Jews and the Military: A History by Derek Penslar

Jews and the Military: A History by Derek Penslar

reviewed by

Howard Adelman

I read Derek’s book, not only because he is a friend, but because I hoped he might help me answer a number of questions about the role of Jews as fighters. I have always been interested in outliers, not exactly in Malcolm Gladwell’s sense of someone who achieves success without following the normal rules, but in the more colloquial sense as someone who is not part of a group but gets to play a significant role in that group without exactly being fully part of it. (This, as the reader will see, includes diaspora Jewish outliers within the Israeli army.) I was attracted to Jewish military outliers because of their counter to the image of Jews as a non-fighting group (false as Derek shows) and because the image of the military as a conformist organization par excellence combined with being an outlier seems so ill-fitting. What makes Jewish outliers tick and how do they get to occupy the positions they do far out of proportion to their percentage of a population?

My experience with the military in Harbord Collegiate in Toronto reinforced this curiosity. When I entered in 1950, Harbord was an academic high school consisting of 95% Jewish students and 100% non-Jewish teachers. Further, the member of Parliament for our area was a Communist and a Jew, Joe or J.B. Salsberg. A few years earlier, the only other member of Parliament in Ottawa who was a communist was Fred Rose (nee Rosenberg) who represented Cartier Riding, a working class riding in Montreal. He was Jewsih and the only Canadian Parliamentarian ever convicted of treason. Salsberg finally broke from the party only with the Soviet repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. (Cf. Gerry Tulchinsky’s Joe Salsberg: A Life of Commitment)

At the time in the immediate aftermath of World War II, high schools still had compulsory military training. Harbord Collegiate was no exception. Harbord Collegiate was relatively exceptional among high schools in having a statue of a soldier carrying a gun into battle called “Our Soldier” which had been installed in 1921 as a memorial to the Harbord Collegiate boys who fought and died in the Great War and to which was added the names of those who sacrificed their lives in WWII.

Our military training officer was a Brit, Major Caldecott, who was also our gym teacher and my home teacher in Grade 9. He had served in Palestine during the war. As he explicitly told us, there seemed little difference between the colony of Jews in Harbord Collegiate and the Jewish colony of Jews in Palestine. He claimed to understand our specific needs. Since most of us had part time jobs and could only do compulsory military training after school once a week at a significant economic sacrifice, he arranged with the principal for us to learn all the military routines in three afternoons when we would train at the University Avenue armouries instead of attending school. As he explicitly told us, we were smart Jewish boys who would not suffer from missing three afternoons of school and could learn in just three afternoons what other schools took a year to learn..

There was a third and most important difference and exception that affected our cadet corp. Our school was the only one in the city where the cadet corp did not have either guns or uniforms. The cadet corp of Central Tech three blocks away in the same federal riding had both guns and uniforms. I do not recall our having been given any explanation for this anomaly, but we generally assumed that it was the combination of the high proportion of Jews and a communist member of Parliament that explained the situation. After all, the cadet corp of Forest Hill Collegiate in a rich district that did not have Salsberg as a rep but with a high percentage of Jews, trained with both guns and uniforms. There was one distinct advantage to this situation. Under the principle of equality, Harbord Collegiate received the same allowance per student from the government for military training as other schools. Caldecott, claiming to understand our psychology and economic predicament, said that the money saved from not having to buy guns and uniforms would go to the platoon that performed best in the march past before the Queen’s Own Rifles which would be a test of our mastery of the marching drill in three afternoons of training.

Although the training over those three afternoons seemed absolutely chaotic, the Major must have understood how money motivated Jews from working class families and we performed brilliantly at the evening parade. If we had not suffered from a handicap of receiving zero points for the way we wore our uniforms – we marched with white shirts with rolled-up shirt sleeves – and for the absence of any gun drill, we would have come in first in the city. As it is, we came third. I wanted to read Derek’s book to find out whether this situation of differential training was unique and whether a fear of our using those guns to mount a communist insurrection was the motivation for Harbord Collegiate’s outlier treatment in cadet training. As much as I learned, this question remained unanswered though I did learn that the situation of regarding certain Jews as having questionable loyalties was not unique but rather pervasive.

But my main interest was individual outliers. A special favourite outlier of mine was Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen, a Canadian who left Poland with his Orthodox Jewish family when he was a child and became a pickpocket in London’s east-end just like one of Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist, but his boss was called Harry the Goniff.  Cohen was also a boxer who fought as Fat Moishe or Cockney Cohen. After a period in reform school, he was sent off to Canada to work as a farmhand, but soon went back to his old ways and travelled with the carnival as a barker and shill. He became a soldier in WWI supervising Chinese labourers employed to dig the ditches and build railways.

When he returned to Canada, following a good deed he performed for a Saskatoon Chinese restauranteur, Mah Sam, protecting him from a shake-down gang, he was introduced to Sun Yat-sen. He ended up, according to his own account, initially as a colonel in Sun Yat-sen’s nationalist Chinese army, but, in Derek’s account attributed to Daniel Levy’s biography of Cohen, not even an aide-de-camp, but “more of a bodyguard and drill instructor” (212). But in Cohen’s own account and that of Levy, he ended up as an arms dealer for Chinese warlords and Chief of Chinese intelligence when he purportedly assumed the title of General.  

My interest was not just idiosyncratic. I ran across a varied assortment of Jewish outliers in my work in Africa and Asia. The interest has a contemporary as well as historical application. In the Maidan rebellion in Kyiv this year, an ex-Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldier, who served in the Shu’alei Shimshon reconnaissance battalion of the Givati infantry brigade and who born in the Ukraine, was a leader of a 40 man (and woman) platoon called Delta that patrolled the Maidan in Kyiv to ensure there was no hooliganism and to preserve the ethos that violence would only be used for defence and not to attack police or political institutions. Among the members, there were a few others Jews trained in the IDF. He and his team prevented a mob from overrunning a police station and killing all the cops inside. To add to the irony, he worked under the auspices of Svoboda, the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian party that was often accused of anti-Semitism and was very recently documented as physically forcing the head of Ukraine television to resign..

What motivated such Jewish outliers and why were they accepted by groups to which they only had a marginal affinity? Derek summarizes Two-Gun’s role but does not even attempt an explication. In the case of Berek Joselewic who became a Polish national hero for raising and leading a regiment in the Kosciuszko rebellion against Russia in 1794 and subsequently fought in the Polish cavalry and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Polish army, Derek simply says that, “Berek was not so much a Polish patriot as an adventurer and activist who sought to enhance his own personal honour as well as the Jews under his command” and that “Berek’s own ambition shines through in his demand to be appointed to the august rank of colonel.” (56-57) Berek and Two Gun Cohen come across as outsized opportunists and self-promoters attracted to the military for the adventure and theatrical nature of the enterprise rather than men who became soldiers because of principle or an overwhelming desire to serve.

In contrast, during the nineteenth century Jews enrolled as soldiers for their imperial governments in support of stability provided reform was promised to guarantee equality or as rebels in the quest for national independence and the consequent freedom and equality promised. Among such freedom fighters, Jews played a prominent role similar to their role this year in the uprisings in Kyiv where their numbers were disproportionate to their small percentage of the population. And if a rebellion was squelched, Jews bore an equally disproportionate share of the punishment. But whatever side taken and whatever the result, Jews had been inculcated with military values that became part of their liberal emancipation.

Another question I hoped to have answered was the issue of dual loyalty, between one’s loyalty to Jews as a group versus loyalty to the polity in which Jews were members, loyalty to Jews in general versus the particular loyalties to their states or rebellious factious. Thus, Jews fought on both sides in the American Civil War. Jews are on both sides in the Russian Ukraine divide. But that could mean Jews killing Jews.  How did Jews respond to such conflicts of loyalty? Chapter four takes up that issue of Jews as a nation fighting their own people.

Jews are not the only ones affected by such divided loyalties. Russians living in Ukraine outside of Crimea are torn. Poles fought for both the Germans and the Russians as did Ukrainians for both the Tsarist and Hapsburg dynasties in the Great War. What Derek documents is that the question of this type of dual loyalty did not arise until the nineteenth century. Prior to then Jews generally, with some exceptions, waited on the sidelines though sometimes taking up arms to protect their municipalities. However, what happened when French Jews prayed for the success of Napoleon and Jews in Britain prayed for the success of their own troops? To whom was God supposed to listen?

Derek’s answer emerges in the historical literature he uncovers. Jewish military service “was tied to the rational value of service to the state” (125) and not tied to romantic myths of family and nation and the  cult of masculinity. Jews then tended to favour gentle masculinity. So Jews fought against Jews but did not get caught up in a process of magnifying the traits of one’s own nation and denigrating the traits of the other so Jewish transnationalism persisted even with all the inter- and intra-state wars. Jewish patriotism was active in accepting the responsibilities of military service to the state in which they were members while they passively accepted its correlate that Jews would end up killing Jews as the trade off for emancipation and citizenship.

Clearly Germans and Italians and Japanese who fought for the allies had similar conflicts and seem to have resolved them in the same way except when they were persecuted by the states in which they were members because of the irrational fears of them being or becoming a fifth column. Yet Derek suggests something else was at work for Jews – a strong sense of transnationalism that not only made them suppress any demonization of the Other and glorification of the collective self, but created a strong propensity to uphold the values of universal peace. However, where there were no Jews on the other side in fighting in the colonies, or where the enemy was clearly Melek as in the case of the Germans during WWII, Jews seemed no different than any other nation. In such morally unambiguous situations vis-a-vis the type of dual loyalty, the transnationalism was more muted.

I also wanted to learn about Jews who were outstanding soldiers, particularly Canadians. When we were teenagers, we heard many stories about the outstanding contribution of Ben Dunkelman both in World War II where he fought in the Canadian army and then went on to fight in the War of Independence in Israel. He was not as famous as Mickey Marcus and, as far as I know, there was no movie made of his exploits, perhaps because he was never a Major General or, more importantly, did not die in the War of Independence. (If you recall the movie, Cast a Giant Shadow with Kirk Douglas, Mickey Marcus was shot by mistake by “friendly fire” the evening before the truce that ended the hostilities in 1948.) 

Unlike the older Marcus, who was the son of a Jewish pedlar from Manhattan’s teeming lower east side, Ben Dunkelman was a Jewish aristocrat in Toronto terms since his father owned Tip Top Tailors, a huge garment firm and retailer. Ben did not just go to Forest Hill Collegiate but attended what was then considered the heart of the WASP establishment, Upper CanadaCollege. He joined a kibbutz in the 1930s encouraged by his mother who was an ardent Zionist. Further, he did not just live in Forest Hill, but his family had an estate called Sunnybrook that became the land where the SunnybrookHospital is now. My older brother delivered pop to his estate at Balfour Beach on Lake Simcoe.

We were told of Ben’s career as an outstanding member of the Queen’s Own Rifles, the regiment that supervised our cadet training at Harbord Collegiate. Like our teacher, Caldecott, he had risen to the rank of major, had won a Distinguished Service Medal and we were told that he had been offered the post as head of the Queen’s Own Rifles after the war. But he was most famous among us for fighting in the Israeli War of Independence and fought with the Mahal to break the siege of Jerusalem and led in the capture of Nazareth, a town where the Palestinians did not flee and were not coerced to flee because of an agreement he forged as leader of Operation Dekel, a story he tells in his autobiography, Dual Allegiance and, as Derek tells the tale, in opposition to his superior officer, Haim Laskov who ordered the Arab population to be “evacuated”. Dunkelman was fired as Military Commander of Nazareth for disobeying that order of a superior officer and he accepted that firing quietly only after winning his superior’s assent that the security of the Arabs of Nazareth would be guaranteed. The whole story of this incident was deleted by Dunkelman from his own autobiography.

Derek’s book is worth reading for that revelation alone. Dunkelman, though an ardent Zionist, returned to Canada because his entrepreneurial training clashed with vested interests in the new Israel and with the dominant socialist ideology. Marcus and Dunkelman whatever their Zionsit credentials, more for Dunkelman than for Marcus, were motivated more by their “sense of Jewish solidarity, a search for meaning in life, a love of adventure, and an acceptance of war as no less inevitable than it was hellish”. (237)

For such a comprehensive and historical overview of the role of Jews in the military over the centuries and across the world, I was surprised to find so much specificity that related to my own memories. As Derek sums up the case. Jews were bothered by fears of fratricide but were governed by a sense of patriotic duty as well as respect for human dignity and the principle of tolerance while, at the same time, celebrating the values of virility and bravery. I recall how proud I was when my grandson, Eitan, received his red beret as a paratrooper in the IDF. For a follower of Ghandi and an ardent pacifist in the 1960’s I learned I had travelled an even longer way than I thought in coming to understand my Jewish roots and how I had learned through historians of the empirical facts how wrong my hero as an undergraduate, Hannah Arendt, had been in her charge that Jews went like sheep to their slaughter under the Nazi murder machine 

But there remains a fundamental divide in the world-wide Jewish family. Only Israeli Jewish citizens, including heredim who are destined to also to serve, supplemented by a small core of Jewish volunteers from the diaspora – Seth Freiberg, the son of our friends Sandy and Jack in Toronto, recently received his red beret – defend the state of Israel. Until all Jews in the world assume an equal obligation to develop the skills and offer service to defend their state, the idea of Israel as a Jewish state will remain not only a subject of debate in peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, but a deep if unaddressed fissure within the world of Jews.

Only when all feel an obligation to serve (and when the learning of Hebrew also becomes a habit in the diaspora), will the Jewish diaspora emerge as an equal partner with those who live in Israel in the enterprise of ensuring Jewish continuity. For the present, as Derek concludes, “Israel does not appear to be an exception at all” in the historical pattern of Jewish behaviour to the military, serving when it is their patriotic obligation but largely standing on the sidelines as an example of “modern Jews’ contingent and flexible response to conscription and militant patriotism”. (258) The military option remains an open question for diaspora Jews in the issue of re-assimilation back into the Jewish polity while having been answered with respect to loyalty to the many and different states around the world in which Jews are now citizens.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s