Jews and the War, Then and Now

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Should Israel strike back if Saddam Hussein fires missiles at Tel Aviv, as he did during the last Gulf War? Most Israelis favor a military response, but the Bush administration is reportedly pressing the Jewish State to restrain itself, lest Arab critics claim the war is being fought to advance Jewish or Israeli interests.

Today’s debate over a Jewish role in the war bears more than a passing resemblance to a similar controversy in the early 1940s.

Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of Revisionist Zionism –the Zionist movement’s militant wing and forerunner of Israel’s Likud Party– asked the British to create a Jewish armed force to take part in the war against Hitler. Twenty-five years earlier, Jabotinsky had successfully lobbied London to create the Jewish Legion, which helped the British liberate Palestine from Turkey. The Revisionist leader hoped that a new Jewish army would strengthen Jewry’s postwar case for statehood, and provide the nucleus of the army of the Jewish state-to-be.

The British initially rebuffed the proposal, worried that the creation of a Jewish army would anger Arab opinion: “A Jewish Army cannot be dissociated from Jewish Nationalism,” one Foreign Office official complained to a colleague. “A Jewish nation supported by a Jewish Army under its own banner is only one step removed from the full realisation of political Zionism.”

Jabotinsky then turned his attention to Washington. Arriving in the United States in early 1940, the Revisionist leader launched a campaign to win U.S. support for the Jewish army idea. After Jabotinsky’s death later that year, the Jewish army campaign was spearheaded by two of his followers, Hillel Kook (nephew of Palestine’s chief rabbi) and Benzion Netanyahu (father of a future Israeli prime minister).

Their “Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews” utilized political tactics that are familiar today but raised eyebrows at the time, such as sponsoring full page newspaper advertisements, lobbying on Capitol Hill, and recruiting Hollywood celebrities to endorse their cause.

The committee’s newspaper ads featured long lists of supporters, among them prominent Christian theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich; Hollywood stars such as Eddie Cantor and Melvyn Douglas; dozens of Members of Congress; and the governors of South Carolina, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, and Connecticut. Support for a Jewish army cut across racial lines, as well: its endorsers included prominent African-Americans such as labor leader A. Philip Randolph, author Langston Hughes, and the leading black intellectual of that era, W. E. B. DuBois.

The State Department feared that, as one official put it, the “agitation for the formation of a Jewish army” was having an “alarming effect” by arousing anti-American feeling in the Arab world. The State Department and the British Foreign Office were so worried about American Zionist efforts on behalf of a Jewish army and Jewish statehood that they proposed issuing a joint Anglo-American statement in 1943 banning all public of the Palestine issue until war’s end (the proposal was scotched at the last moment by Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers).

At the same time, in its statements concerning the Nazi massacres of European Jews, the Roosevelt administration sought to downplay the fact that the victims were Jews. It preferred to call them “Poles” or “innocent civilians,” rather than risk stirring suspicions that America had entered the war to aid the Jews.

U.S. officials pressed American Jewish leaders to accept Roosevelt’s “rescue through victory” approach–his claim that nothing could be done to save Jews from Hitler except to defeat the Nazis on the battlefield. The problem, as Jewish leaders noted, was that by the time victory was achieved, there might be no Jews left to save.

Despite American and British opposition, the Jewish army activists continued to press for Jewish military participation in the war–and eventually succeeded. A combination of public activism by the Jabotinskyites and behind-the-scenes diplomacy by mainstream Zionist leaders finally convinced the British that creating a Jewish fighting force was necessary to impress American public opinion. Churchill explained his 1944 decision to create the Jewish Brigade in these terms: “I like the idea of the Jews trying to get at the murderers of their fellow-countrymen in Europe, and I think it would give a great deal of satisfaction in the United States.”

Neither the establishment of the Jewish Brigade nor the Roosevelt administration’s eventual acknowledgment that Jews were being singled out by the Nazis, resulted in the dire consequences that had been forecast. Except for a tiny extremist fringe, the American public did not believe the war was being fought “for the Jews.” As for Arab opinion, it had been generally sympathetic to the Nazis anyway and the creation of a Jewish fighting force hardly worsened matters.

Because it was established so late in the war, the Jewish Brigade fulfilled only a part of its supporters’ hopes. It saw only limited action on the battlefield and did not undertake the retaliatory raids its proponents hoped might deter Nazi masacres of Jewish civilians. On the other hand, Brigade veterans played an important role in the postwar smuggling of Holocaust survivors to Palestine, and later used their military experience to help fend off the Arab armies which invaded the newborn State of Israel in 1948.

Would Israeli military action against Iraq or American Jewish support for ousting Saddam really cause some sea change in Arab opinion, or spark waves of antisemitism, as some now charge? Those who think so may want to ponder the lessons of the 1940s Jewish army campaign.

March 2003