Rac­ing Against His­to­ry: The 1940 Cam­paign for a Jew­ish Army to Fight Hitler

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

As ear­ly as 1940, the need for a Jew­ish army was rec­og­nized and stren­u­ous­ly pro­mot­ed by Zion­ist Jew­ish lead­ers includ­ing Chaim Weiz­mann, who would become Israel’s first pres­i­dent; David Ben-Guri­on, who would become Israel’s first prime min­is­ter; and Vladimir Jabotin­sky, founder of the Zion­ist Revi­sion­ist move­ment. In the last months of World War II, Great Britain reluc­tant­ly per­mit­ted the for­ma­tion of a sin­gle Jew­ish Brigade con­sist­ing of 5,000 men, main­ly from Pales­tine, under the com­mand of Brigadier Ernest F. Ben­jamin, a Cana­di­an-born Jew. In late 1944, the Jew­ish Brigade served in Italy; they were dis­band­ed in 1946.

Rick Rich­man has writ­ten an impor­tant work about the year 1940 as seen through the efforts of Weiz­mann, Ben-Guri­on, and Jabotin­sky — who tried but failed to per­suade the Allies to form a Jew­ish army to fight the Nazis.

Fol­low­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion of Poland in 1939, and the Sovi­et Union’s sub­se­quent occu­pa­tion of east­ern Poland, more than three mil­lion Pol­ish Jews found them­selves in extreme per­il. They had no coun­try, no army, no gov­ern­ment to fight for them, and — due to the lim­its placed on immi­gra­tion by the British White Paper of 1939, and Amer­i­can iso­la­tion­ist poli­cies — no place to find sanctuary.

Rec­og­niz­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of these Jews, Euro­pean and Pales­tin­ian Jew­ish lead­ers advo­cat­ed for Jews world­wide to enlist in large num­bers, to cre­ate a Jew­ish army and fight against Nazism. They want­ed to find some means of pro­tect­ing the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion of Europe, and also felt that a Jew­ish army would inspire oth­ers. An addi­tion­al effect, as Jabotin­sky explained, would be to upset the ridicu­lous whis­per­ing cam­paign” spread­ing the rumor that Jews want all oth­ers to fight in their inter­est, but they them­selves remain at home.’” (This canard was used by Hitler, who claimed that Ger­man Jews had shirked their duty by not serv­ing in World War I, despite the fact that more than 100,000 had served at the front and won an inor­di­nate num­ber of medals for their heroism.)

Draw­ing upon pre­vi­ous­ly unpub­lished let­ters, speech­es, and diaries from Weiz­mann, Ben-Guri­on, and Jabotin­sky, Rich­man has writ­ten a lucid and fast-paced study fit for aca­d­e­mics and lay read­ers alike.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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