70 Years Since V-E Day
by Rafael Medoff
(Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America’s Response to the Holocaust.)
Recent remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Jewish powerlessness in the 1940s have been criticized for supposedly insulting those Jews who served in the Allied armies. The criticism is unjustified–in fact, one could argue that the role Jewish soldiers played in World War Two actually confirms Netanyahu’s point.
An estimated 1.5-million Jewish men and women served with honor and distinction in the American, British, Soviet, and other Allied armies during World War II. Their courage and sacrifices deserve our unstinting admiration.
But they were not serving the Jewish people; they were serving in the armies of other nations. When Netanyahu noted that the existence of the Israel Defense Forces represents “the first time in one hundred generations [that] we, the Jewish people can defend ourselves,” he was absolutely correct. Jews who served in the Allied armies were not defending fellow-Jews. In fact, there were instances when their service involved taking actions that were inimical to Jewish interests.
For example, some Jews who were serving in the Soviet army during 1939-1941, when the Soviets were allies of Nazi Germany, would have been involved in the Russian invasion and occupation of eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Some even might have found themselves taking part in the violent arrest of yeshiva students and other Jews who were branded “counterrevolutionary” or “bourgeoise” and exiled to Siberia, or worse.
Jews who were serving in the British navy between 1939 and 1945 may have taken part in intercepting Jewish refugees trying to reach Palestine and forcing them to return to Hitler Europe.
And Jews serving in the British army in 1940 might have been involved in the roundup and mass internment of German Jews in England. Winston Churchill’s first action as prime minister was to order the mass detention of all German nationals, Jews and Nazis alike. Many of them were deported to Canada or Australia.
Jews in the United States army in 1942-1943 who took part in the Allied liberation and administration of North Africa may have been involved in maintaining the anti-Jewish laws that the previous Vichy French regime had implemented, and which the Allies continued to enforce for nearly a year. This included severe discrimination against the Jews of Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia, several thousand of whom were held in slave labor camps.
The fact that Jews serving in various armies around the world could find themselves being ordered to take part in actions that harmed fellow-Jews underlines the prime minister’s point about what happens when the Jewish people are stateless and powerless. Likewise, Jewish soldiers, being under orders, were unable to take steps that clearly were in the Jewish interest–for example, Jewish pilots in the American air force had the ability, but were not permitted, to bomb the railways leading to Auschwitz or the gas chambers and crematoria. That is the difference between Jews serving in the Allied armies and in the IDF.
Mark Schulte, in his May 1 Jewish Press article criticizing Prime Minister Netanyahu, claimed it was “ironic” that while Netanyahu has been “ignoring Jewish combat contributions,” his father, the late Prof. Benzion Netanyahu, who was in the U.S. during the 1940s, lobbied for “the creation of a Jewish Brigade in the Commonwealth’s armies.”
I had the opportunity to meet Prof. Netanyahu on numerous occasions and interview him in detail about his experiences in the 1940s. He was working for the establishment of a separate Jewish armed force, not recruiting Jews to enlist in the British army. The organization that he and Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook) founded in 1941 was called the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, not the Committee to Persuade Jews to Join the Existing Allied Armies. Certainly such a Jewish army would have been part of the overall Allied military structure, since they were all fighting against a common foe, Nazi Germany. But the whole point was that the Jewish people needed their own army.
Mr. Schulte is correct to note that more than one thousand Jewish veterans of World War Two later served in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. But that, too, proves Prime Minister Netanyahu’s point. It was only when those veterans had concluded their service in Allied armies and joined Israel’s that they became part of the process of ending nearly two thousand years of Jewish national powerlessness.