashes.

My fa­ther’s war was busy, in­clud­ing a tough time in Malta. When he left the navy in 1946 he had reached the rank of Lieu­tenant Com­man­der. There­after, he al­ways wanted to be known as Lt Cdr Freed­man RN (rtd). Not only was he proud of his war ser­vice but also he felt it im­por­tant to demon­strate that Jews had ac­tu­ally fought. De­spite the rev­e­la­tions about the Holo­caust, an­tisemitism still lurked around Bri­tish so­ci­ety. It could be found in sug­ges­tions that the war had been fought for Jews, per­haps to the fi­nan­cial ben­e­fit of Jews, but not re­ally by Jews. My fa­ther there­fore wanted to counter ac­cu­sa­tions that Jews were shirk­ers and, with their dual loy­al­ties, not truly pa­tri­otic.

Why is it so read­ily as­sumed that, other than in Is­rael, Jews and mil­i­tary ser­vice do not mix? The idea that Jews are averse to, and have no ap­ti­tude for, mil­i­tary ser­vice has a num­ber of sources. A ma­cho self-im­age has hardly been cul­ti­vated in the con­tem­po­rary di­as­pora. As a group which has his­tor­i­cally been weak, vic­timised and marginalised, there could be no ex­pec­ta­tion that brute force could ever suf­fice, and so in­stead wit and guile has been seen as the key to sur­vival and pros­per­ity.

The pre­sump­tion that Jews were an­tipa­thetic to mil­i­tary ser­vice played into an­tisemitic pro­pa­ganda. Out of this came sto­ries of Jewish fi­nanciers en­joy­ing war as a set of lu­cra­tive in­vest­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, sup­port­ing arms deals to any and all bel­liger­ents; of transna­tional Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in­dif­fer­ent to na­tional causes; and of Jewish men as in­stinc­tive shirk­ers and ma­lin­ger­ers, do­ing their ut­most to avoid the hard­ships and rigours of war­fare, so that even those in uni­form man­aged to find du­ties far away from the front line.

The his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tion for this wary at­ti­tude to mil­i­tary ser­vice is found in old Rus­sia, where Jews were con­scripted for the Tsar. As this was a coun­try where Jews were also vic­timised and al­lowed few rights, con­scrip­tion was of­ten the last straw and was a ma­jor rea­son for emi­gra­tion — in­clud­ing, I be­lieve, my own for­bears.

Re­luc­tance to be as­so­ci­ated with the Tsarist regime was one rea­son that some Jews were am­biva­lent about the Al­lied cause dur­ing the First World War, al­though the chance to un­der­mine the Ot­toman Em­pire came to of­fer a con­trary ap­peal.

Else­where in Europe, in coun­tries where there was some hope of be­ing treated as equal cit­i­zens, at­ti­tudes were dif­fer­ent. In France, Ger­many and Bri­tain, Jews saw ad­van­tage in demon­strat­ing their loy­alty to the state. Jewish lead­ers, re­li­gious as well as sec­u­lar, in their anx­i­ety to make this point, ac­tively en­cour­aged young men to join the army. The fact that this led to Jews fight­ing Jews —in Crimea, in the Franco-Prus­sian war, in the First World War — was help­ful po­lit­i­cally, if de­press­ing per­son­ally.

The tales, of­ten apoc­ryphal, of a sol­dier com­ing across a dead en­emy com­bat­ant who turned out to be a blood re­la­tion, could be of­fered as elo­quent if poignant demon­stra­tions of just how well the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of ci­ti­zen­ship were un­der­stood. There was no surer way of demon­strat­ing true com­mit­ment than be­ing ready to fight one’s own people. Chris­tians killed their co­re­li­gion­ist in war; so could Jews.

This is the re­mark­able his­tory re­cov­ered by Derek Penslar in his fas­ci­nat­ing, metic­u­lous sur­vey of Jews and the Mil­i­tary. He has worked hard to res­cue from his­tor­i­cal ne­glect Jews who served in their coun­try’s armed forces over the past cou­ple of cen­turies.

He finds the rea­son for ne­glect in the fa­mil­iar an­tisemitic mythol­ogy but he has also added an­other, in­trigu­ing rea­son as to why this his­tory has been ne­glected. The cre­ation of a Jewish state en­cour­aged the view that this was a turn­ing point for Jewish hero­ism. Is­rael has im­pressed both its sup­port­ers and de­trac­tors alike with its mil­i­tary prow­ess. This has been used by con­tem­po­rary an­ti­semites to de­velop a new theme of Jewish bru­tal­ity and ag­gres­sion.

THE DUAL loy­alty has been trans­formed from the ques­tion of whether Jews — as “root­less cos­mopoli­tans” — could com­mit to any state, to one of whether their true com­mit­ment was to an­other state. The po­ten­tial dan­ger of this is­sue was il­lus­trated by the Jonathan Pol­lard case. As war be­tween Is­rael and a ma­jor power with a sub­stan­tial Jewish pop­u­la­tion re­mains un­likely, this is­sue is still more ev­i­dent in the po­lit­i­cal than mil­i­tary sphere, for ex­am­ples in de­nun­ci­a­tions of a Jewish lobby de­ter­mined to en­sure that Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy aligns with that of Is­rael.

Penslar gives this is­sue a fur­ther twist, in some of his sharper ob­ser­va­tions, point­ing to how Zion­ists have con­trasted the Is­raeli war­rior with the tim­o­rous di­as­pora, made up of tragic vic­tims who were un­able to fight back against those who would de­stroy them. Re­flect­ing the un­der­ly­ing be­lief that only in Is­rael can a Jew be com­plete, so the true Jewish sol­dier re­quired his own state to de­fend.

The price of this con­ceit was dis­dain for all the prior Jewish mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence. This is the ne­glect that Penslar seeks to cor­rect. Jewish mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity has largely been in line with its de­mo­graphic po­si­tion in Euro­pean states. Jewish soldiers had their fair share of hero­ics and in coun­tries where they could be of­fi­cers they of­ten rose to po­si­tions of distinc­tion. Well over one-and-a-half mil­lion were in the Al­lied forces, of which about a third were in the Rus­sian forces and a third in the Amer­i­can army. They were ac­tive in French re­sis­tance and con­sti­tuted some 10 per cent of Free French forces. A num­ber of those who were to gain mil­i­tary distinc­tion in the Is­raeli De­fence Forces, such as Moshe Dayan, fought with the Bri­tish army.

THE IDF did not sud­denly cre­ate a new type of fight­ing Jew, but in­stead de­pended on the ex­pe­ri­ence gained in the Sec­ond World War. Leav­ing aside the in­ge­nu­ity of Jewish fi­nanciers and busi­ness­men who helped keep the new coun­try sup­plied and the IDF equipped, many Jews came from over­seas to con­trib­ute to the War of In­de­pen­dence, pro­vid­ing, for ex­am­ple, the bulk of Is­rael’s air force. Penslar high­lights the role of Mickey Mar­cus, who af­ter distin­guished war ser­vice in the Amer­i­can army, in­clud­ing pres­ence at the lib­er­a­tion of Dachau and a pe­riod as head of the Pen­tagon’s War Crimes Di­vi­sion, helped the IDF de­velop the prin­ci­ples of mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tion and lo­gis­tics, com­manded the Jerusalem front, only to be killed ac­ci­dently by a sen­try be­cause he could not speak He­brew.

The prime ex­hibit in sup­port­ing the view that ar­mies are nat­u­rally in­hos­pitable in­sti­tu­tions for Jews is the French colonel Al­fred Drey­fus. Drey­fus was falsely ac­cused in 1894 of trea­son and then despatched to Devil’s Is­land, un­til, af­ter a noisy cam­paign on his be­half, his in­no­cence was ac­cepted and he was ex­on­er­ated.

Drey­fus was un­doubt­edly a vic­tim of high-level an­tisemitism but in a fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter, Penslar shows how even while his case was split­ting French opin­ion, Jews were mak­ing their mark in the French army. At the time of Drey­fus’s con­vic­tion, Jews were ac­tu­ally over­rep­re­sented in the of­fi­cer corps. Of 350 Jewish of­fi­cers, 70 were above the rank of cap­tain. Even an of­fi­cer who suf­fered for his sup­port of Drey­fus, like Colonel Émile Mayer, was able to be­come an im­por­tant mil­i­tary the­o­rist who was able to re­turn, aged 65, to the army for the start of war in 1914 and later came to in­flu­ence the young Charles de Gaulle.

Af­ter the First World War, Ger­man-Jewish vet­er­ans “sought to ex­punge their dual shame” — as de­feated Ger­mans and as de­spised Jews — by con­struct­ing an ag­gres­sive, mas­cu­line self-im­age. The Jewish vet­er­ans’ or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Re­ichs­bund jüdis­cher Frontsol­daten (RjF), en­cour­aged box­ing, wrestling and ju­jitsu (in which it pro­vided a num­ber of na­tional cham­pi­ons).

Mem­bers formed their own para­mil­i­tary groups to fight racist gangs, draw­ing as they did so on the ca­ma­raderie of the trenches. Were it not for an­tisemitism, a num­ber of these Jews would have been com­fort­able on the right and some of the RjF’s lead­ers dis­played fas­cist in­cli­na­tions.

In Italy, Penslar notes, some 700 Jews took part in Mus­solini’s March on Rome in Oc­to­ber 1922. In Ger­many, no mat­ter how much they as­serted their pa­tri­o­tism, or dis­played their Iron Crosses and spoke with pride of the 12,000 Jews who had died fight­ing for the Father­land, they could not re­sist the rise of Nazism and the de­nial of all that they had con­trib­uted. Many went into ex­ile with their uni­forms and medals.

Af­ter the Great War, Jewish vet­eran or­gan­i­sa­tions kept in touch with each other, and main­tained a mu­tual re­spect. In 1935, a con­fer­ence of Jewish vet­er­ans was held in Paris, rep­re­sent­ing some 400,000 in­di­vid­u­als, com­ing to­gether, as was the norm, to en­cour­age a greater un­der­stand­ing among na­tions and world peace.

The RjF was not rep­re­sented at the con­fer­ence be­cause it had been dis­solved by the Nazis. Josef Goebbels had de­creed that Jewish names should be ex­punged from Ger­man war me­mo­ri­als. As the del­e­gates sought to man­age the ten­sion be­tween their na­tional and transna­tional iden­ti­ties, their pa­tri­o­tism with their Ju­daism, ac­knowl­edg­ing as they did so the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a Zion­ist so­lu­tion, they were hon­oured by the pres­ence of a man long re­tired from his mil­i­tary ser­vice.

Colonel Al­fred Drey­fus came from his sick bed to make an ap­pear­ance. A month later, he died. Derek J Penslar, ‘Jews and the Mil­i­tary: A His­tory’ (Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 2013). Sir Lawrence Freed­man is pro­fes­sor of war stud­ies at King’s Col­lege Lon­don


Kirk Dou­glas as Colonel Mickey Mar­cus in the film, Cast A Gi­ant Shadow

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