Monday, November 11, 2013

"Jews and the Military"

Derek J. Penslar is the Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto and the Stanley Lewis Professor of Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. His many books include Shylock's Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe, Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective, and The Origins of Israel, 1882-1948: A Documentary History.

Penslar applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Jews and the Military: A History, and reported the following:
On Page 99 of Jews and the Military I write of the effect of the Dreyfus Affair on Jewish career officers in France:
Frustrated and aggrieved Jewish officers became increasingly wont to challenge their bigoted comrades to duels, at times fatal. Many Jews resigned their commissions out of fear that their career advancement would be stifled.... Not surprisingly, at the end of the century the numbers of Jews entering the [military-technical] Ecole Polytechnique and [military academy] Saint-Cyr plummeted.

Nonetheless, even at the height of the affair Jews continued to graduate from the Ecole Superieure de Guerre and receive promotions from lieutenant to captain, battalion chief, lieutenant colonel, colonel and general. Jewish officers who died in uniform continued to receive elaborate and respectful military funerals. At the turn of the century, as the forces of republicanism reasserted themselves, Catholic and monarchist officers, not Jews, were the targets of investigation by the War Ministry…. Jews continued to flow into the Ecole Polytechnique, albeit at reduced numbers, leading to the training of a whole new generation of Jewish officers who would take command during and after World War I.
These passages speak to the heart of my book’s argument: that Jews in the modern world have often been willing, even eager, to serve in the military. In countries such as France and Italy where the officer corps was available to Jews, they sought it out. In eastern Europe Jews were frequently persecuted, and so their attitude to the state was more hostile than in the west, but even here most Jews dutifully performed their military service, and only a small minority were draft dodgers. For Jewish men in any country, military service presented an opportunity to display masculine valour. Jews worried lest their co-religionists face each other in battle, but they celebrated the virility, bravery, and above all the patriotic spirit of their men in uniform.

The excerpt is from a chapter on Jews as career military officers in Europe and North America. Other chapters in the book deal with soldering and warfare in pre-modern Jewish civilization; the relationship between conscription and emancipation; the tension between patriotism and trans-national solidarity when Jews fought in wars in the 1800s; Jewish soldiers in World Wars I and II; and the role of diaspora Jews as volunteers in the fight for Israeli statehood in 1948.
Learn more about the book and author at Derek Penslar's website.

--Marshal Zeringue