The Jewish Military Tradition

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


It Is Jewish to Fight 


Before the rise of Christianity, Jews were welcome soldiers and officers in the Roman armies which had conquered the whole Mediterranean world. After the defeat of Israel by the Romans in the 70 C.E., the year of the destruction of Jerusalem, more Jews entered the Roman military service because Jewish fighting ability had been demonstrated by the tremendous courage of the defenders of Israel against the overwhelming Roman legions.

It was then that a good number of Jews joined the Roman garrison at Colonia Agrippina, which the Germans call Köln and which we call Cologne. That city was named after the wife of the emperor Claudius because she was born there. The city had been founded in 50 C.E. Hence Jews were among the first Germans and were employed in Cologne as defenders of the Roman empire against the aggression of the “barbarians” who were invading from Asia and were called Germania by the Romans, although they called themselves Teutsch or Deutsch. 

Then, when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and called the first ecumenical council in Nicea in 325 C.E. , he decreed that Jews could no longer be employed as soldiers in the Roman armies because only Christians were welcome. Thus began that long history of anti-Jewish persecution in Europe together with the oft repeated adage that “it isn’t Jewish to fight”. The reason why this was so commonly believed in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world was that Jews had no means of self – defense. Instead, Jews learned to survive for sixteen hundred years of persecution and brutality by using innumerable stratagems which were successful century in and century out in keeping the Jewish community alive.

Included in these stratagems were bribery of kings and bishops, appeals to various rulers who were afraid that mob rule would get out of hand and affect their privileges, emigration to towns and lands not then too hostile, and, most of all, surrender to temporary outbursts of violence on the part of drunken mobs who enjoyed destroying Jewish communities whenever they pleased. These pogroms (“like thunder” in Russian) accompanied Jewish life until the holocaust, which differed from all other known persecutions in the eliminationist hatred its European perpetrators displayed.

It was during the Holocaust that European Jews first fought back and lost, and yet won.

Remember Mordechai Anielewicz, who commanded 1,200 Jewish fighters who, with 17 rifles, five hundred pistols and some incendiary bombs held off a German - Ukrainian murder commando for six weeks against overwhelming forces. They died fighting and they died in the Nazi camps but they did not die in vain. Their legacy is ours as they destroyed, once and for all, the ancient proverb “it is not Jewish to fight.”

Numerous Jews fought the Nazi killers in the forests of Poland and Lithuania, Russia and the Ukraine, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. They lost their lives, but they did not lose their fight. Their sacrifice has inspired the people of Israel and all Jews to “remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt” (Devarim 25 which we read on Shabbat Zachor)) as they too obliterated the bigotry that “it is not Jewish to fight”.

Earlier than that, Captain Joseph Trumpeldor defended the Israeli town of Tel-Hai against Arab killers who sought to destroy Jewish life in Israel as early as March 1920. Trumpeldor had been a captain in the Russian army and had fought in the Russo-Japanese war. He, together with Z’ev Jabotinsky, organized the Jewish Legion, which fought heroically as a part of the British Army both in the first World War and in the Second World War. They too negated the bigotry that “it is not Jewish to fight”.

Since then, Israel has by necessity become a truly astonishing fighting force in the Middle East. This was never the intention of the Jews who built that land. The Arabs, then and now, always believed that they had and still have the right to murder any and all Jews as did the European bigots of earlier centuries. It is of course understandable that the beliefs of centuries are not easily forgotten. Sociologists call such antiquated beliefs “culture lag”. This means that people often continue to cling to views which are long outdated and no longer correspond to reality. Included in such beliefs is the Arab view that Jews cannot fight, that Jews have no right to exist and that they, the Arabs, have the same right to murder six million Jews as did their European role models, i.e. Hitler, Himmler, Eichmann, etc. etc.

This view was recently rekindled in the Arab mind because the erstwhile prime minister, Barak, acted in the spirit of the European ghetto Jews and adopted the attitude that Jews must always surrender in face of any demand and any aggression. This is particularly surprising because Barak is indeed Israel’s most decorated soldier.

The history of our own country reveals that here too Jews have shown themselves most capable fighters. Numerous Jews have won high distinctions for their fighting ability and their courage. Included are American Jews who fought in every war since the revolution of 1776. Looking now only as far back as World War I we remember William Sawelson who received the Congressional Medal of Honor together with Sidney Gumpertz and Ben Kaufman and Cpl. Barney Salter. In that war the Buffalonian Jewish marine Lester Bergman earned the distinguished service cross and the French croix de guerre for outstanding courage and fighting ability at the battle of Belleau Wood.

During the Second World War  Isidore Jachman and Raymond Zussman were both awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for bravery so heroic it is hard to imagine. Again, the Jewish Buffalo native Harrison Swados distinguished himself as a soldier, winning the Silver Star and Bronze Star for bravery in action.  Innumerable other Jews did the same in Korea and in Vietnam since then.

Not to be forgotten is Lily Litvak, who was the most decorated woman fighter pilot in the Soviet air force during World War II. The Germans finally succeeded in shooting her down and killing her when eight German planes attacked her simultaneously.

We could go on and on and recite innumerable heroic actions by Jewish women and men who fought for their country, their honor and their people and laid to rest once and for all that malicious wishful comment by the enemies of G’d and Israel that “it is not Jewish to fight.”

Shalom u’vracha.


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