Modern-Day Maccabees: The Jewish Brigade in World War II

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty years ago this autumn, the British reluctantly agreed to establish a Jewish armed force to take part in the Allied war against Nazi Germany.  Hailed as the modern-day incarnation of the Maccabee warriors, the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade fought for Jewish survival both on and off the battlefield, in an epic of courage that is worth recalling on the holiday of Chanukah.

The idea of a modern Jewish army figured prominently in the philosophy of Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, leader of the militant Revisionist Zionist movement (forerunner of Israel’s Likud Party).  He viewed the rebirth of Jewish military force as an integral part of the rebirth of the Jewish state, and his writings cited the Maccabees as role models for his generation’s youth.

During World War I, Jabotinsky and other Zionist leaders successfully lobbied London to create a Jewish military force to take part in the Allied war effort.  Leaflets seeking recruits for the Jewish Legion declared: “The Star of David which led the armies of the Maccabees of glorious memory in glorious battles for the liberation of Israel over 2,000 years ago is now again to lead the Jewish men to secure a free land of Israel for a free people.”  And they did–the Jewish Legion played an important part in the British liberation of Palestine from the Turks.

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Jabotinsky asked the British to create a new Jewish armed force to take part in the war against Hitler.  London initially rebuffed the proposal, viewing it as a precursor to a Jewish state, which would anger the Arabs.  “A Jewish Army cannot be dissociated from Jewish Nationalism,” one Foreign Office official explained 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, traveling to the U.S. in early 1940 to seek support for the Jewish army idea.  After Jabotinsky’s death that year, the Jewish army campaign was spearheaded by two of his followers, Hillel Kook (better known as Peter Bergson) and Benzion Netanyahu (the historian and father of Israel’s current Finance Minister).

Their “Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews” used tactics that were unorthodox but effective, including full-page newspaper ads and lobbying Members of Congress.  The army campaign attracted the support of numerous political figures, labor leaders, and prominent intellectuals.  They also won the endorsement of many stars of Hollywood and Broadway, thanks to the efforts of playwright Ben Hecht and actress Stella Adler, who took a leading role in the work of the Bergson Group (as it was commonly known).

Support for a Jewish army cut across racial lines.  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 opposed the army proposal on the grounds that the “agitation for the formation of a Jewish army” was having an “alarming effect” by arousing anti-American feeling in the Arab world.  But Bergson made considerable headway in the War Department, winning the support of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, and Knox’s deputy, Adlai Stevenson.

While the Bergson group mobilized public support, mainstream Zionist leaders took up the cause and lobbied British officials behind the scenes.  Thanks to their combined efforts, London eventually was convinced that creating a Jewish fighting force was necessary to impress American public opinion. Winston 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.”

The 5,500 soldiers of the Jewish Brigade finally saw action in early 1945, fighting with distinction against the Germans in several important battles.  Stationed near the Italian-Austrian border at war’s end, the Brigade members soon encountered Holocaust survivors making their way south towards Palestine.  “I jumped on them, hugged them, embraced them,” recalled one refugee.  “I couldn’t believe that Jewish soldiers had come.  It was better than the coming of the Messiah.”  Many Brigade veterans became active in the “Bricha” movement, smuggling thousands of Jewish refugees to the Holy Land.  Some of the soldiers took part in a carefully-orchestrated “doubles” plan, in which they adopted false identities while their ID cards were used by refugees to gain entry to Palestine.

Later, Brigade veterans put their military experience to good use in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, helping the fledging Israeli Army fend off invading Arab armies.

Like the Maccabees of old, the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade helped win their people’s freedom. Their extraordinary courage and devotion overcame incredible odds, and once again, the few prevailed over the many.

December 2004