A Failed Attempt

'Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler' by Rick Richman

Chaim Weizmann / Getty Images
December 24, 2017

Why wasn't there a Jewish army in World War II to fight the Nazis? No group had more motivation to do so. Well, it's not that they didn't want one. Rick Richman's Racing Against History skillfully recounts the efforts by three major Zionist leaders to raise a Jewish army in America to fight Hitler. Chaim Weizmann, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion, representing the center, right, and left of the political spectrum, came to the United States on separate missions with the same goal in 1940.

But why go to the United States, which was not then in the war? It was England, which had declared war on Nazi Germany after Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, that needed manpower. And it was England that had experience in creating a Jewish Legion in World War I. But then, England was on the cusp of creating the Jewish National Home. Now it was shutting it down. England had slammed the gates of Palestine to the desperate Jews of Europe in 1939. Intent on appeasing Middle Eastern Arabs, Britain's Foreign and Colonial Office were of no mind to alienate them by creating a Jewish army—or to owe the Jews a political debt in a postwar world.

The goal of the Zionist leaders was precisely to create such a debt. In World War I, Jabotinsky, who spearheaded the drive for the Legion, was nearly alone in seeing that if the cause of the Jewish State were to be accepted as a specific war aim and if the Jews wanted a seat at the postwar table, it was important that they fight alongside the Allies under a Jewish flag. When World War II began, all the major Zionist leaders understood this. And they viewed their mission in America as a way to exert pressure on England to allow such an army and to encourage American Jews to demand to join it.

Richman describes the difficult situation the Zionist leaders encountered in the United States. America was in an isolationist mood, anti-Semitism was vocal and popular among certain segments of the public, and American Jews were fearful lest they be accused of leading America into war for their own Jewish interests. The result was that Jews were afraid to speak up. In Hollywood, Jewish-run studios kept quiet about Nazism. Warner Bros.' Harry Warner was the only one to talk publicly about it, Richman says. As late as September 1941 (only a few months before Pearl Harbor changed everything) he was called before a Senate committee to testify on "war propaganda disseminated by the motion picture industry" and forced to defend the 1939 film Confessions of a Nazi Spy. As Richman notes, the committee was effective in sending the message that even movie executives weren't immune from the consequences of taking a stand against Nazism.

It was into this environment that Weizmann stepped in January 1940. Two days before Germany's invasion of Poland in September 1939, Weizmann had offered Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain "to enter into immediate arrangements for utilizing Jewish manpower, technical ability, resources etc." and received an answer of thanks, but no thanks. Remaining unduly optimistic (as he customarily was about England), Weizmann, Richman writes, still hoped for official British approval of a Jewish military unit before his visit. When this was not forthcoming, Weizmann "maintained a studious public silence on anything that might be construed as suggesting that America, or American Jews, should actively respond to what was transpiring in Europe." To be sure, privately Weizmann said that American Jewry must do all it could to help the Allies. Richman notes that Weizmann preferred private diplomacy over public protests. True enough—this was Weizmann's M.O. and it led to many reversals for Zionism over the years. Unfortunately, Weizmann's tactics had as much success here as elsewhere, namely very little.

Vladimir Jabotinsky held to precisely the opposite approach of Weizmann, believing public pressure was the key to political results. He arrived in America just a week after Weizmann returned to England. Unlike Weizmann, Jabotinsky was straightforward about the purpose of his visit. The New York Times quoted him on his arrival: "But if there is going to be a real military war, there is going to be a Jewish army, fighting under a Jewish flag on the side of the democracies." He had already written a book, The Jewish War Front, arguing that the Jews must form a Jewish army. Jabotinsky thought big. He wanted a real army, not merely military units. He thought that Palestine could provide 80,000 recruits. Indeed, in World War I, he had also thought big. It wasn't a legion he had wanted but an army then, too.

Jabotinsky would make two important speeches during his visit, both at the Manhattan Center (not far from today's Madison Square Garden). In each case, more than 4,000 people filled the hall, exceeding its capacity. At his first, on March 19, 1940, he said, "The Allies will have to make room, on their various fronts, for a Jewish army, just as they have in the case of the Polish army." Jabotinsky agreed to make an unscheduled second speech when the Nazis rampaged through Western Europe. In this second speech on June 19, after France had already fallen, Jabotinsky took an optimistic tone, predicting the formation of a Jewish army would happen faster than it took to form a Jewish Legion in World War I. Jabotinsky said, "I challenge the Jews, wherever they are still free, to demand the right of fighting the giant rattlesnake … as a Jewish Army."

Jabotinsky's second speech "struck a nerve," Richman writes, with widespread media coverage, offers pouring in to join the Jewish army, and Canada prepared to provide training camps. This speech might well have marked the start of a Jewish army if Jabotinsky had not died suddenly of a massive heart attack less than two months later. While Richman doesn't explain why this should have necessarily meant the end to hopes for a Jewish fighting force, in his Militant Zionism in America (2002), Rafael Medoff describes how "long simmering rivalries and personality differences" within the Revisionist movement reemerged after Jabotinsky's death, dividing his followers and preventing concerted action.

The third Zionist leader to visit the United States was David Ben-Gurion, who arrived in New York on October 3. He comes across in this book as the least attractive of the three Zionist leaders. Although he made clear his purpose was to raise support for a Jewish army, his efforts proved self-defeating. A speech he gave at the Waldorf-Astoria on October 10 "produced not unity, but division," Richman writes. And when two Revisionists, Benjamin Akzin and Eliahu Ben-Horin, came to him to argue that the Jews faced an "emergency hour" and that the various Zionist groups would unify around the Jewish army idea, Ben-Gurion treated them with disdain. Ben-Gurion records in his diary that Akzin was "a total idiot" (Richman doesn't mention it, but Akzin had doctorates in political science, law, and juridical science). And he calls Ben-Horin "a Nazi"—particularly galling given Ben-Horin's efforts between 1937 and 1939 to save European Jews, including playing a central role in rescuing 800 immigrants, getting them to Palestine in 1939.

Most self-defeating was Ben-Gurion's belief that the Jewish army idea must wait for British approval in contrast to Jabotinsky, who had argued it would take American public pressure to force British approval. Despite being guilty of countless missteps himself, Ben-Gurion was quick to criticize Weizmann, whom he held responsible for Britain's failure to endorse a Jewish military force. Ultimately, Ben-Gurion departed on January 18, 1941, with nothing to show for his efforts. Richman notes that Ben-Gurion devoted only a solitary page to the trip in his 862-page book Israel: A Personal History (1971).

While the author devotes twice as much space to Jabotinsky's efforts as to Weizmann's or Ben-Gurion's, it still seems strange to see them treated as separate campaigns, suggesting an equality between them that just isn't there. Meeting with no success in England, Weizmann had already downgraded his demands before he reached the United States. Richman says Weizmann "lowered his sights: he wanted to establish a war industry in Palestine to assist the British, and to have the British consider training a few hundred Jewish officers in England for a possible future Jewish force." Of the three, only Jabotinsky showed the necessary energy, determination, and focus. The feeble exertions of the others hardly merit the term "campaign." The best that can be said is that they put in an appearance.

Ultimately, it's a dispiriting tale. The attempt to create a Jewish army failed. Only at the end of the war, in late 1944, did a token Jewish Brigade make it to Italy.

Although Richman, an L.A. attorney who writes on Israel-related matters, is not a professional historian, he has done his homework and well describes the overwhelming challenges faced by those who sought to create a specifically Jewish fighting force. Not least of these was the American Jewish establishment, which did all it could to torpedo Jabotinsky's efforts out of a combination of petty jealousies and political nearsightedness. (So far were the Americans from thinking in terms of a Jewish army that there were no indigenous efforts to support one—all the efforts originated with outsiders.) Richman's clear writing makes the book an easy, if somewhat brief read at 152 pages. Its brevity may serve it in good stead if it encourages college professors to assign it to their students. It will fit especially well in a course on American Zionist history.

Published under: Book reviews