Arms and the Jew

The sweeping history of a troubled, shifting relationship

Derek Penslar, a historian at the University of Toronto, begins his sweeping account of Jews and the military with an anecdote regarding a talk he gave at a Toronto synagogue about Jewish soldiers in modern armies. After the talk, he asked members of his audience whether any of them had had military service. There were a number of elderly veterans there and others whose fathers or grandfathers had served in the Second World War or Korea and some parents of soldiers serving in Afghanistan. But the only man who was applauded by the audience was an older man who had served in the Harel Brigade of the Israeli Army in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. Why did the audience have that reaction?

There are not many Jews in the Canadian Forces today. But there are young Canadians serving in the Israel Defense Forces. The former receive little acknowledgement from their community; the latter are often celebrated as men and women of special valour. Why is that?

In the Second World War, Canadian Jewish men (and a small number of women) volunteered in the thousands to serve against Hitler, but barely more than 300 volunteered to fight for Israel in its war of independence. There is clearly a very ambiguous relationship between Jews and war in today’s Canada, an ambiguity no doubt reflected in the United States, the United Kingdom and other democratic societies. Penslar’s Jews and the Military: A History makes it plain that the evolving status of Jews in society over the last two millennia bears directly on when, why and how they were caught up in war.

Jews have been around for a long time and almost every conceivable aspect of Jewish history from biblical times to the present has been covered in historical scholarship. War has been around even longer than the Jews—much longer according to archeological evidence and possibly as far back as when humans began to join together to form our earliest societies. This book, which is really about Jews and war and not just about Jews in the military, traces the experience of this ancient people in participating in, witnessing and being victimized by war. The book adds an important dimension to our understanding of Jewish history and even adds somewhat to our understanding of the development of modern militaries since the late 18th century.

Penslar warns his readers early that his approach to war and the military comes via his understanding of Jewish history and that he is not a specialist in the study of military history. He certainly demonstrates a sweeping knowledge of the former, even if his grasp of how modern militaries developed is somewhat weaker. Using a wealth of widely scattered sources he has woven together a fascinating history of how a people who survived some 20 centuries of oppression, persecution and mass murder eventually adapted to the rise of mass armies, largely during the Napoleonic era, and eventually reconciled their Jewishness to modern war.

Penslar’s story begins, naturally enough, in biblical times, which he treats quickly so as to get past the David and Goliath era of Jewish history—the conquest of Canaan, the rise of the prophets and the biblical kings—all of which is well known to Bible readers. He then examines episodic events in the post-biblical period, when the Jews who had been scattered to the four corners of the Mediterranean world after two failed revolts against the Roman empire continued to take up arms either in defence of their own communities or as soldiers of fortune who fought for ancient kings and satraps. This was the period roughly between 200 BCE and 700–800 CE, in which Judaism was itself transformed from a national religion centred on a defined territorial homeland to something unique—a religion practised in exile, by a persecuted minority, in communities far and wide, held together essentially by rabbinical interpretations of ancient texts and devotion to the Torah.

Some of those interpretations, eventually codified in Mishnah, Gemara and the Talmud, involved the study and discussion of laws that would have governed everyday life if the Jews had still lived in a sovereign nation. Occasionally, Penslar notes, they might turn to questions of war, not only the seminal question of whether Jews should fight in wars, but against whom and in what circumstances. Invariably, the answer given by the sages was that Jews should neither seek war nor shy from it if true self-defence was involved. Although some modern rabbinical authorities may deny it, there is no basis for religious pacifism in Judaism. The Hebrew Bible properly translated does not prohibit killing, although it certainly forbids murder.

But the reality was that through the first 1,800 or so years of statelessness, “Jews did not want to serve in armies, and armies did not want Jews.” Persecuted, disenfranchised and greatly restricted as to where they could live and work and what they might work at, Jews had neither the incentive nor the opportunity to join militaries. In this, Penslar well describes the Jewish situation as one of “victimhood, passivity, and chosenness”—the last a belief of the Jews alone. What he means by this is that Jews believed there was a divinely rooted reason for their perpetual victimhood and that their best civic course was to remain passive in the face of danger because they were “the chosen people” living out their fate until such time as God in His wisdom sent his messiah to lead them back to the Holy Land. They were, thus, a people who shunned the sword but who did not do so out of religious belief in non-violence.

What Penslar and others may be unaware of is that service in the standing armies of the era prior to the French Revolution was also shunned by most men in society. Those standing armies essentially consisted of aristocratic officers who purchased their commissions and non-commissioned men who were unskilled, with no land or profession of their own, who joined militaries for adventure, pay and even booty. Some were even pressed into service when detained by raiding “recruitment” parties. They were held together by very strict discipline including corporal punishment, jail or even execution. Those militaries were held in very low esteem by society in both Europe and the United Kingdom who saw them as agents of an oppressive regime at best, and tax collectors at worst.

These standing armies were supposed to provide a modicum of civil order and national defence, but the real agent responsible to both was the militia. Composed of the ordinary subjects or citizens of a state, the militia were obliged to keep arms, train at regular intervals and muster when called out to service. Since Jews lived apart from society in either ghettos or specially designated and restricted areas where they were obliged to live (like the Russian Pale of Settlement), they lived almost completely apart from any militia obligations until, as Penslar points out, the Hapsburg Empire began to conscript Jews and others in the late 18th century.

Penslar reveals that when the Hapsburg Empire began to expand its military capacity via conscription it set a pattern regarding Jewish participation in the military that would soon emerge across Europe. In essence, the Hapsburgs’ developing greater liberality of treatment for Jews generally led to an insistence that Jews take upon themselves more responsibility for the maintenance of the state, or, in this case, the monarchy. The real breakthrough for Jews in the military came with the French Revolution when granting citizenship—even to Jews—brought with it the obligation to do military service.

It is at this point—in the decades of the Napole­onic War and after—that European monarchies transformed themselves into modern states, usually based on religious or ethnic nationalism, and ended up debating the fate of the Jewish people who had been locked away in ghettos for centuries and who were thought to have a separate, inferior, corporate status. Penslar shows how Jews in France, Germany, Italy and other countries began to eagerly embrace the opportunity for military service now offered them. In part they were trading their separate status for equality and offering military service as a key part of the bargain. In part they really had little choice in the matter. As Napoleon was once said to have stated: “To the Jew as a citizen of France, everything. To the Jew who holds separate from the state, nothing.”

It is more than ironic that the end of the ghettos and the beginning of significant Jewish participation in the military in Europe paralleled the rise of the so-called Jewish question: how should Europe react to this formerly separate people that was still thought of in almost every quarter in classical anti-Semitic terms as shady moneylenders at best and Christ killers at worst?

It is also ironic that France—the scene of the notorious Dreyfus Affair—was the country most welcoming of Jews into its military and most willing to allow them to achieve high rank in the last half of the 19th century. Jews were not allowed to enter the officer corps in Prussia or the newly united Germany, and few Jews aspired to professional military service in Britain or Russia, but Jews abounded in the French Army, particularly in administrative and logistic positions. This was a pattern followed for decades and culminating in the Second World War when Jews—generally better educated than the rest of the population—were channelled into technical and administrative occupations in western militaries.

Penslar shows that although roughly the same number of Jews participated in the Red Army in the Second World War as in the U.S. Army, far more Jews served in the combat arms and achieved high rank in the former than they did in the latter, likely because the communist state was ironically more egalitarian in the treatment of women and many minorities than was the United States in the first decades of the 20th century. American Jews served in large numbers in the First World War, but found it very difficult to penetrate class and social barriers in the inter-war U.S. Army and Navy. Old prejudices also persisted among American (and Canadian) Jews themselves that talented young men should get ahead through education, preferably in the professions, and certainly not through careers in the military, which was still heavily anti-Semitic.

Penslar’s work on Jewish participation in the First World War is notable. In France, thousands fought for their country despite misgivings about France’s alliance with Russia. Thousands also served in the U.S. Army as that country mobilized after declaring war against Germany in the spring of 1917. But Jews were also conscripted into the czar’s army in huge numbers (as they had been since the mid 19th century), raising an old dilemma of how to deal with the post-ghetto phenomenon of Jews from different countries fighting each other.

Penslar devotes much space in his book to the apparent anguish of Jews fighting each other, relating stories and legends of Jews about to finish off other Jews only to discover their Jewishness. Inevitably there is some sort of reconciliation in which a soul is spared only to be carted off to a prison camp. But even there, the local Jewish ­population turns out to take special care of their imprisoned co-religionists.

The question of the religious legality of one Jew in uniform killing another may well have been raised from to time after Jews began to participate in their countries’ militaries, and it may have caused anguish to some. But the chances of encountering another identifiable Jew within rifle range in the U.S. Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War or even the First World War were so highly remote, and combat so intense, that the matter was highly theoretical. Besides, from the very early years of the Diaspora, the rabbis enjoined their communities to serve their earthly masters and pray for the welfare of their rulers, lest they be persecuted for holding dual and contradictory allegiances.

Of course, this particular problem did not arise in the Second World War, which Penslar calls a “Jewish War” in the sense that Jews around the world mobilized all the resources at their disposal, including their very lives, to defeat Hitler. Penslar gives a figure of 1.5 million Jews who served in Allied militaries. In Canada the number seems to have been somewhere around 17,000 or about 10 percent of the total Jewish population of the country. Most were volunteers; around 5,000 or so were draftees. No one seems to know how many of the draftees eventually went “active”—volunteered to serve abroad—but most Jews chose to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force, which was an all-volunteer branch of the military.

Service in both the Royal Canadian Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces was clearly preferred by Jews. In both countries air force service was strictly voluntary, so joining the air force was not a way of escaping combat. Far from it. The mortality rate among air crew in the USAAF, RCAF and the Royal Air Force was high. But Jews were in general better educated in the late 1930s than many other groups in society and thus were sought out for specialist types of service other than the “poor bloody infantry.” Although Penslar’s claim that up to 30 percent of the USAAF were Jews—based on a single source from the early 1940s—is surely wrong, research into the death rolls of the U.S. military (available online) shows a high proportion of Jewish names from states such as New York, New Jersey and Illinois killed in action in the skies over Europe.

The culmination of Penslar’s book focuses on Israel’s War of Independence and the tremendous effort of Jews in western Europe, North America and South Africa to aid the besieged new State of Israel by volunteering to serve in the nascent Israeli Defense Forces and by raising funds and dispatching weapons and other military supplies—usually illegally—to help fend off Arab efforts to throttle the new state at its birth.

This book was surely a very difficult work to research and organize. After all, Penslar has tackled a topic with roots in ancient times; his subjects lived in almost every western country and the Ottoman Empire, and were scattered in literally thousands of communities. He has also traced the evolution of the corporate identity of Jewish communities through the great revolutionary era of the 19th century and the emergence of Jewish citizenship in the post-Napoleonic era. He has demonstrated that even though the Jews of Israel have of necessity become a fighting people, Jewish civilization and war have always had an uneasy relationship, and still do. Should Israel and the Palestinians ever achieve peace, it will be interesting to see how Israel’s relationship with its military will evolve.