How the fighting Jew became the norm

By Lawrence Freedman, July 10, 2014
Kirk Douglas as Colonel Mickey Marcus in the film, Cast A Giant Shadow

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

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.

Colonel Mickey Marcus helped develop the Israeli army but was accidentally shot by a sentry because he could not speak Hebrew

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 over-represented 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

    Last updated: 2:45pm, July 10 2014