"Any front against Fascism is a Jewish front," wrote Mordechai Milman to a friend in 1937. "Only solidarity with the world's anti-fascist forces can save the Jewish people." Milman, a Jew from Palestine, had traveled to Spain to fight alongside the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. But his experiences, and those of the 300 or so fellow volunteers from the Land of Israel in the International Brigades, were in some respects far removed from the era's principled, romantic narrative of altruism and courage that persists to the present day.
As "From Here to Madrid: Volunteers from Palestine in the International Brigades in Spain, 1936-1938," a new exhibition at Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum, suggests, the experiences of the mainly Jewish contingent from Palestine was a much more complicated affair. Bringing together letters, photographs and personal testimony from veterans of the Iberian campaign, the exhibition, which will be up until October 30, is a detailed, intimate consideration of a largely forgotten episode from the history of mandate-era Palestine. Crucially, it poses an important question from the time: How was it that Jews who wanted to fight Fascism were officially discouraged from volunteering in Spain, and were even branded by some as traitors to the Zionist cause?
Between 1936 and 1939, 40,000 men and women from around the world traveled to Spain to fight alongside Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigades. The volunteers were in the main communists, recruited by national Communist parties and convinced that the war against the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco was the frontline in the war against Fascism. There was general sympathy in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community ) for the Republican cause - no surprise given Nazi Germany's enthusiastic support of Franco's Nationalist forces.
But as co-curator Batia Donner explains, this support for the cause was tempered by the involvement of the communists in the cause, even though parallels between the Zionist struggle for self-determination and the Republican defense of democracy were clear. "The general Jewish population in Israel did not support the Communist Party, nor the communist views and attitudes," Donner explains. "The image of the war in Spain was not merged in Palestine with those political inclinations, but with a more general ideology aimed at fighting Fascism."
On the home front, the Palestine Communist Party, with its mixed Arab-Jewish membership, had a troubled relationship with the organized Jewish leadership. Critical of "capitalist colonialism at the expense of the exploited masses," as the PCP described the activities of Zionist institutions in its 1923 manifesto, by 1929 the party had formally adopted an anti-Zionist position, claiming that the movement served the interests of the Jewish bourgeoisie and collaborated with British imperialism.
The British, no fans of the PCP, were happy to reciprocate the sentiments expressed by the latter, with interest. The 1929 Palestine riots provided a suitable pretext to clamp down on the activities of the communists, who stood accused of inciting the Arab population to violence. More than 700 communists were deported from the country between 1929 and the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, nearly all of them Jewish.
But Jewish members of the PCP faced difficulties from other quarters. By 1936 they were caught in a bind, with the (mainly Arab ) leadership of the party supporting the then-incipient Arab revolt, and - at the very least - tacitly encouraging the increasing violence against Jewish settlements. The inevitable consequence was an ideological and personal conflict among Jewish communists, most of whom sympathized with the principle - if, perhaps, not the means - of Jewish self-emancipation. The call to arms in support of Spanish democracy created an ideologically sound solution for an intractable dilemma. But this was without taking into account the opinions of the Yishuv.
"David Ben-Gurion...opposed sending [Jewish] Palestinian citizens to fight in Spain," Donner says, "because he did not want to open a new front, for pragmatic reasons, against the British and its noninterventionist policy [in Spain]." The onset of the Arab revolt led to closer cooperation, albeit much of it informal, between the British and the Yishuv; Ben-Gurion did not want to jeopardize this.
That aside, the turbulent domestic situation created an opportunity for the accelerated construction of Jewish settlements - the "Tower and Stockade" initiative that saw the construction of 33 stockade settlements between 1936 and 1938, ostensibly as a bulwark against attacks by the Arabs. Domestic concerns took priority over international solidarity, and a catchphrase from the era sums up the thinking of the period succinctly: "Hanita is preferable to Madrid."
Hanita was a stockade settlement constructed in 1938. The Hanita catchphrase "came from the Zionist left," Donner notes, "which supported ideologically the struggle against Fascism in Spain, but was convinced that defending the Jewish population against Arab attacks and strengthening the Zionist settlements was more urgent."
Given the context, Spain - with all the attendant dangers - was a far less troubling ideological prospect. Photographs and letters on display at the exhibition suggest that the volunteers were in high spirits, sharing the exuberance of their international comrades. "Spain will be the grave of international fascism and their desire to destroy the republic will not be fulfilled," wrote Samuel Stamlerat in the beginning of 1938. "Our will and sacrifice will win the war." But this did not come to pass. After Barcelona fell to the Nationalists at the beginning of 1939, both France and Germany recognized the legitimacy of the Franco regime; Madrid and Valencia capitulated in short order to the Nationalists; and on April Fools' Day 1939, Franco declared the war's end.
Seventy volunteers from Palestine were killed during the war and another 80 seriously injured, proportionately a very high price to pay for ideological commitment. But perhaps the higher price comes from the subsequent silence on this intriguing episode in the history of the Yishuv. It prompts questions about the social and political imperatives of the time, and quite possibly stands at odds with the prevailing national narrative.
Batya Donner prefers to have people make up their own minds. "The exhibition was planned intentionally to have more than one definitive narrative and with open ends," she responds when asked about the contemporary lessons that can be learned from this episode. "My personal views are not relevant in this context."
But certainly, those of the fighters remain pertinent. And for the first time in nearly three-quarters of a century, we have the chance to appreciate what these views might be.