What do you do when the beliefs your nation espouses are contradicted by history? This is the question one is faced with after reading the engaging and informative new book by historian Derek Penslar called "Jews and the Military" (Princeton University Press, 2013).
To awaken Diaspora Jews out of their political and philosophical slumber, much of the Zionist project was based on what Israelis call shlilat hagola, or negation of the exile. With Diaspora Jews being portrayed in Zionism’s narrative as pale and withering, with book, rather than sword, in hand, Zionism’s early leaders sought to inculcate a new, fighting spirit among the Jewish people. Rather than going meekly like sheep to the slaughter, the new Jew would be a Jewry of muscle, in the words of early Zionist philosopher Max Nordau. Only thus, would Jews be physically and culturally prepared to build a new society, defend it from enemies, and to be collectively and spiritually rebuilt by the endeavor. The new, Zionist chapter of Jewish history would represent a new, powerful Jewish military man (and woman).
While this narrative has served useful in inculcating national spirit — indeed, it is roughly the narrative I, too, was raised on at Zionist summer camp, Penslar manages to overturn the widespread perception that Israel’s founding represented a decisive shift from Jewish weakling to Jewish warrior. Through careful archival and other historical research, Penslar traces centuries of active Jewish involvement in military service almost wherever Jews were living. And through the centuries, these men fought both as citizens and as Jews. As overlapping identities often are, though, the relationship between Jews and their uniforms was complex. On one hand, the “fear of fratricide,” Penslar writes, “hung heavy over the battlefield.” On the other, “[b]elieving that their homeland epitomized toleration and respect for human dignity, Jews in western Europe and North America defined their countries’ wars as Jewish wars.”
In an insightful epilogue, Penslar also shows that the notion that American Jews are more likely to enlist in the IDF than they are in the American military is simply not true. At the end of the last decade, 4,700 self-identified American Jews were serving in the combined U.S. forces, compared to only 500 American Jews who enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces as lone soldiers in 2010. Yet a casual onlooker might be surprised. By my anecdotal observation, young Jews in mainstream community circles might seem more likely to don an olive green IDF t-shirt as an identity-laden fashion statement than they are to wear U.S. army gear. And both modern Israel and Diaspora Jewish centers are more likely to revel in Holocaust remembrance than in tribute to Jewish soldiers serving their various countries’ militaries, as Penslar notes.
What is the significance of all this? Perhaps the most unsettling for traditional Zionism is the note on which Penslar’s book concludes. That is, contrary to the hopes of Israel’s founders, authentic Jewish life is not necessarily dependent on tying one’s bodily fate to the modern State of Israel. But there are other implications as well. Countless Jew have indeed served their country — as my great uncle did, having fallen on Dec. 2, 1944 over Normandy, at age 29, part of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Squadron 428. As Penslar’s book implies by association, Flying Officer Mortimer (Max) Sucharov, my father’s namesake, was no less of a Jew for fighting for his country of Canada than would be those many souls who would eventually don the uniform of the IDF.
What Penslar’s analysis leaves both unanswered and unasked, of course, is what the effect has been on the Jewish body and soul of serving in an Israeli army that, tragically, has become as much occupier as defender. There, the fears of fratricide are thankfully no longer. But the constant othering and dehumanization wrought by young Jewish men and women having to police the actions of another people through threat of violence and collective punishment may ultimately prove a fate even more morally corrosive.