The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler
In the opening months of World War II, more than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into the war, the three most prominent Zionist figures in the world — David Ben-Gurion, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Chaim Weizmann; leaders of the left, right and center of Zionism, respectively — undertook missions to America to energize the American Jewish community in support of raising a Jewish army to fight Hitler. Each of the leaders crossed an Atlantic patrolled by German submarines.
What follows is a little-known story about the Jewish people, as they began to face their darkest hour at the beginning of the most horrific decade in modern Jewish history.
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The Germans did not embark on their “Final Solution” until late 1941 or early 1942, and reliable word about it did not reach America until 1943. But in 1940, readers of The New York Times — the most important source of information in the age before television — knew the existential crisis the Jews faced not only in Germany but also throughout Eastern Europe.
On Feb. 7, 1937 — 2 1/2 years before World War II began — one of the Times’ most experienced correspondents, Otto D. Tolischus, described the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Eastern Europe in an article covering five columns in the first section of the Sunday edition. Tolischus’ article began with a prescient sentence:
“Anti-Semitism, raised by Adolf Hitler in Germany to the status of a political religion, is rapidly spreading throughout Eastern Europe and is thereby turning the recurrent Jewish tragedy in that biggest Jewish center in the world into a final disaster of truly historic magnitude.”
Tolischus reported that the “disaster is now taking place in Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Rumania and is approaching a high-water mark in Poland, the country with the largest Jewish population outside the United States.” Tolischus wrote that “5,000,000 souls” were “facing the prospect of either repeating the Exodus on a bigger scale than that chronicled in the bible … or spending the rest of their lives in an atmosphere of creeping hostility and dying a slow death from economic strangulation.”
After the Nazis and Soviets invaded Poland in September 1939, the two totalitarian powers held 3 million more Jews captive, with plans to destroy them or their religion, or both. The October 1939 issue of the Brooklyn Jewish Center Review, published by one of the leading American Conservative synagogues, featured an article by Rabbi Elias N. Rabinowitz, titled “How Will the Conquest of Poland Affect Its Jews?” Rabinowitz wrote that “the tragedy of Poland has, probably, never been equaled in the recorded annals of history”:
“The plight of the Polish Jew beggars description. He has been uprooted, he has been destroyed. … The Polish Republic contained the second-largest Jewish community in the present Diaspora, approximately 4,000,000 souls. … As reports reach us from various sources, starvation is rampant. The number of suicides is reported to be overwhelming.”
The crisis was thus well known in America, but the three Zionist leaders found an American Jewish community that faced a complicated situation. Virtually the entire country was against any involvement in the new European war, and there was significant anti-Semitism openly espoused by such public figures as Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin and syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler, among others. American Jews worried that Zionism might bring accusations of dual loyalty, and that arguing for supporting Britain might bring charges of “warmongering.”
But thousands of people came out to hear Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and Weizmann in their appearances in America during 1940, and the effort to build a Jewish army that year came closer to reality than most people now realize.
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The three leaders knew that the Jews could form a fighting force, because all three leaders had been involved in the Jewish Legion in World War I — the 15,000 soldiers who fought alongside the British to defeat the Ottoman Empire in Palestine. Jabotinsky had been the guiding force behind the Jewish Legion and became one of its officers; Weizmann had given it critical support with his contacts in the British government; and Ben-Gurion had served in it as a private. In World War II, with the Jews themselves the expressed target of Nazi Germany, the three leaders thought they could mobilize a far larger Jewish force to meet the existential threat.
At the time of World War I, the proposal for a Jewish military force was a radical idea for a people with no modern military experience and an ingrained moral resistance to “militarism.” For nearly 2,000 years, there had never been a Jewish army. But the formation of the Jewish Legion was a landmark in Jewish history, and Jabotinsky would later describe the 1st Battalion, consisting of Jews previously denigrated as mere “tailors,” marching through the streets of London before deployment to Palestine, as tens of thousands of Jewish onlookers stood in the streets or watched from the roofs:
“Blue-white flags were over every shop door; women crying with joy, old Jews with fluttering beards murmuring, ‘shehecheyanu’ … and the boys, those ‘tailors,’ shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets dead level, each step like a single clap of thunder, clean, proud … with the sense of a holy mission, unexampled since the day of Bar-Kochba ….”
Two decades later, as World War II began, the idea of forming a Jewish military force was no longer a theoretical or fanciful one. It had been done before. Two days after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Jabotinsky called Lt. Col. John Patterson, the British officer who commanded the Jewish Legion in 1917, to request a meeting as soon as possible. They met that afternoon and agreed to work together to form not a Jewish Legion but a Jewish army.
Within days of the beginning of World War II, Weizmann and Jabotinsky each wrote directly to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, offering to provide a Jewish military force and other wartime assistance. In his letter to Chamberlain, Weizmann wrote: “In this hour of supreme crisis, the consciousness that the Jews have a contribution to make to the defense of sacred values impels me to write this letter.” He told Chamberlain that the Jewish Agency was “ready to enter into immediate arrangements for utilizing Jewish manpower, technical ability, resources, etc.” Jabotinsky, in his own letter to Chamberlain, recounted how the Jewish Legion had done it before.
Chamberlain declined both offers.
In 1940, Jabotinsky wrote to Rabbi Louis I. Newman, a prominent Reform rabbi in the United States, that the “mission now is to stir American Jews into some such effort of an unprecedented magnitude and daring.” Weizmann wrote to an American friend that “3,000 miles of water will not save American Jewry, or America itself, if they refuse to take the right decisions now.” Ben-Gurion wrote to the Zionist Organization of America that there was “no time to lose.”
That same year, Weizmann traveled to America in January and stayed until March, Jabotinsky was in America from March until August, and Ben-Gurion left London for America in September and remained until January 1941. All three leaders gave remarkable speeches in America, held meetings with key groups, and prepared practical plans for building a Jewish military force to join the war. The most extraordinary of the public addresses, however, was the one Jabotinsky gave on June 19, 1940, before an overflow crowd of 5,000 people at the Manhattan Center.
The day before, new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had addressed the House of Commons, urging members to forego recriminations about the humiliating Dunkirk evacuation, urging them to “so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ” On the same day, Charles de Gaulle spoke from a BBC radio studio as the French government prepared to surrender to Hitler. De Gaulle argued for fighting on: “Must we abandon all hope? Is our defeat final and irremediable? To those questions I answer: No!”
The next morning’s Times reported on the “complete military and political collapse” of France. The war communiqué of the German High Command, published in the Times, stated that “Yesterday alone far more than 100,000 prisoners were taken,” with “booty” comprising “the complete equipment of numerous French divisions.” The Times article was accompanied by a photograph of Hitler and Mussolini standing before a cheering crowd in Germany, with the Times headline reading: “Munich is Gay as Dictators Meet.” The Times reported that “all Munich [is] riding on the crest of an exhilarating wave,” bathed in the “bright sunlight of the thought that this war may now be almost ended.”
That evening, Jabotinsky addressed the Manhattan Center on “The Second World War and a Jewish Army.” He told reporters before the speech that, just as he had felt in 1916 that Jews must participate in World War I, he felt even more strongly that they must join the new war, since they were the explicit targets of the Nazi barbarism. And he thought that Jewish participation in the war would have an important moral and psychological effect:
“The example of Jews, long known as a most peaceful of peoples, volunteering in large numbers to fight for truth and sacrifice their lives, will inspire humanity to ever greater sacrifices at the present critical hour. … In the first World War, where the very idea of Jewish military units was unfamiliar and strange … 15,000 fighting Jews were easily got together from Palestine, England, the United States, Canada and Argentine. This time, where the stakes are greater and the responsibility heavier, I am hopeful that progress will be both speedier and greater.”
In his speech, Jabotinsky reiterated that what was required was not a Jewish Legion but a Jewish army, with a status like the Polish army-in-exile, to “signify that the Jewish people choose a cloudy day to renew its demand for recognition as a belligerent on the side of a good cause.” He wanted not only to see the “giant rattlesnake destroyed,” but destroyed “with our help.” He told the audience “there is stuff for well over 100,000 Jewish soldiers even without counting American Jews,” given the number of stateless Jews in the world and prospective volunteers from neutral countries:
“[H]ad our request for a Jewish Army been granted early in the war when we first submitted it to the Allies, that source alone would have yielded three to four divisions. Even now it can yield two at least.”
The following morning, the Times quoted from Jabotinsky’s Manhattan Center speech:
“This is the time for blunt speaking. I challenge the Jews, wherever they are still free, to demand the right of fighting the giant rattlesnake … as a Jewish Army. Some shout that we only want others to fight, some whisper that a Jew only makes a good soldier when squeezed in between Gentile comrades. I challenge the Jewish youth to give them the lie.”
In the end, for various reasons, the Jewish army was not formed in 1940 — but not because of the absence of a huge and heroic effort by the three Zionist leaders, and not because of a lack of a significant response within the American Jewish community. The story is important to remember not only to honor those who crossed an ocean and those who responded to them, but to correct the misimpression that Jews stood by passively as their existential crisis unfolded.
The effort to form a Jewish army in 1940 is an inspiring story, as well as a cautionary tale about divisions within the Jewish community at a time of existential threat. The story also bears on the world situation today: as Russia and Iran seek to re-establish their previous empires, American isolationism is not something to be repeated, and American Jews should never take Israel’s existence for granted.
Rick Richman is the author of the recently published “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler,” from which this article has been adapted.