Review of Derek Penslar’s “Jews and the Military”

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.


Jews and the Military: A History
Derek Penslar
Princeton University Press, 2013

“The rate of draft-dodging for the peasant population in the Pale of Settlement was 6%; for the Jews it was 34%. Jews evaded the law and misused the court system, even as they demanded special protection from the authorities.” Professor John Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881–1882 [1] 

PenslarThe subject of Jewish attitudes to military service, particularly in the diaspora, has been a key interest of mine for some time. Since ancient times, military service has been regarded as the touchstone of true citizenship and patriotism and, to me at least, it seemed the perfect backdrop against which Jewish identity and its hierarchy of loyalties might be seen more clearly. Though never given truly comprehensive scholarly attention, there are countless brief references to Jewish attitudes and actions in taking up arms in works ranging from flagrant Jewish apologetic, to the productions of the racialist right. Most of these references pertain to accusations that Jews historically have shirked military service and often resorted to the most elaborate, and often ridiculous, methods in order to avoid doing “their share” in the defence of the nation-state.

More or less dissatisfied by much of the fare on offer from both sides, I was quite interested late last year to hear of the publication, by no less than Princeton University Press, of Derek Penslar’s Jews and the Military: A History — the jacket of which promised “the first comprehensive and comparative look at Jews’ involvement in the military and their attitudes toward war from the 1600s until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.” Penslar promised to show “that although Jews have often been described as people who shun the army, in fact they have frequently been willing, even eager, to do military service.”

However, what I found was that Penslar, the current Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History at the University of Toronto, has in fact produced an occasionally interesting, but mostly bland and typical, example of Jewish apologetic. Crucially, the book avoids analysis, or even serious discussion, of allegations of Jewish draft-dodging, preferring instead to deconstruct the more tangential “Zionist myth” that Jewry boasted hardened warriors in ancient Israel, but became timid in the face of its “persecutors” among the nations. What I hope to do in this, the first of two separate but related essays, is to break down and discuss the book itself. While the subject still deserves far greater attention and analysis, in the later essay I aim to present my own account and interpretation of Jewish military performance in the diaspora, or lack thereof.

For a question so obviously situated at the heart of the issue of the Jewish relationship with the modern state, the conundrum of Jewish participation/non-participation in modern armies has been noticeably overlooked. This is in itself illuminating, and it is clear to the instructed reader that those topics least covered in Jewish historiography are often most worthwhile in terms of further investigation. Take, for example, some of my own earlier comments on the neglect or dismissiveness of Jewish historians when it comes to the obviously important role of Jewish economic practices in generating anti-Jewish attitudes:

the majority of Jewish historians have long displayed an aversion to the idea that Jewish economic practices have played a significant role historically in provoking anti-Semitism. For example, Leon Poliakov in The History of anti-Semitism: From Voltaire to Wagner, argues that the idea of economic anti-Semitism is “devoid of real explanatory value.”[4] Similarly, Jonathan Freedman has stated that, in explaining anti-Jewish attitudes, economic anti-Semitism should play only a “small explanatory role.”

One finds a similar malaise when it comes to serious discussion of Jewish attitudes to serve in the armies of Europe and America. Not only is Penslar’s book a rarity in tackling the subject, but reviews of the book are also sparse. Tellingly, Anna Altman’s review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review is both brief and rather hurried in its dismissal of what Altman describes as a “dry question.” Penslar himself states in his introduction that the subject languishes in historiographical “oblivion,” though he attributes scholarly neglect in this instance to the idea that “Europe’s betrayal of its Jews made the century and a half of patriotic Jewish military service appear futile and misguided.”[2]

In Penslar’s reading of the subject then, Jewish military service has been ignored out of a kind of embarrassment — not rooted in non-participation or other uncomfortable home truths, but rooted instead in the “futile” and “misguided” service of those who fought for non-Jews who betrayed them.

The question of Jews and the military in relation to “loyalty” is thus inverted. Jews have not abandoned their hosts in times of conflict. Rather, the host nations abandoned their Jewish warriors. Indeed this is essentially the primary thesis advanced by Penslar’s text.

To be fair to Penslar, although Jews and the Military is a deeply flawed work (in that its narrative is skewed in precisely the way one would expect from a Jewish academic) his book isn’t anywhere near as one-sided or extreme as, say Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora. Pointedly, in relation to the “lachrymose” school of Jewish history writing, Penslar makes it clear that “Jews were participants in, and not merely victims of, violent acts. They also fantasized about bloody vengeance against Gentiles even when they did not have the ability or fortitude to act.”[3]

The book is far from polemical and in several instances I found Penslar’s comments insightful and refreshingly honest. For example, Penslar makes it clear right at the outset that “Jews have frequently seen the military as something to be feared and avoided at all costs.”[4] The book is generally well-written, and Penslar’s use of primary material is impressive in depth and scope, particularly his use of French and Austro-Hungarian military archives.

The first chapter, which is by some margin the most interesting of the book, deals with the Jews’ historic self-image as a people that shuns what the Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon called, “the craft of Esau, the waging of war.” Penslar points to rabbinic tradition which holds that “Jews are the children of Jacob, who is presented as meek and studious in contrast with his aggressive brother Esau.”[5]

Additionally, Penslar highlights the specific conditions of Jewish life itself, in which the maintenance of faith and community meant that Jews saw little reason to “cross social boundaries or endanger their lives through military service.”[6] The clearest manifestation of the Jewish view of the military affairs of the host nation was, and remains, draft-dodging. Penslar’s attention to this aspect of Jewish attitudes to military service is brief and concerned almost exclusively with the Tsar’s army, but some of his comments are nonetheless illuminating. Penslar points to the popularly held Jewish notion of conscription into the imperial Russian army, and the “tragic narrative” of young men having their whole lives “stamped by the threat of military service.”[7] Jews saw the Russian army as “a teeming mass of coarse, aggressive, and frequently drunk peasants, barely kept in check by reactionary and disdainful, even sadistic, officers and fanatical Orthodox priests whose hatred for Jews was exceeded only by their zeal to convert them.”[8]

Most Ashkenazic families have stories of relatives who fled the Tsar’s army lest they be forced into a twenty-five year term of service, or of khappers, thugs hired by the Jewish community to round up Jews targeted to meet the annual conscription quotas, and of unspeakably cruel conditions for Jews once they did wind up in uniform.[9]

Admirably, Penslar alerts readers to the fact that these Jewish narratives of Russian conscription “blend fact with fiction,” and correctly asserts that the primary aim of this fiction has been to reinforce “a deeply rooted perception by Jews that throughout most of their history they have been a meek and pacific people.”[10] Disappointingly however, Penslar stops short of unequivocally locating this and other fictive narratives within the discourse of the “quintessential victim,” but then we are reading the work of a Jewish academic.

Much clearer on the issue was the late Professor John Doyle Klier who, in his Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881–1882 stated that, “the Jews loved to represent themselves as a downtrodden minority, and they complained of their official designation as “aliens” (inorodtsy) in Russian law. This allegedly degraded them in the eyes of the common people and placed them outside the protection of the law. In fact, the Jews were a privileged group, due to their unsurpassed ability to evade every law and regulation.”[11]

Although not made explicit, it’s clear that Penslar is aware of the fiction of Jewish victimhood in the East. He points out that the Jews often enjoyed privileged status and exemptions when it came to military service for Eastern European states. For example, “until the intense and protracted cycle of wars in Poland in the mid-seventeenth century, Polish Jews were not required to go to war, which was waged mostly by serfs and mercenaries and commanded by the nobility. [Jewish] contributions to the military were mainly financial.”[12]

Penslar demonstrates that although conscription of Russian Jews began in 1827, it was common practice for Jewish community leaders to be able to select those for conscription. In these instances, the sons of the wealthy and the learned were spared, and those on the fringes of the Jewish community, “the paupers, orphans, and other social undesirables,” were sent in their place.[13] Jewish draftees were taken at a slightly earlier age than non-Jewish draftees (with assimilation in mind), but they were not sent into combat until the age of eighteen, and contrary to the popular narrative “the army did not have a policy of coercing conversion.”[14]

And far from being the site of grim conditions, the Russian army allowed “exemptions from certain kinds of work on the Sabbath and holidays. From the 1870s Jewish communities were allowed to donate Torah scrolls to military camps and help build soldiers’ synagogues. At times, Jewish soldiers received permission to cook in separate pots.”[15]

One important omission by Penslar is that he neglects to focus on one of the greater fabrications fashioned by Russian Jewish immigrants to the United States in the 1880s and 1890s. Almost every Jewish immigrant during this period arrived with the claim that they were fleeing either “pogroms,” or a compulsory twenty-five year conscription term in the Tsar’s army. I’ve dealt with the ‘pogroms’ previously, but it should suffice to state, in reference to the latter, that the twenty-five year term was not applied solely to Jews, it was rarely enforced, and had in fact been abolished with the accession of Alexander II in 1855 — some thirty years prior to the first major wave of Jewish immigration.[16] As a stated reason for “refugee” status, it was as hollow and untrue as the stories of mass butchery.

Returning to the point at hand, despite numerous accommodations, Jewish draft-dodging was endemic, leading to frequent clashes with government officials throughout the 1880s.[17] Penslar writes that “there are numerous documented cases of Russian Jews employing bribery and various forms of subterfuge to get out of the draft. The same was true for Jews in Habsburg Galicia and members of many other nationalities in Eastern Europe. During the Crimean War, Russian and Galician Jews alike fled to the Danubian principalities, which were under Habsburg and Ottoman occupation, to avoid conscription.”[18] Efforts to avoid the draft often reached extreme levels. “Ha-Melitz, a periodical published in St. Petersburg, cautioned young Jewish men against cutting off their fingers, starving themselves, and engaging in other forms of self-harm that violated both Jewish and Russian law.”[19] In 1874 the ability of the rabbis to select “socially marginal youth” was revoked by universal conscription legislation. This resulted in “yeshiva students and the children of the well-to-do,” the most valued sons of the Jewish communities, losing their protection. Unsurprisingly, briberies, draft-evasions, and self-mutilations increased exponentially. Exhibiting true warrior spirit, when these Jews were cornered and successfully drafted, Penslar states they were almost unanimous in their open preference “to serve in the back lines rather than combat units.”[20]

Jewish resistance to the draft comes across as a universal and predictable feature of Jewish life. In Galicia, “Jewish conscripts were mourned as if dead, and volunteering was taboo.”[21] In 1871, the average Jewish no-show rate across the province was 30% but in some areas reached as high as 60%.[22] Military reports from the previous year described a “rampant culture of corruption” in which Jews “bribed local officials, military officers, and army doctors (both Jewish and Polish) to grant exemptions. Desperate young men hired barber-surgeons to augment existing deformities or create new ones.”[23]

One of the more interesting points Penslar raises is that Jewish communities have not been afraid to resist conscription violently when the number of other evasive options is limited. Joseph II, ruler of Habsburg Galicia, issued a decree in 1788 that the Galician Jews should serve in the service corps and artillery. The Josephinian state, which has been described elsewhere as “remarkably sensitive to the Jewish recruit,” even provided Jewish soldiers “separate uniforms free of shatnez, that is, the mix of fibres prohibited by Jewish law.”[24]  Ever grateful for Gentile sensitivity, Galicia’s “Jews fled into remote areas of the province or into the remnants of independent Poland. In Brody, Jews armed with clubs chased away a press gang; armed troops were brought in from L’viv to put down the demonstration.”[25] Penslar summarizes this phenomenon by noting that Jews have not been averse “to the use of force to maintain their traditional privileges, one of the most important of which was exemption from military service.”[26]

Essentially this is just another example of Jews being first in the line of citizens when it comes to wringing concessions from the state, and the last in line (if not vanished from it entirely) when the state seeks concessions from its citizens. Although he doesn’t go into the subject in any great detail, Penslar bravely writes that Jewish apologetic literature is awash with bold claims about the numbers of Jewish troops who fought in World Wars I and II, and adds that “all the numbers in the apologetic literature about Jews in both world wars are estimates, and are at times artfully cobbled together”[27] —  the idea being that draft-dodging was a theme of those wars also, but was glossed over at the time, and in standard histories written since the cessation of those conflicts. Of course, there are more nuanced theories and conclusions to be deduced from this spectrum of Jewish behaviors in relation to war in the diaspora, and these will be more fully discussed in a later essay.

Outside of his brief treatment of Jewish draft-dodging, Penslar’s book has only a few other redeeming qualities. I found his analysis of Jewish participation in the armies of France and Italy to be illuminating. It would be ludicrous to suggest that all Jews are cowards, and that shirking the frontlines is a true universal among the Jewish people. As such, I expected to find a few tales of Jewish heroism and valor, and Penslar does include these even if he does over-stress their overall significance. For example, I was initially very impressed by his evidence that Jews were overrepresented seventeenfold in the Italian officer corps in 1895. However, I was significantly less impressed by his qualification that the vast majority of these men came from areas with “high levels of assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion.”[28] Indeed, “intermarriage between Jews and Christians reduced the number of self-identified Jews in Italy by almost 30 percent between unification and World War One.”[29]

The conclusion one is led to reach is that the less a man identifies as Jewish, the more likely he is to participate in warfare on behalf of the state. This rule crossed national boundaries. Britain’s most successful Jewish officer of the fin de siècle, Colonel Albert Goldsmid, “was raised as a Christian and became aware of his Jewish background only as an adult.”[30]

Penslar’s discussion of Jewish involvement in the French military during the Dreyfus Affair also contains a few interesting facts. Over the course of the Third Republic, Jews had flooded France’s governing elite as “prefects, parliamentarians, cabinet ministers, judges,” and eventually even military officers.[31] Accusations quickly arose that Jews were only achieving military “promotions and choice assignments through bribery and pulling strings.”[32] Thus, the key accusation was that Jews were getting ahead through ethnic networking rather than talent — a phenomenon that is endemic to Judaism throughout its history. Attempting to defend the honor of Jews against such a charge, the Jewish lead instructor of fencing at the École Polytechnique, and therefore supposedly one of the most talented fencers in the country, challenged one of the main proponents of the “networking over talent” argument, the Marquis de Morès, to a duel. The abundant talent of Armand Mayer, the Jewish captain in question, must have deserted him that day as he very quickly found himself mortally wounded at the hands of the Marquis. The Marquis was a flamboyant character and a one-time gunslinger in the Badlands of the North Dakota territory. He once even challenged Theodore Roosevelt to a duel. Never backing down from a confrontation, and not exactly a fan of Jews, on his return from the United States he challenged Ferdinand-Camille Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the Chamber of Deputies, to a duel. The challenge was not accepted.

Penslar also strays into some interesting territory when he discusses “the sizeable presence of Jews in finance and business who made money from war.”[33] He describes the motivations of these bankers and businessmen as a blend involving “transnational Jewish solidarity and international economic interests that knew no borders.”[34] Jews were “prominently involved in an international banking system that derived considerable profit from lending funds to governments or packaging and selling government debt.”[35] “Pioneered” by the Rothschilds in France during the 1830s, Joseph Seligman picked it up in the United States during the Civil War, ensuring “the Union government’s debt skyrocketed from $65 million to $3 billion, some 30 percent of the Union’s gross domestic product.”[36] Later, the Seligmans “encouraged the United States’ intervention in Columbia in 1903 to carve out a quasi-independent Panama, where the Seligmans had invested in land along the prospective route of the canal.”[37]

However, when war was deemed not in the interests of the great Jewish banking dynasties, efforts were not spared to shut down conflicts in their infancy. On the eve of the World War I, Baron Rothschild attempted to force The Times of London to tone down the bellicosity of its editorials. This attempt met with an uncompromising response which described Rothschild’s efforts as a “dirty German-Jewish financial attempt to bully us into advocating neutrality.”[38]

In addition to playing roles as draft-dodgers and war profiteers, Jews have also played leading roles as revolutionaries, rebels, assassins, and subversive irregular fighters. Penslar points to the “hundreds” of Jews who were involved in violent radical organizations in late nineteenth-century Russia. Jews featured in “the People’s Will”, which assassinated Tsar Alexander II — the same benevolent Tsar who had freed the serfs, but made the fatal mistake of ending Jewish privileges.[39] Also described are the Jewish members of the Social Revolutionaries, “among them future leaders of the Zionist community in Palestine such as Moshe Novomesky, Pinchas Rutenberg, and Manya Schochat. All of them were directly responsible for murders.”[40]

In fact, when it is deemed that Jewish interests are under threat or when revenge for some grievance is available, it becomes difficult to keep Jews out of a conflict. During the Spanish-American war of 1898, “there were no moral qualms in hating Spain, which had expelled its Jews in 1492. … Jews in Chicago, Richmond, Virginia, and Newport, Rhode Island, tried to establish separate Jewish companies, and a group of Jews in Cincinnati undertook to purchase a battleship for the government.”[41]

Penslar states that Jews have been significantly more responsive to the call to arms when the war in question is “perceived as serving Jewish interests.”[42] For example, Jews were very prominent among the socialist-communist-anarchist faction in Spanish Civil War. Jews comprised one-fifth of the International Brigades, and provided six commanders and three divisional commanders.[43] Forty-five percent of Polish volunteers were Jewish, and thirty-eight percent of American volunteers were Jewish. One Romanian brigadista recalled that “the only way for members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to communicate with the Spanish commander of the Romanian brigade was by speaking in Yiddish.”[44]

Overall then, Penslar’s book is not devoid of useful and interesting information, even if it is more than a little light on deeper analysis on some of the issues raised. This I hope to provide in a forthcoming article.



[1] J. Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.349.

[2] D. Penslar, Jews and the Military: A History, (Princeton University Press, 2013), p.2.

[3] Ibid, p.8.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p.3.

[6] Ibid, p.10.

[7] Ibid, p.18.

[8] Ibid, p.17.

[9] Ibid, p.28.

[10] Ibid, p.18.

[11] J. Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.349.

[12] Ibid, p.24.

[13] Ibid, p.29.

[14] Ibid, p.29.

[15] Ibid, p.30.

[16] M. Stanislawski, For Whom Do I Toil? Judah Leib Gordon and the Crisis of Russian Jewry, (Oxford University Press, 1988), p.25.

[17] Penslar, p.30.

[18] Ibid, p.31.

[19] Ibid, p.31.

[20] Ibid, p.32.

[21] Ibid, p.48.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] M.K. Silber, From Tolerated Aliens to Citizen Soldiers: Jewish Military Service in the Era of Joseph II, in P.M. Judson (ed), Constructing Nationalities in East Central Europe, (Berghahn, 2005), p.19.

[25] Penslar, p.46.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, pp.214-5.

[28] Ibid, p.94.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid, p.87.

[31] Ibid, p.97.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid, p.145.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid, p.146.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid, p.147.

[38] Ibid, p.149.

[39] Ibid, p.75

[40] Ibid, p.75.

[41] Ibid, p.77.

[42] Ibid, p.195.

[43] Ibid, p.201.

[44] Ibid.

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