It took two millennia for Jews 
to learn they had to fight back

For most of Jewish history, Jews were pacifists and vulnerable to any attack.

April 08, 2021 13:51

The Israeli army is considered one of the best in the world. Yet for most of Jewish history, Jews were pacifists and vulnerable to any attack.

Until modern times, the very idea of a Jewish army seemed ridiculous, a non sequitur, let alone the notion that a Jewish army could make a Prussian Blitzkrieg look slow; that Jews could become experts in night-fighting, or invent a new kind of gun; that “military intelligence” was not necessarily (as Groucho Marx put it) “a contradiction in terms”; or that an historical juncture might be reached in which the abolition of obligatory conscription in a Jewish state, of women and men alike, would be universally recognised as suicidal.

But in the world of the Bible, and until the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire in 132-135 CE, Jews were a martial people. In the millennium of their statehood, they fought practically all their neighbours in the eastern Mediterranean, including the Mesopotamian empires, Assyria and Babylonia, leading to total defeat and exile.

In the Maccabean age, in the 2nd century BCE, the Jews in the land of Israel fought for and won independence from the Syrian Greeks.

Under Roman rule, in revolts of 66-73 and 132-135 CE, they inflicted some of the worst defeats ever visited on Roman regular forces by a people of an established province.

The Roman Empire could not tolerate a loss of face on this scale. They aimed not just to defeat the Jews, but to make an object lesson of them, to humiliate and break them and deprive them totally of military capacity. When Rome was through with them, at the end of the reign of Hadrian, the Jews were ruthlessly crushed and demilitarised.

Jews thereafter were averse to war.

In the language often used by Talmudic rabbis and enshrined in the siddur: dumb to those who cursed them, trodden like dust under the feet of the world, accepting of exile as destiny, suffering persecution, discrimination and violence, going sheep-like to the worst of slaughter.

In the Mishna, the first code of Jewish law, edited in Galilee (c. 200 CE), peace is one of the pillars on which the world stands. The Midrash, the Jewish homiletic tradition, separates the world of violent action from that of faith: between Esau (Edom), addicted to the sword, and peace-loving Jacob.

The image of the Messiah was no longer a warrior-type such as the discredited Bar Kokhba. Instead, he is a bent, broken, diseased beggar — the image of countless Jews after the wars of 66–135 CE.

In the stoic rabbinic view, true strength comes through the consecration of Torah study: the only real war is over the Evil Urge; the only territory worth disputing is over halakha, the legal questions of Torah governing the ideal life; the most worthwhile investment is not in armies but in the education of one’s children; the greatest blessing is peace.

Pacifism exposed Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people to high levels of persecution and violence by non-Jews, in the name of Christian or Muslim religious zealotry. They saw persecution of Jews ideally as a goad to drive them from the errors of their beliefs to the only “true faith”.

Yet, once stigmatised, Jews could be blamed for everything that went wrong in a society, for sickness and plague, drought and failure of crops, economic distress and invasion — even for poisoned water and the murder of Christian children.

Without protection, they were targets of violence and, at times, dangerous psychopathology. As they did not fight back, they could survive only by making themselves useful, preferably indispensable, with strong protectors, and by moving from country to country in time of persecution. Yet, in a sense, Jewish militancy never died: it was sublimated into intellectual pursuits, a “war of Torah”, which could not be seen as a threat to the ruling power.

Words that once leaped from the fire of revelation and pierced the air of bloody battle were now bandied in legal debate, to decide the height of a sukkah, compensation for damage done by an angry ox, or the status of an egg laid on a festival.

From the ancient world until the Holocaust it was hallowed practice for Jews to martyr themselves in the act of Torah study, as Akiba did during the Bar Kokhba war.

Jews saw their suffering as punishment for sin and preparation for the messianic age, ultimate redemption and return to the land of Israel.

Submission to God’s will, and readiness to suffer is described in a 12th century love poem by the Spanish-Hebrew poet, Judah Halevi:

The day you [God] scorned me I felt the same.

How can I love the one you hate?

Jews broke with pacifism after 1789, when in countries of their emancipation they were required to serve in European armies. From the time of the Napoleonic wars, emancipated Jews in Western Europe were often militant patriots, eager to display their love of country in battle.

In Eastern Europe, where most Jews lived until the Holocaust, emancipation and secular education were slower to come and antisemitism was widespread. The largely Orthodox Jewish population remained staunchly pacifistic and unpatriotic.

During a brief period of reform in the reign of Alexander II, the Russian-Hebrew poet Judah Leib Gordon (1830-1892) attacked his people and their rabbinic leadership for abandoning their ancient military tradition:

You’re ruined, Israel:

you did not learn the art of war,

so you’re burnt out, spiritless,

stuffed with scribes’ dust,

pages of talk…

When the Tsar was assassinated in 1881 and pogroms broke out throughout southern Russia, Jewish resistance was still rare. Then, as violent antisemitic attacks continued, becoming more deadly in the years 1903-06, Jewish pacifism ended.

A turning point was Bialik’s poem, In the City of Slaughter (Be-Ir ha-Haregah), an eyewitness account of the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom at Easter 1903. Instead of lament and commiseration, Bialik’s poem is filled with rage, condemnation and sarcasm against the “descendants of the Maccabees”, for their degradation:

They fled like mice. They hid like bugs.

They died like dogs where they hid…

From that point on, small numbers of mostly young Russian Jews, shamed by the accusation of cowardice from their greatest poet, began to train in the use of arms, to fight back.

Many who experienced the pogroms later came to the land of Israel, where they became the nucleus of local defence groups which evolved into the Israeli army in 1948.

On the eve of World War I, the poet Zalman Shneour declared Jewish pacifism dead. In a powerful prophetic poem, The Middle Ages are Coming (Yme ha-Beinayim Mitkarvim, 1913), he saw Europe moving backward to barbarism. If the Jews were to be destroyed, they should join forces and die fighting:

Stop being martyrs. Learn to be heroes –

The Middle Ages are coming!

The Hebrew poet, Saul Tchernichowsky, rejected Jewish martyrdom. He most admired the biblical King Saul, who died in battle fighting the Philistines:

I’ll not let my throat be cut nor turn Christian,

but die fighting!

In World War I, a Jewish legion was formed in the British army; in 1920, a handful of Jewish farmers in the north of Israel died fighting, heavily outnumbered, against Arab attackers; in 1943, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto rose up against the Germans in a fight to the death.

During the Holocaust, the Hebrew writer Hanoch Bartov, served in the British army’s Jewish Brigade formed in 1944, and took part in the liberation of concentration camps. He recalled the incredulity of the prisoners, when told that their liberators were Jews: Jews were not soldiers but the wretched of the earth. Bartov’s novel The Brigade (1965) describes the mocking response of local Germans to the sight of Jews in uniform. “We saw the Jewish Army. They rode into the sky in trains of fire, in pillars of smoke. . .” There aren’t any Jews except in horror stories, people with horns and hunchbacks”.

The army of the renewed Jewish state, formed three years after the liberation of Auschwitz, included many camp survivors.

The violent sea-change in Jewish life, from pacifism to self-defence, is marked above all in the Hebrew dirges of the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg.

Greenberg was shocked not just by news of massacres of Jews in Europe — including his parents — but also by Arab collaboration with the Nazis which, if Rommel had not been stopped at El Alamein, would have led to genocide of Jews in the land of Israel.

Greenberg admired the heroism of pacifist rabbinic Judaism — he was a descendant of a long line of distinguished rabbis — but he saw no alternative but to recreate a Jewish army in the land of Israel after 2000 years, to plant and build — and defend.

I never knew till now what a soldier is for.

Now I know:

I will build village after village,

each a bulwark to the other,

and the ploughman’s hand

will be the soldier’s hand

in the field.

David Aberbach, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Studies at McGill University, is author of Nationalism, War and Jewish Education.


April 08, 2021 13:51

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