Introduction: The vanished Jewish armor
There was once a television presenter in Israel, handsome and muscular, who developed a sort of obsession with trying to define the customers’ club to which we all belong. At the end of each interview, he would pause for a moment, tilt his head from side to side, crack a half-smile and ask his guests the anticipated question. The guests, of course, had already prepared their answer at home, and even had time to polish it in the makeup room in front of the mirror so that it would sound natural and spontaneous. After all, this was the climactic moment of the interview, almost a catharsis. Now we will learn something new about ourselves; we will feel that we are part of something big and wonderful, and we will also not forget to laugh at ourselves along the way. So what is Israeli in your eyes?
This question worked so well for two main reasons: 1. People have a natural tendency to want to belong to a group or an idea in order to define themselves and thus differentiate themselves from others. 2. No one yet knows how to define who or what an Israeli is and, consequently, the question occupies us and leaves room for almost every possible answer – as long as we do not emerge as “suckers” [fraiers], of course.
It is difficult to imagine that rugged presenter, or any other presenter (perhaps except the late comedian Lenny Bruce), asking his interviewee what he thinks characterizes a Jew. It is just not interesting. And the reason is simple: All of us know what a Jew is in our own eyes. If we are antiSemitic and conspiratorial Jew-haters, it is clear to us that a Jew is ugly and conniving, controls Wall Street, is responsible for the global economic crisis and is apparently also behind 9/11. If we like Jews or even belong to the Jewish religion/nation/people, it is clear to us that a Jew is wise, a trailblazer, a serial Nobel Prize winner and father of scientific innovations that are changing our world.
The list of the world’s most influential Jews does change from time to time, but its guidelines remain almost constant. Sometimes it is Jesus of Nazareth, and sometimes Albert Einstein. It could be the grim Karl Marx or the entertainer Groucho Marx, Maimonides from Spain or Sigmund Freud from Vienna, Gustav Mahler and his symphonies or Bob Dylan and his harmonica; Kafka, Heine, Spinoza, Mendelsohn, and the list goes on. What is certain is that this Jew usually excels in one particularly well-developed organ – the brain. He uses this to develop a new theory in physics, or a new philosophical idea, or a new form of art. And sometimes it is only financial ingenuity (Rothschild) or a contraceptive pill (Pincus) or a worldembracing social network (Zuckerberg).
Of course, not all Jews are trailblazing geniuses. At the risk of being charged with self-hatred, I will say that most Jews are not geniuses. It is enough to spend half a day at the health clinic or to turn on the television during prime time. Nonetheless, the colors of the Jewish stereotype are very clear and they have remained almost unchanged over the course of history: a lackluster creature, a bit feeble and awkward, compensating his physical weakness with a rich intellect. This applies to the Mossad’s slogan: “Where there is no guile, a people falls” and also applies to the story of Facebook’s founder, an unpopular nerd who only wanted to get a girlfriend (though today he defines himself as an atheist rather than a Jew).
Zionism tried to teach us that from the days of Bar Kochba’s revolt against Roman rule until the days of early Zionist hero Joseph Trumpledor, the Jewish armor was stored in the attic. But besides these familiar clichés, history is also full of stories of a completely different type of Jew.
Chapter 1: It starts in the womb
We will start, naturally, at the beginning. There is no historical or archeological evidence that the events recounted in the Book of Genesis actually occurred. It is a matter of one’s worldview and faith. But we cannot ignore the impact of the narrative. For many years, people told themselves that this is what actually occurred, and in light of these stories, a historical consciousness was formed that eventually became culture and crystallized into identity.
All of the Jews are Israelites – that is, sons of Israel, our forefather Jacob, the last of the three patriarchs. They are the sons of Jacob, as opposed to the sons of Esau, his twin brother, who later became the Edomites, Amalek, and according to the rabbinical sages, the evil Haman and Titus, the destroyer of the Temple.
The big difference between the twin brothers was already determined in their mother’s womb. It was a particularly difficult pregnancy, which came upon Rebecca after twenty years of infertility. God informs Rebecca that “two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated.” Esau emerges first from her belly, with a head full of red hair. Jacob follows, gripping Esau’s ankle in his hand. From the first moment, it is clear that their father, Isaac, prefers his son Esau, who is “a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors” – that is, a real man. The mother, Rebecca, on the other hand, prefers Jacob, “a mild man, who stayed among the tents.” In Israeli army parlance, Esau would be a combat soldier and Jacob would be a “jobnik” – serving in a non-combat role.
Roaming around outside all day and chasing fleet-footed animals is tiring. And indeed, Esau comes home one day, particularly exhausted, and sees that his twin brother has prepared a stew. He asks Jacob for a little of “that red stuff” and Jacob demands Esau’s birthright in return. “Look, I’m about to die [of hunger], so what good is the birthright to me?” Esau asks. And, like any exhausted and famished hunter, he does not wait for a reply.
The years go by, and Isaac grows old and feels his days are numbered. He wants to bless Esau, his firstborn and beloved son, and asks him to prepare game meat for him. The mother, Rebecca, heard this and immediately planned a subterfuge: Jacob would impersonate Esau, serve his old and blind father the meat, and receive the blessing of the firstborn. Isaac has a moment of doubt, but ultimately swallows the bait and blesses the imposter Jacob. At the end of the day, Esau returns from the field, discovers the ploy, lets out “a great and bitter cry” – and the rest of the story is well known. Despite the different interpretations and the rival schools, the biblical distribution is very clear, as is the message to the next generations: There is one strong and crude son who knows how to hunt and who is the progenitor of Israel’s enemies; and there is another son, weaker, who gets what he wants through a clever deal (birthright in exchange for stew) or simply through deception (impersonating his brother). The people of Israel will spring from this brother.
Chapter 2: ‘What am I, a dog?’ – The myth of David
The Bible is full of warriors and heroes. They are usually less prominent than those endowed with prophecy, spiritual leadership or political resourcefulness, but they are present throughout all of the pages of the Book of Books. Though Moses himself kills the Egyptian who struck the Hebrew slave, his main glory derives from his spiritual leadership of the Israelites. In the great victory over Pharaoh’s army, he is only an intermediary. His successor in the leadership, Joshua the son of Nun, already makes a name for himself as an exalted and brutal military leader when he leads the children of Israel in the campaign to conquer the land. It is true that God promises, but someone also has to implement.
The era of the judges is characterized by many wars and heroes: from Barak the son of Abinoam and Deborah the prophetess, to the mighty Samson (more on him later) to Gideon the exalted commander, who chooses his fighters by the way they drink water from a spring. But the most important Jewish warrior in the Bible, whose legend has the greatest impact on his generation and those that followed – is actually not a big muscleman.
Enormous body size and towering height are generally characteristics of non-Jews in the Bible. This is much less common among the children of Israel. Saul is actually the only Hebrew leader whose height is cited in the Bible: “He was a head taller than any of the people.” And indeed, it soon becomes clear that this is not enough. God and his proxy on earth, the prophet Samuel, are disappointed with Saul’s reign as king of Israel. In particular, they are disappointed by the war against Amalek and Saul’s decision to follow the voice of the people and spare the lives of the Amalekite king and his animals, contrary to the explicit divine decree to completely annihilate the hostile nation. The prophet Samuel does not waste time and comes to the home of Jesse in Bethlehem, who immediately presents his son, Eliab. Samuel is very impressed by the external appearance of Eliab, but God quickly intervenes and warns him: “Pay no attention to his appearance or his stature … man sees only what is visible, but the Lord sees into the heart.”
According to the Bible, David is just a young shepherd when his father sends him to bring food to his three older brothers, who went out to fight for King Saul against the Philistines. David hears that the leader of the Philistines, the giant Goliath, is looking for an opponent to fight; the duel, as was the practice in those days, would spare the lives of many – whoever wins the duel between the two representatives of each camp would win the entire battle. But there are no volunteers in the camp of the Hebrews. King Saul offers generous prizes to anyone who agrees to fight the giant Philistine, but as the Israeli singer-songwriter Danny Sanderson interpreted this: “the whole Bible feared him like an elephant.”
Everyone except David. He immediately inquires: “What will be done for the man who kills that Philistine and removes the disgrace from Israel?” And his words are quickly brought to the attention of King Saul. The king explains to David that he cannot go and fight the Philistine “because you are just a lad and he has been a warrior from his youth,” which was true. But David, as we know, was a stubborn redhead, and he tells the king that he has already fought and defeated wild animals. Not just any animals, but a lion and a bear.
The desperate Saul tells David: “Go, and may the Lord be with you.” The king offers him a sword, a uniform, a helmet and armor. At first, David straps on the weaponry, but soon takes it off: “I can’t walk with these because I’m not used to them.” He is simply untrained and it is heavy for him. Instead of a sword, David takes a stick and chooses five smooth stones from the stream for his sling (which is mistakenly confused with the slingshot of today). Preliminary battles were conducted with volleys of spears tossed from afar, and only afterwards the face-to-face duel begins. And indeed, Goliath, armed with a spear and sword, tries to approach David and the only thing he sees is that David is armed with a stick. “Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?” Goliath asks, and immediately curses David and his God. David responds with a short speech: “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, and I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have scorned.” It turns out that Ofer Vinter, the Givati commander in Operation Protective Edge, was not the first to invoke the Lord of Hosts before going into battle.
David loads the sling with a stone from the stream, and hits Goliath square in the forehead. Adding to the humiliation, David takes Goliath’s sword and decapitates the Philistine giant. The rest is history. Whether the description of the battle of David and Goliath in the Book of Samuel is precise to the last detail, or whether it is a legend that was attached to David after his coronation, it is undoubtedly one of the seminal myths in Jewish culture in particular and in Western culture in general. The notion of the little guy defeating the titan, the weak overcoming the strong, is not only a dramatic motif that retains its appeal (George R.R. Martin and HBO even used it in Game of Thrones, with a twist of course). It is also the story that quite a few nations have told themselves over the course of history. It is true, of course, that the biblical emphasis is on the divine element: The faithful worshiper of God defeats the idolater who defamed God. It was also very important for the Bible and its redactors in many generations to differentiate the Jewish from the Hellenistic culture that prevailed in the Middle East, with its reverence for muscles and the body. But similar to the myth of “the few versus the many,” the myth of David grew deeper and deeper, and long ago transcended the faith-related and cultural-physical layers. Author Meir Shalev, for example, suggests another explanation in his book ‘In the Beginning’: David’s victory over Goliath is actually a victory of the wise over the foolish. The creative person defeats the conservative one. Improvisation overcomes the conventional conception. That is the way to build a nation’s character.
Chapter 3: My Maccabee
The first exile of the Jewish people, following the destruction of the First Temple, did not yet turn the people into “exilic” in the sense that is familiar to us. In fact, Jews throughout the Middle East continued to bear arms and fight, whether in independent frameworks or as part of the various regional imperial armies. According to the writings of Josephus, Jews fought in the ranks of Alexander the Great’s army, and were considered to be particularly brave and loyal fighters. Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, also employed Jewish warriors, and at one point her great army was actually led by two Jewish generals. Even the Roman Empire, which would later engage in a bloody war with the Jews, depended partly on Jewish warriors during an earlier period. Julius Caesar even publicly praised the heroism of the 1,500 Jews who fought in his army.
But as we will see in the 20th century, history makes scant mention of the heroism of Jews in non-Jewish armies. In order to enter the pantheon of the Jewish warrior, the war must be a war of the Jews. And no less important: Someone must write about it. It is possible to question the reliability of the information appearing in the Books of the Maccabees (“the Hasmonean Books”), or in the writings of Josephus, and historians indeed have devoted considerable research to this. But it is impossible to argue with the fact that these myths, from the days of the Greeks and the Romans, would continue to shape consciousness and reality for the next centuries and millennia.
In the 2nd century BCE, a Hasmonean family from the tribe of Levi lived in the Judean city of Modi’in. The head of the family was a priest (kohen) named Mattathias. One day, a man named Apelles arrives in Modi’in, an official acting on behalf of the Seleucid king who had conquered the land and had issued decrees against the Jewish religion. In his version of Moses’ call for “whoever is for the Lord, come to me,” the proud Mattathias cries:“All those who are zealous for the Torah and stand with the covenant – come with me!” Together with his five sons, Mattathias kills the official, thus launching the rebellion that leads to the longest period of Jewish sovereignty and independence in Israel.
In the first year of the rebellion, the Hasmoneans do not dare to launch an open war against the Seleucids. They are satisfied with localized guerrilla raids, murdering Hellenized Jews and destroying Greek altars. But when Mattathias’ third son, Judah the Maccabee, becomes the leader of the revolt, the tactics change. Judah, “like a lion’s cub roaring for prey, with the sinners shrinking in fear of him,” studies the enemy’s fighting methods and begins to stage ambushes and raids against the Seleucids, particularly after dark. It turns out that Orde Wingate, the British officer who trained Jewish fighters in Palestine in the 1930’s, was also not the first one to employ these tactics in this land. Judah, who ultimately liberates Jerusalem and purifies the Temple, expands the Hasmonean Kingdom while adhering to two important principles for building the myth of the Jewish warrior: His army is much smaller than the opposing army, and the path to victory is usually achieved through cunning more than belligerence.
After he resolves the prohibition of waging war on the Sabbath, and racks up initial victories in Wadi Hermia and Beit Horon, Judah Maccabee embarks in the most important battle of his life, at Emmaus, in the Latrun area of today. There are only 6,000 fighters in the ranks of the Hasmoneans, versus about 40,000 Seleucid infantrymen, reinforced by 7,000 cavalrymen. The commander Gorgias is sure of his triumph. He thus makes a point of inviting Phoenician merchants to the battle so they can buy Jewish slaves from him immediately after their defeat. When Judah discovers that Gorgias has brought only 5,000 soldiers with him, and has left the rest in camp, he concludes that the Seleucids are preparing a nighttime raid. He immediately orders his men to abandon the camp, but to leave campfires burning so that the enemy will think that they fled in haste. And indeed, when Gorgias arrives at the abandoned Maccabee camp, he sends his army into the hills to catch the fugitives – who had never actually fled and meanwhile are raiding his own camp. Judah’s troops slaughter 9,000 Greeks, and the rest flee. When Gorgias returns exhausted to his camp, Judah Maccabee is waiting for him.
Judah Maccabee continues to expand the Hasmonean territory with a series of military victories, until he finally also dies in battle. In keeping with the tradition, he again stands with 3,000 soldiers against a much larger force led by Bacchides. Judah’s men plead with him not to engage in this battle, but he insists: “Far be it for me to do this, to flee from them. And if our time has come, let us die bravely for our brethren, and not allow our honor to be disgraced.” This honor is apparently not sufficiently important for two-thirds of Judah’s soldiers, who abandon him. With the remaining one third, he goes into battle and is killed. In doing so, he leaves another important mark on the ethos: Sometimes self-sacrifice is more important than victory, and national-religious-cultural honor is more important than life itself. This principle would be tested again and again in subsequent years – at Yodfat, at Gamla and, 67 of course, at Masada.
Judah Maccabee’s brothers and nephews would continue to expand the Hasmonean Kingdom and, in parallel, their rule would slowly become more and more secular, contrary to the will of the people. During the following years, religious thinking would intensify and simmer, and the Jewish people would split into different sects that eventually engaged in a brutal civil war. The internal struggle between the extremist sects, together with the regional and international developments, would lead the Jews to the brink of destruction during the first two centuries of the new millennium.
Chapter 4: Between revolt and destruction
The series of Jewish rebellions that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and nearly to the destruction of the Jewish people, is customarily traced to the year 66, when the Great Revolt began. But Jewish unrest in the Middle East started earlier, and not actually in the territory of Judea. In the year 38, during the reign of the Roman emperor Caligula, there was a revolt by Alexandria’s Jewish community, which apparently comprised more than a third of the city’s population. The Romans granted the Hellenists many rights at the expense of the Jews, and the Jews launched a rebellion. This rebellion would receive a very significant boost after the failure of the Great Revolt in Judea. The Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was conquered and hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed or captured – but the messianicfanatic spirit was not yet broken. Jewish refugees from the Great Revolt scattered to all of the Diaspora communities, including Alexandria, where they further incited the local population. In the year 115, the “Diaspora Revolt” broke out, mainly in the Jewish communities in Egypt and in Cyrene (in Libya of today), and apparently on the island of Cyprus too. If we are to believe the historian Cassius Dio, the Jewish revolt in the Diaspora was particularly brutal. Cassius tells that the Jews ate the flesh of their enemies, made belts from their intestines, smeared themselves with blood and wore the skin of their victims. Even if this description is exaggerated, it indicates something about the fear the Jewish warriors inspired during that period.
The Diaspora Revolt did not fare any better than the Great Revolt, or the Bar Kochba rebellion that marked the end of this period of Jewish sovereignty in Israel. The historians, religious leaders and politicians still argue about the justification and logic of this series of rebellions. It is more difficult to argue about the results: Most of the Jewish communities in the Middle East were completely destroyed, most of the Jews were annihilated, and those who survived were scattered in every direction. From this point until the revival of Zionism, Jews did continue to fight, but in frameworks disconnected from one another, far from their homeland, and in response to local developments. The role of the empires fighting for control of Judea would now be filled by the monotheistic religions that came to fore in Europe and in the Arabian Peninsula.
Chapter 5: Judaism vs. Islam, sources of the confrontation
There is a well-known saying in Arabic that “no one is more loyal than Samuel.” This is not a reference to Samuel the prophet, but to Samuel Ben Adaya – a Jew, poet and warrior, who lived in the Hejaz region in Arabia in the 6th century. In an era when there was no television or cinema, industrial printing had yet to be invented, and most people did not even know how to read and write – the poet had an important and special social status. It was so special that sometimes the people would attribute supernatural powers to poets because of their mastery of words and poetry. Thanks to this talent, Ben Adaya developed excellent relations with the leaders of Arab tribes in the region and with the Arab governors serving the Persian authorities and the Byzantine Empire.
Ben Adaya’s connections make him one of the richest people in the Arabian Peninsula, and he uses his fortune to build a large castle named Al-Ablaq (the speckled). The castle is designed to protect the Ben Adaya family and the inhabitants of the city of Timaa, and also serves as a sort of bank where local people deposit their money and belongings. One of the people who deposited some of his possessions with Ben Adaya is another Arab poet named Imru al-Qais. One day, the Iraqi government demands that Ben Adaya hand over al-Qais’ belongings, but the Jew refuses. The governor takes Ben Adaya’s son hostage, but this too does not persuade the owner of the castle to compromise his principles. In the end, the Iraqi governor murders Samuel’s son. Samuel loses a son, but his name becomes forever identified with a faithful person who does not surrender his principles.
All this happened in the 6th century and can teach us something about the role of the Jews in the Arab world. They were held in esteem for their skill as craftsmen, metalworkers and goldsmiths, and no less importantly – because of the excellent dates they grew. The monotheistic beliefs of the Jews, as well as those of the Christians who lived in the region, helped to shape the new religion – Islam, which a man of that century, Muhammad, began to formulate in the city of Mecca.
In the 7th century, the Arab city of Mecca is a center of idol worship. The pagan sites and ceremonies provide a livelihood for the city’s merchants, and when Muhammad begins to convert his first believers, the merchants realize that this could seriously threaten their livelihoods and they plot to murder him.
In 622, Muhammad flees from Mecca to the city of Yathrib, later known as Medina, in what is called the Hijra (the migration). Of the twenty Jewish tribes living in the Arabian Peninsula, three lived in Medina: the Nadir, Qaynuqa and Qurayza tribes. The military and economic standing of the three Jewish tribes does not allow Muhammad to compete with them. They are much stronger and better connected. Therefore, he tries at first to bring them into his fold, which seems logical because Islam is more similar to Judaism than to the pagan religions of the region. Muhammad also believes in one God, and he too regards Abraham as his ancestor. Muslim prayers are conducted facing Jerusalem, the tenth day of the new year is observed as a fast day, the practice of circumcision has been adopted, and the views on modesty, charity and diet are similar to those of Judaism.
But apparently the Jews are fed up with listening to prophets and their prophecies. The last Jewish prophet had died a thousand years earlier, freeing himself from the world’s burdens and the yoke of commandments and according to Jewish tradition, prophecy would be renewed only upon the return of the Jews to Zion. The Jews reject Muhammad, and he tries to undercut their power through political maneuvers. He signs the “ummah” agreement in which the signatories pledge not to harm other believers. He separately enters into non-aggression pacts with the Jewish tribes. Commentators today are divided regarding the nature of these agreements, but what is certain is that the balance of power slowly and gradually shifts in favor of Muhammad.
One of Muhammad’s fierce opponents is another Jewish poet of Arab descent by the name of Ka’b Ibn al-Ashraf. The poet writes against the new religion of Islam and encourages the Quraysh tribe that rules Mecca to fight against Muhammad, who was originally a member of their tribe. When the followers of Muhammad defeat a large Quraysh force at the Wadi Badir oasis, about twenty kilometers from Mecca, the Jewish resistance grows even stronger. Ka’b Ibn al-Ashraf travels to Mecca, intensifies his writings against Islam and urges the members of Quraysh to avenge their dead. According to one of the versions, when Muhammad tries again to join forces with the Jews, they respond: “O, Muhammad, you seem to think that we are your people. Don’t get your hopes up because you encountered – at Badr – people who don’t know war and you defeated them. By God, if we fight against you, you’ll discover that we are real men!” It seems that they tried in this way to reenact the myths of their people’s warriors of yore, despite the fact that many labels had quickly been attached to the Jews in the Diaspora: poets, merchants, financiers or artists – but not warriors.
In any event, Ka’b Ibn al-Ashraf leads the Jewish Qaynuqa tribe to join forces with the pagan Quraysh tribe in the fight against Muhammad. It ends very badly. In 625, Muhammad orders the murder of Ibn alAshraf. Soon the Qaynuqa tribe is partially expelled from Medina. Following additional battles, the Nadir tribe is also totally expelled and all members of the Qurayza tribe are taken prisoner. The Muslims dig a trench for the Qurayza Jews, bring all the men to the trench and lop off their heads. The remaining Jews of the Arabian Peninsula are finally expelled during the days of the second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab. But don’t worry: a cruel religious trend would soon appear in Europe that posed no less of a threat to the existence of the Jews. It was a threat that would make a deep impact on the culture of Jews in the Diaspora.
Chapter 6: The cross versus the Star of David
The major news to emerge from the Council of Clermont in November 1095 is a call by Pope Urban II to embark on a campaign to liberate the holy sites of Christianity – first and foremost, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem – from Muslim occupation. The campaign is not aimed at the Jews, but when the Crusaders start to congregate in Europe for the journey to Jerusalem in the First Crusade, they start to ask: Why are we heading to fight non-believers in the East, while the people who crucified Jesus are living among us in Europe?
One of the armies setting out on the First Crusade is that of Count Emicho, from Leiningen in the Rhine Valley (in today’s Germany). On May 18 1096 he comes to the city of Worms (Vermayza, on the banks of the Rhine in Germany), where there is a large Jewish community. A rumor about a Christian being killed by Jews has already stoked tensions in the city. Farmers from the surrounding area join the Crusaders and raid the Jewish Quarter. The Jews have two alternatives: undergo Christian baptism on the spot, or be murdered by the rioters. A few Jews manage to flee to the palace of the bishop, who agrees to give them refuge. They dig in there and fight back, but after a week they are overpowered by the attackers, who execute those who have not yet taken their own lives. The number of Jewish victims at Worms is estimated at 800.
On May 25, Emicho arrives with his army at the gates of the city of Mainz (Magentsa), which were locked by order of the archbishop. Here too there had been antiJewish agitation. At first, it seems that the massacre will be averted thanks to the intervention of armed Christian residents of the city on behalf of the Jews. But soon other residents, driven by incitement, open the gates for Emicho. The Jews of Mainz try to purchase their safety with gifts of silver and gold to the archbishop and to the count besieging the city, and the two indeed give refuge to Jews in the archbishop’s castle and palace. But the rioters continue to attack the Jews in their places of refuge and most of them are slaughtered after a short battle. Those who are not murdered, commit suicide during the battle. The number of Jews killed in Mainz reaches 1,100, and many Torah scrolls and synagogues are destroyed.
Similar pogroms take place that year, 1096, in the city of Cologne and in villages nearby, and in Prague to the east. A prominent place in the consciousness of ensuing generations is accorded to the “martyrs” of the 1096 edicts, who take their own lives and kill their own sons and daughters to avoid falling into the hands of the Crusaders and rioters and being forced to convert to Christianity. Lamentations were composed in memory of the communities destroyed in the wake of these edicts, including Rashi’s community, which centered around three cities. The Jews referred to these cities as “SHUM” – Shpira, Vermayza and Magentsa (Speyer, Worms and Mainz). Some of these lamentations are still recited by Ashkenazi Jews on Tisha B’Av.
The scope of collective suicide-martyrdom was extraordinary during the Middle Ages. In fact, the last time that something similar occurred in Jewish history was during the Great Revolt, 900 years earlier. Such action would seem to be contrary to Jewish law, which sanctifies human life and regards suicide as a very abhorrent act. The connection to the events of the Great Revolt is not only a matter of comparison for historians. The Jews in Europe during the Middle Ages were very interested in the fate of the Jews in the Land of Israel in earlier times. Those who chose to die as martyrs were aware that they were choosing a similar fate as Hannah and her seven sons, who preferred to die rather than surrender to the decrees of Antiochus. Before dying as martyrs, these Jews of medieval Europe proudly recited the “Shma Yisrael” affirmation of faith.
There were also cases of active Jewish resistance in 1096, such as Rabbi Samuel the son of Isaac, from Worms, who wounded three assailants. And there were those who refused to surrender their pride till the end, like Mar Kalonymous from Bacharach, who “spat on the statue of the crucified one in front of their eyes” before he was murdered. To vandalize Christian symbols was considered an act of bravery, and this was almost always done “in broad daylight” and “in the eyes of the whole world.” There was a clear dimension of defiance here: Even if the Jews could not compete militarily or physically with a power that was much superior, no one could break their spirit. Scholars today are divided on the question of how severely the spiritual life of Jewish communities was harmed by the attacks they suffered during the Crusades. On the one hand, thousands of Jews were killed, including famous sages. On the other hand, we know today that most of the Jewish communities in the Rhine Valley and in France were able to continue their way of life. Jews who did not choose to die as martyrs and accepted baptism into Christianity often recanted after the situation calmed down. In any event, from the perspective of consciousness, the edicts of 1096 had a critical impact on European Jewry. The rise of the Crusaders and the depiction of Jews as a weak and easy enemy for the Christians would delineate new constraints for the Jewish minority. The dependence on local princes and regional rulers would grow, and the image of exilic Jews that is familiar to us today, whether justifiably or not, began to slowly take form: dependent on the good graces of others and unable to defend themselves.
Chapter 7: The fighting Diaspora, from China to Spain
It is difficult and perhaps impossible to speak about Diaspora Jewry during the second millennium as a single entity. There were hundreds of communities dispersed across the globe, and most of them were not in continuous contact with each other. Each community lived among a different people, who spoke a different language and maintained different customs. There were places in which it was forbidden for Jews to carry a weapon, while in others they were sought-after warriors. In Kaifeng, China, for example, the Jews were involved in all aspects of life. In the 12th century, Jews served in the Northern Song Dynasty as merchants, artists, officials and government employees. They took the imperial examinations, were awarded ranks in China’s tough bureaucracy, and served the government with success. In the 15th century, they were regarded as brave soldiers in China, and their name became a standard of fidelity.
In southern Yemen, in the region called Haban, there was an extraordinary Jewish community. According to the account of Benjamin of Tudela from the 12th century, the community was composed of outstanding warriors who lived in Khorasan near Nisapor, one of the greatest cities of the Middle Ages. They grew their hair long and always went around armed from head to foot. These customs apparently were maintained till the 20th century. The Zionist emissary, Samuel Yavnieli, encountered them in 1912 after they paid a ransom for him, releasing him from a group of Bedouins who had abducted him.
Mountain-dwelling Jews lived in Dagestan (between the area of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Chechnya of today) and earned a name for their violent and belligerent nature over the centuries. They survived in an isolated and harsh area of the Caucasus Mountains and, according to legend, went to sleep with their weapons strapped to their belt. They regarded themselves as the true successors of the heroic Samson and Bar Kochba.
Even Spain, which would launch the Inquisition in the late 15th century and expel the Jews, enjoyed the assistance of many Jews during the Reconquista battles to recapture Spain from the hands of the Muslims. The Jews fought mainly in Toledo, Sagrajas (Zalaqa) and Burgos, including battles against the Moors. They even received three conquered mosques as a gift from the Christians, and the Jews converted them into synagogues. We have no documentation proving that Jews participated in the armies of mercenaries that swept over Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. On the other hand, we know with certainty that Jews served in the imperial army of Holland, in Napoleon’s army and in the American War of Independence. And, of course, Jews fought in the U.S. Civil War – on both sides, incidentally. However, as noted, all of these phenomena, from China and the Caucasus Mountains to Yemen and the Confederate Army, were local and lacked a wider or international Jewish connection. Other voices started to be heard only toward the end of the 19th century.
Chapter 8: Developing the national muscle
Friedrich Löwenberg was a young Jew from Vienna, an unemployed intellectual whose beloved woman had left him. He is determined to commit suicide, but then catches sight of an intriguing invitation to join a private journey to a secluded Pacific island in the company of a Prussian aristocrat. Löwenberg decides to pursue this opportunity and sets off on the voyage. En route to the Pacific Ocean, the two stop in Jaffa in the Land of Israel which was very underdeveloped and sparsely populated. After twenty years of isolation on the Pacific island, the two return to Europe and again drop anchor in the Land of Israel. This time, they find a completely different land, settled and developed, a society that serves as a model for the entire world.
Friedrich Löwenberg never really existed. He is a fictional character Benjamin Theodor Herzl uses to expound his vision in his book Altneuland. This book is essentially a political-ideological utopia that presents Herzl’s Zionist vision in wonderful colors, but in a sense is also a corporal utopia. In Vienna, Löwenberg sits in cafés all day and envies young people playing billiards. They mock his weakness and disparagingly call him Ophelia. But the twenty years of isolation on the distant island makes him a real man, muscular and strong, and now he is also suitable for the new society created in Israel. The miserable hunchbacked Jews Löwenberg meets in Vienna become robust and suntanned in Israel, and he himself is now fit to marry one of the local girls, Miriam. Asher Zvi Ginsberg – Ahad Ha’am – was severely critical of Altneuland. He argued that Herzl was trying to move away from Judaism, adopting the ways of non-Jews. Herzl’s vision, he contended, was nothing but “a monkey’s imitation without any integral national character.” But Herzl struck a note that pained many Jews in Europe. It was true that the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) movement and the gradual emancipation had allowed Jews to enter more and more fields that were previously closed to them, but the intellectual image never left them. In fact, according to one of the anti-Semitic views prevalent in the late 19th century, the Jewish man menstruated, just like a woman.
Jewish intellectualism continued to be denounced in Europe, even though it had greatly changed since the appearance of Moses Mendelssohn and the strengthening of the secular movement. True, Jews were no longer all cloistered in a the traditional Jewish elementary school known as heder, but they still engaged primarily in Luftgesheft, “[hot]air business” – law, bookkeeping, accounting, writing, art and so on. The denunciation intensified at the end of the 19th century with the growing influence of what is called “the philosophy of life” [Lebensphilosophie] a number of schools of thought and philosophers (including Friedrich Nietzsche) who extolled the virtues of experience and intuition, as opposed to abstract thinking. The intellect was no longer as central as in the past. In his important book The Jews and Economic Life (1911), Werner Sombart argues that the Jew prefers spirituality to physical activity, and perpetuates an ancient tradition of the mind’s predominance over the hands. The Jews, according to Sombart, excel in their excessive inclination for abstraction and sophistry, which is opposed to the free and unmediated imagination.
Herzl was addressing this attitude when he described the metamorphosis his hero, Friedrich Löwenberg, underwent. The poet Saul Tchernikovsky also spoke of this in his poem I Believe (1892): “the chains will be removed from my people /eye-to-eye it will see light / it will live, love, take action, labor … life of the spirit is not enough for it.” Something was lacking, a life of the spirit was no longer sufficient for this people. Max Nordau described this “something” better than anyone. At the second Zionist Congress in Basel (1898), he coined the term “muscular Judaism” (Muskul-judentum). Soon this muscular Judaism became a symbol of the abandonment of Jewish intellectualism, which was an important component of both traditional Judaism and modern Jewry.
Chapter 9: Bar Kochba’s comeback
Nordau himself was a prototypical Jewish intellectual, almost a caricature. Among other things, he was a physician and, as such, found physiological reasons for the Jewish atrophy – a paucity of sunlight, air, water and land: “In the darkness of our homes, lacking sunlight, our eyes have become accustomed to nervous blinking … we will renew the connection with an ancient tradition and again become men with broad chests, limbs poised, with a mighty look in our eyes.”
Muscular Judaism fit in well with the formulation of the new image of the Jew in the Diaspora, and particularly in preparation for the new society that Zionism sought to create in the Land of Israel. Nordau believed that the revival of Jewry must be spiritual and moral, but also economic and physical. “Because to be a Zionist means, first of all and more than anything, to be a fighter.” He did not view the culture of the body as the be-all and end-all, but sought to balance between the body and the soul. His idea of muscles was also, in part, a response to the theories of race that grew very popular in Europe. If the racist viewpoint contends that the Jew’s inferiority is a biological phenomenon that cannot be changed, muscular Judaism would come and prove the opposite.
Nordau was not thinking about developing the body merely for the purposes of war, but also as a goal in and of itself, for sporting purposes. Still, he spoke about the need for physical education against “the terrible ravages that eighteen centuries of exile have wreaked upon us.” He linked muscular Judaism to Bar Kochba, who embodied in Nordau’s words: “Judaism forged in warfare, eager to take up arms.” It was an accepted idea in Europe. The father of German gymnastics, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, also linked the culture of the body to national valor. The repudiation of the culture of the body, the lot of Judaism since the days of the battle against Hellenism, was gone and forgotten. Chapter 10: The shoemaker wields a weapon
A flesh-and-blood Jewish hero who exemplified the desired change soon appeared in Europe. His name was Hirsh Lekert, and he was only a 22-year-old shoemaker from Vilna when he became a legend.
About 80,000 Jews lived in Vilna in 1902, and many of them were very active in the Jewish-socialist Bund movement. The Bund was a source of great concern to the Russian czars, because it included revolutionary forces that threatened the outdated and fossilized regime. Therefore a new governor of Vilna was appointed to impose order: Victor von Wahl, a general known as a sadist, anti-Semite and cynic. Von Wahl, who won his reputation after brutally suppressing the Polish revolt of 1863, decided to break the Bund.
In massive May Day demonstrations in 1902, Von Wahl’s Cossack cavalry burst into the crowd of Jewish demonstrators and whipped them cruelly with wet whips. Eighteen leaders of the demonstration were arrested, stripped naked, placed on wooden benches and again beaten with wet whips until they fainted.
The official leadership of the Bund called for its supporters to refrain from seeking vengeance, but a group of young activists rebelled against the leadership and decided to take action. Hirsh Lekert, the young shoemaker, arms himself with a pistol and ambushes General Von Wahl when the latter was leaving a circus performance. Lekert shoots Von Wahl twice, seriously wounding him, and is arrested on the spot, tortured and interrogated. He is ultimately sentenced to death by hanging. His public hanging in the center of Vilna was counterproductive from the regime’s perspective: Lekert became a legend. Jewish poets wrote poems about him, playwrights composed plays based on his story, and sculptors shaped his image, which became almost mythological. A new (or renewed) Jew. A fighter. The legend of Hirsh Lekert the shoemaker continued to resonate in the forests of Belarus during World War II, where the Jewish partisans regarded themselves as his successors.
Chapter 11: The sun was shining and the slaughterer slayed
The name Mikhail Rybachenko means nothing to us today, but the death of this Ukrainian boy may have changed Jewish history. His body was found in April 1903 in the city of Dubossary in Moldova. At the same time, a teenage girl who had attempted suicide was found dead in a Jewish hospital in the area. It was springtime, and in keeping with East European tradition, there was an anti-Semitic newspaper – the Bessarabetz (Bessarabian) in this case – that was quick to suggest that the two were murdered by Jews who used their blood to prepare matzoth for Passover. As the Christian faithful left church on Easter Sunday in the city of Kishinev, 25 kilometers south of Dubossary, they launched a fierce pogrom against the Jews: During the next three days, 49 Jews were murdered, about 600 were injured and dozens of women were brutally raped; over 700 homes and businesses were looted and destroyed. Police and army forces were very strict about refraining from lifting a finger during the three-day pogrom. It was not the first pogrom in the territory of the Russian Empire, where the world’s largest Jewish community was concentrated. Nor was it the second one. It was not even the most deadly pogrom. Two years later, during the revolution of 1905, nearly 1,000 Jews were murdered in 12 days. But the Kishinev pogrom was a real watershed: The ways of Jewish thinking and expression changed profoundly. For the first time, sharp criticism was heard about Jewish helplessness. No longer did the Jews simply weep and wail about their bitter fate and the injustice. Instead, Jews were critical, of Jews, for not trying to defend themselves. Even Ahad Ha’am, who generally balked at the Jewish use of force, now called upon Jews to organize in self-defense: “It is disgraceful for five million souls to cast themselves upon others, to offer their necks for slaughter and cry for help, without trying to use their power to defend their property and honor and lives by themselves. And who knows whether this disgrace of ours is not the main reason for the common folk’s contempt for us … Only those who know how to defend their dignity are also dignified in the eyes of others… Stop the crying and pleading, stop reaching out your hands to those who despise and ostracize you, for them to come and save you. Use your own hands to save yourselves!”
The poet Haim Nahman Bialik provoked the most profound conceptual change. Two months after the pogrom, he arrived in Kishinev at the head of a delegation from Odessa that collected testimony and findings with the aim of writing a book about the pogrom. He stayed in the city for five weeks, met with survivors, listened to testimony and visited the sites of the killings and rapes. In the end, there was no book. However, Bialik instead wrote the poem Nemirov’s Journey, the censored name of In the City of Slaughter.
The poem includes stark descriptions of the pogroms and the scenes it left behind: “And see with your eyes and feel the fences with your hand / and on the trees and on the stones and on the plaster of the walls / the clotted blood and the dried-up brains of the dead.” Or “A woman, one woman under seven, seven heathens / the daughter in view of her mother and the mother in view of her daughter / before slaughter and during slaughter and after slaughter.” But what really shook European Jewry and the world was the ruthless criticism of the victims. “The sun was shining, the acacia tree blossomed and the slaughterer slayed,” Bialik wrote, ostensibly in the name of God, and did not hesitate to refer to heroes of the past to criticize and even mock the victims of Kishinev: “And now go and I’ll bring you to all of the hiding places: / latrines, pigpens and other filthy places, and see with your eyes where they were hiding / your brothers, your people and the descendants of the Maccabees / the great-grandchildren of the lions in the Av Harachamim [Merciful Father memorial prayer for Jews martyred during the Crusades] and seed of the “holy ones” / twenty souls crammed into a single hole / and they magnify my honor in the world and publicly sanctify my name.” And if this were not enough, toward the end of the poem Bialik lashes out at those who wallow in self-pity: “To the cemetery, beggars! Dig up the bones of your fathers / and the bones of your holy brethren and fill your knapsacks / and stuff them on your shoulder and set off on your way / to ply them as your wares at all of the fairs … and call for compassion from nations and pray for mercy from Gentiles / as you have stretched out your hand, you will stretch, and as you have schnorred, you will schnorr.”
Even Jews who did not feel special affection for the Zionist movement found it very difficult to continue with the routine of their lives after these harsh words from Bialik and Ahad Ha’am. The Jewish reality of waiting for the next pogrom and lying low until the storm had passed, became more and more difficult. Because of the shame.
Almost immediately, Jewish self-defense associations began to organize. The young Alexander Zaïd, later one of the founders of Hebrew defense organizations in the Land of Israel (Bar-Giora, Hashomer), quickly joined one of these groups in Vilna, in the event that a pogrom might also occur there. A socialist student named Pinhas Dashevsky tried to assassinate the anti-Semitic journalist Pavel Krushevan in St. Petersburg as revenge for instigating the Kishinev pogrom. This was the spirit of the period. Some chose revenge, some organized for defense, and others immigrated en masse to the Land of Israel (the Second Aliyah). It was difficult to be a Jew in Russia and continue to sit by idly.
Herzl concurred, and four months after the pogrom, he brought before the 6th Zionist Congress the British proposal to settle Russian Jews in East Africa. The British offered a Jewish Charter on a strip of land that was then called Uganda and today is actually part of Kenya. The plan was approved, but never implemented. However, it illustrated the urgency of the Jewish problem. Kishinev also marked the definitive entry into Zionist affairs of the person who translated Bialik’s poem into Russian and soon became one of the architects of the image of the new Jewish warrior – Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
Chapter 12: Proud, generous and fierce
“Here in Odessa, I did not see the payot [sidelocks]or the kapotes [long coats worn by Jews]or such severe poverty. Here I also did not see old and venerable Jews, with white beards, who doff their shtreimel [fur hat]when speaking with the paritz [Polish nobleman] in the street … this impression was difficult.” In these words, Jabotinsky described in retrospect his first encounter with the ghetto Jews of Galicia when he was 17 years old. The famous Jabotinskyesque “grandeur” has yet to appear here in its developed form, but the spirit is here. “We need young people who know how to ride a horse and climb trees and swim in the water and use a fist and a rifle, people with a healthy imagination and strong desire, seeking expression in the war of life,” he wrote in On Literature and Art.
But Jabotinsky did not only write. With the outbreak of World War I, he understood that the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Land of Israel, was about to exit from this stage of history, and that the British Empire would take its place. Jews fought in large numbers in the various armies that participated in the First World War. Some 100,000 Jews fought in the German Army alone (the fact that 12,000 of these fell in the war and another 30,000 won medals of valor would make it very difficult for the Nazis to kill these decorated Jews in the next world war. This matter was also a central subject of discussion at the Wannsee Conference.) But the Jewish soldiers were scattered among the various units. Jabotinsky sought to form a framework of warfare that would be completely Jewish, similar to what he did in Odessa after Kishinev, but this time as part of the British Army.
The Zionist Executive Committee imposed a boycott on Jabotinsky’s initiative, fearing that it would critically harm the Jews of the Land of Israel, who were still under Ottoman rule. But Jabotinsky received support for his plan from Jewish refugees who had been expelled by the Turks to Alexandria. Their leader was one Joseph Trumpeldor. Despite the boycott, Jabotinsky met with the prime minister of Britain, Lloyd George, and the Zion Mule Corps came into being.
Although the Zion Mule Corps was not the deciding factor in the outcome of World War I (in fact, it was assigned to transport supplies), the British did expel the Ottomans from the Land of Israel and were now also committed to the Balfour Declaration, as well as to the idea of Jewish defense, an idea that was gaining momentum.
The same Trumpeldor from the mules became the first national legend in the renewed life of the Jews in the Land of Israel. The national memory and legend of Tel Hai clearly illustrates the renewed Jewish thirst to bask in the aura of warriors and heroes. History vividly remembers “it’s good to die for our country” at the end of the battle of Tel Hai, but tends to forget how it started. Her name was Deborah Drechler and she immigrated to the Land of Israel on her own at age 17. When she arrives in Tel Adashim and is excluded, like all the women, from security and defense affairs – she starts a revolt and wins. Later, she sets out on a dangerous mission to Damascus in order to maintain contact with members of the Hashomer defense organization. When she comes to the isolated location at Tel Hai, she asks for a rifle and hides it in her bed. When the security situation in the wild Galilee deteriorates, and Trumpeldor proposes abandoning Tel Hai. Deborah Drechler votes to stay. They stay. On a day when Trumpeldor allows Bedouins to enter Tel Hai to search for Frenchmen, Deborah is on the roof. Kamal Efendi, the leader of the Bedouins, goes up to the roof and sees the armed woman there. He tries to take the weapon from her, and she shouts to Trumpeldor: “Osia, they’re taking my pistol from me.” One shot is fired and then it was no longer possible to stop the gunfire. Trumpeldor, Drechler and six of their comrades fall in the battle. The legend is born. “To die or to conquer the mount,” Jabotinsky writes in the anthem of Beitar, the Revisionist youth movement whose name recalls the Jewish fortress of ancient times, and is also a (slightly modified) Hebrew acronym for Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor. Zionism, like most revolutionary movements, sought to create a new man. Some placed the emphasis on the new Jew, others believed in manual labor and redeeming the land, and yet others envisioned the new man as a standard-bearer for socialism. For Jabotinsky, the emphasis was different: “With blood and sweat / a race will arise for us / proud, generous and fierce.” Later, he writes: “[We] must transform the Jewish people from a herd of beaten slaves to a nation that knows how to fight.” He is no longer referring here to Nordau’s muscles as an antithesis to the flaccidity of the exile; he is talking about a real fighting force.
“Young people, learn how to shoot!” cries Jabotinsky, who believes that the Arabs of the Land of Israel are a “living nation” and that they will not consent to the fulfillment of Zionism in Israel. Therefore, the Jews must build an “Iron Wall” that demonstrates to the Arabs that they will not succeed in getting rid of the Zionists: “If you will be learned people and also know how to plow the land and build houses, [if]all of you speak Hebrew and are familiar with all of our national literature, but don’t know how to shoot, there will be no hope for you. But if you know how to shoot – there can be hope … of all the conditions for political renewal, knowing how to shoot is unfortunately, the most important condition … If you wish to settle the land, where someone is already living – you must maintain a garrison force … because without an armed force to physically prevent any possibility of disturbing the settler – settlement will be impossible.”
Chapter 13: Hitler in the crosshairs
The lofty words of Jabotinsky reached only a small part of the people. In the 1930’s, most Jews did not live in the Land of Israel and were not Zionists. The eyes of the Jewish people were not focused on what was happening in the Middle East, but instead on the rapid changes occurring in Hitler’s Germany. With the rise of the Nazis to power, the Jews’ situation began to deteriorate dramatically. Some fled to Palestine, some immigrated to the United States, and some believed that the insanity would quickly pass and that Germany would return to itself. But here and there, Jews also dared to resist.
In 1936, for example, David Frankfurter assassinated Wilhelm Gustlolf, the founder of the Nazi movement in Switzerland. Frankfurter committed this act after his place of work in a Frankfurt laboratory was marked with a Jewish star. Many Jews, including Frankfurter’s father, opposed the attack, claiming that it was contrary to basic Jewish values. Some argue that the murder prevented the annexation (Anschluss) of Switzerland to Germany. They believe that the only reason the Nazis did not respond to the assassination with a cruel pogrom against the Jews was the fact that it occurred just prior to the start of the Olympic Games that year in Berlin.
Frankfurter was apparently greatly influenced by another Jew named Herschel Grynspan. The latter’s parents were expelled from Germany in 1938 along with thousands of other Jews who had been living there without German citizenship. His parents lived in very harsh conditions and sought the assistance of Herschel, who was then only 17 and penniless. Grynspan takes a pistol and fires five bullets into Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris. Vom Rath, a junior and unimportant official, dies two days later. He is buried in a grand state ceremony in Dusseldorf, attended by Hitler himself. Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop delivers the eulogy at the funeral: “This is an attack by the Jews against the entire German people. We understand the challenge and accept it.” Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels spreads news of the funeral over the front pages of the newspapers, and in his speech gives the green light for the Kristallnacht riots that shocked the world.
With the outbreak of World War II, Jabotinsky himself presents a plan to the War Office in London to assassinate Hitler and senior Nazi officers. The plan, of course, is never carried out. One Jew from the Land of Israel does actually try to move from planning to the stage of action. His name was Yitzhak Shimkin, an engineer and member of the Haganah organization. Shimkin approaches his commander in Haifa, Yaakov Dori, and asks for assistance in killing Hitler. Dori sends him to his superiors, Shaul Avigur and Moshe Sharett (Shertok). The latter is skeptical, fearing that Hitler would be replaced by someone even worse, and is concerned about the impact of such an assassination on German Jewry. Shimkin understands where the wind is blowing and stops asking questions. He goes to the Haganah armory, takes two hand grenades, and travels to Prague. When the Nazis enter Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Shimkin is waiting on a balcony. In the afternoon, Hitler’s convoy drives through the streets of the city, but much to Shimkin’s chagrin, the convoy includes five Mercedes vehicles that are closed and not open-roofed. So he cannot tell in which car the Führer is riding. He leaves the grenades in Prague and returns to Palestine disappointed.
Chapter 14: Honor from the Supreme Soviet
The Second World War brought upon the Jewish people the most terrible tragedy in its history. Without bearing arms, six million were destroyed – some by hunger and illness, some by bullets and some in the gas chambers, only because of their Jewish identity. In the very unequal division between “Holocaust” and “resistance,” it is customary to think that the resistance consisted of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt and a few partisans, while the rest went like sheep to the slaughter. There is no greater historical distortion than this. There is no space here to list the acts of heroism by Jews during the Holocaust, in the ghettos, in the marches, in the extermination camps.
What is almost never mentioned during the Israeli memorial days is the valor of 1.5 million Jewish men and women who participated in this war as fighters in the various armies and underground organizations. About 250,000 Jews fell in battle during the war, most of them in the Red Army, which numbered no less than 500,000 Jewish soldiers, including about 80,000 female soldiers. These Jewish women served not only as physicians and nurses and technicians, but also as pilots, bombers, anti-aircraft and tank commanders. Jewish women also fought courageously in the Lithuanian Division, and paid a heavy price as fighters in the French Resistance, the underground organization that waged war against the Nazis and their collaborators.
The most significant contribution to the war effort came from the Jews of the United States and the Soviet Union. While Stalin was once quoted as telling the Polish general Anders that “the Jews are lousy fighters,” this did not stop him from promoting fifty Jews to the rank of general and decorating 160,000 Jews with medals of valor, including 123 who received the most exalted title of all: Hero of the Soviet Union.
The Jewish officer Yakov Grigorevich Kreizer reached the highest rank in the Soviet Army – “army general” (equivalent to a 4-star general in the U.S. Army). In the Minsk area, Kreizer succeeded in stalling the advance of the armored corps of General Guderian, who was then considered the best armored commander in the world. Despite the fact that Guderian had more soldiers, more tanks and more air support, Kreizer managed to block him for twelve critical days, enabling the Red Army to send reinforcements and stabilize the line of defense on the banks of the Dnieper River. The Germans knew that the opposing general was a Jew, and tried to induce his soldiers to rebel. They distributed flyers from the air delivering the following message: “Why are you obeying that Jew, Yankel? Get up and free yourselves from that man and his people, who are the enemies of mankind.” But the Russian soldiers remained loyal to their Jewish commander, who later in the war would take part in the battles for Moscow and Stalingrad.
The first commander of the Soviet Air Force during the war, General Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich, was also a Jew who was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union. Jewish heroism, incidentally, did not necessarily mean support for Israel or for Zionism. David Dragunsky, for example, was another Jewish general decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union (twice!). He participated in the battles for Moscow and the liberation of Berlin. Dragunsky lost 74 family members in the war, and he saw himself as a Jew who was loyal to his people. While still alive, a statue of Dragunsky was erected to honor him in his home town. Yet he was among the founders of the Anti-Zionist Committee of the Soviet Public and harshly criticized Israeli policy. Dragunsky compared Menachem Begin to Adolph Hitler and Zionism to fascism. During the days of the First Lebanon War, Dragunsky claimed that Israel was trying to carry out genocide of the Palestinians.
Chapter 15: Under cover of a bat and a glove
There were also about 500,000 Jews fighting in the ranks of the U.S. Army in WW II. The highest ranking officer was Maurice Rose, a general who fell in battle and is considered by some historians to be “the greatest forgotten general of World War II.” History has also nearly forgotten another JewishAmerican hero, Moe Berg.
Legend tells that two weeks after the American Marines invaded the island of Iwo Jima in 1945, a war of nerves was waged between them and the Japanese. Only 300 meters separated the warring forces. One day at 2:30 a.m., a voice boomed from the loudspeaker. It was someone speaking English with a Japanese accent. “Your wife is now sleeping in your bed with your neighbor,” the voice taunted, but the Marines were accustomed to this psychological warfare and did not pay attention. “Babe Ruth stinks,” and the voice went on to curse another baseball player who became a legend: “Lou Gehrig is a son of a bitch.” But a moment later, the voice made the first gibe that managed to jolt the Americans in the trenches: “Moe Berg is a homo.” Who the hell is Moe Berg, the Marines asked, and why is he mentioned in the same breath with legends like Gehrig and Ruth?”
The reason the Japanese thought that Moe Berg was a great baseball star was simple. In 1934, a delegation of great American baseball stars traveled to Japan. While Berg was a pretty good catcher, he was very far from the pantheon of such players as Gehrig and Lefty Gomez. He was invited to join the delegation because he knew Japanese (and 26 other languages). In light of his talents, the OSS – the American intelligence organization and precursor of the CIA – also took him into its ranks. His mission in Tokyo is to photograph the city’s airport and seaport, and he accomplishes this with great success. He uses an 8 mm camera to take this footage, pretending to be making a film for tourists. The movies Berg shot in Japan are today stored in the CIA museum: They were of great help in the first bombing of Tokyo in 1942.
The son of immigrants, the Jew from Harlem is sent to Germany in the middle of the war to check how far the Nazis have progressed in their atomic weapons project. Posing as an expert in nuclear physics, Moe Berg becomes friendly with Werner Heisenberg, the head of Germany’s nuclear project. Berg’s orders are to kill Heisenberg if the Nazis are close to splitting the atom. But after Berg wins his trust, Heisenberg discloses to him that although the Nazis have a lot of uranium, they are not even close to developing a bomb. Berg later discovers the location of Germany’s two atomic facilities and they are bombed from the air. He is sent to talk with the partisans in Yugoslavia and is also assigned the mission of asking Pope Pius XII, on behalf of President Roosevelt, to condemn the destruction of the Jews by the Nazis. The pope nods his head – and does nothing. After the war, Moe Berg receives the Medal of Freedom, the highest decoration awarded to civilians in war. Incidentally, after the war he does not work another day in his life, and asks for his ashes to be scattered on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem
Chapter 16: Everything is political
The horrors of the Second World War led the superpowers to conclude that two states should be established in the Land of Israel, and that one of them would be for Jews. The Zionist underground organizations, which had already begun to operate in the 1920’s,now intensified their activity, occasionally battling among themselves for prestige. The “purity of arms” lost some of its importance in light of the national struggle against the Arabs and, in particular, against the British, who were superior to the Jews in power and in every other sense. Executions, injuring innocent people, collective punishment. Partisan leader and later Hebrew poet Abba Kovner planned to poison the wells in Germany in order to avenge the Holocaust, but the Lehi underground planned to poison the wells in London in order to expel the British from Palestine. The 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem – where the British Mandatory government was headquartered – turned into a political bombshell among the Zionist movements, and this struggle intensified with the outbreak of the War of Independence. The 1948 Deir Yassin massacre by members of the Irgun and Herut underground inflamed emotions in Palestine and in the world; the bombing of the Irgun’s Altalena armament ship by the nascent Israel Defense Forces brought internal tensions to the brink.
The closer the historical events are to us, the more difficult it is to address them. Everything is political. It is easy to crown heroes in the case of Nathan Elbaz or Roei Klein, who fell onto grenades in order to save their comrades. Or Asa Kadmoni, who singlehandedly stopped an Egyptian battalion the battle of Serabeum in the Yom Kippur War and killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers. But when it comes to examining Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, or Arik Sharon and Ehud Barak, everything gets more complicated. Allon was a revered commander, but was dismissed because he came from the Palmach and belonged to the wrong party in David Ben-Gurion’s eyes. Dayan rose from deputy battalion commander to chief of staff in only six years for exactly the opposite reason, and contrary to the opinion of most of his commanders. It is doubtful whether Ehud Barak was really the “No. 1 soldier” in the IDF, not to mention the political infighting behind the question of which general would cross the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War. Nonetheless, we can note one significant change in Israeli society’s attitude toward its military heroes, from the birth of the state till today. In 1954, an IDF force embarked on a reconnaissance mission in the Golan Heights, which was then still under Syrian rule. The force finds itself surrounded by Syrian soldiers and surrenders without a fight. Five soldiers are taken into captivity. One of the soldiers, a kibbutznik from Gan Shmuel by the name of Uri Ilan, thinks that all of his comrades have been killed and decides to commit suicide in his cell. The Syrians are so alarmed that they return his body to Israel that very same day. Scraps of paper torn from the book Fathers’ Revenge are found on his body. He had pierced small holes in the paper to spell out various messages, including “I didn’t betray. I committed suicide.” The chief of staff, Dayan, makes him a national hero and eulogizes him, without mentioning the part of the message that says: “I committed suicide.” The four other members of the squad remain in Syrian captivity for another 15 months, suffering severe torture during part of this time. When they return to Israel, the squad commanders, Meir Yaacobi and Meir Moses, are put on trial, charged with disclosing secret information under interrogation. They are convicted and demoted in rank.
Fifty years later, an IDF armored force is attacked on the border of the Gaza Strip by Hamas fighters. Two soldiers, whose names are barely remembered today, Lieutenant Hanan Barak and Staff Sergeant Pavel Slutzker, are killed in the battle. Another soldier, who does not show resistance, remains alive and is taken captive. For five years and four months, Israelis pray for him to return home safely. When he returns, no one thinks of putting him on trial. Gilad Shalit is seen as a hero. In the 1950’s, Israelis preferred their heroes dead and did not forgive Moses and Yaacobi, who returned from captivity alive. In the 21st century, Israelis do not want to hear about failures in battle or the price of releasing prisoners. Or they want to hear but are ready to forgive everything. Just let them come home. Alive.
So, what is Israeli in your eyes? And what is Jewish? Everything depends on the time, the place and the circumstances. The part that is truly important in this question is not whether the Jews are a fighting nation or a feeble nation or both or neither. Instead, what is important is what they are in your eyes and what you do with this. All the rest – it’s just a story.