The Great War – The Defining Moment of Modern Jewish History

If you were to ask your average Jewish person “What was the defining moment of modern Jewish History”, I would be prepared to make a large bet that they would respond “The Holocaust.” There is no doubt that the Holocaust (or Shoah) weighs heavily on modern Jewish consciousness and how others perceive it.

However, let me make the case for a moment without which the Holocaust could never have happened. Nor indeed the factors that led to the Russian Revolution, the beginnings of Arab Nationalism and the subsequent expulsions of Middle Eastern Jews, the changing fortunes of the Zionist movement or the widespread cultural integration of Jewish immigrants into diaspora societies (particularly the United States and Great Britain).

The defining moment of modern Jewish History is, to my mind, without doubt the Great War. Its beginning (1914) also roughly marked the mid point between the Dreyfus Affair (1894) and the triumph of Germany’s Nazi party (1933) – a transition stage between mass movements of popular anti-Semitism in fin-de-siècle Europe and state-sponsored campaigns of hate that would ultimately culminate in genocide. If we want to be precise we also can’t afford to be Euro-centric; millions of Middle Eastern and Eurasian Jews would be forcibly displaced or killed as a result of the catastrophic dynamics and changing political atmosphere brought about by the Great War.

Hindsight allows us to chart these changes. It is the greatest weapon in the Historian’s arsenal. It also allows us to appreciate the spread of changes over a vast geographic area and across many continents. The ramifications of the Great War affected the lives of Jewish communities in very different ways. As Peter Gay argued in “Freud, Jews and other Germans”, one cannot study Jewish History in isolation from wider patterns. Nor can those observing these wider patterns afford to ignore their impact upon Jewish societies. As we find ourselves at the centenary of the First World War, we must remember all those millions of innocent lives that were lost in a bitter struggle between nation states and empires – men of many cultural backgrounds and religions. More than this, the Great War meant the collapse of an entire world system – a system that had promised stability, coexistence and mutual prosperity, but had ended in industrialised slaughter, race hatred, revolutions and imperial implosion. I do not wish to downplay any of this by concentrating on the Jewish element of these momentous developments.

Jews around the world also have a duty to remember how these events changed the course of Jewish History. Today we all find ourselves at another crisis period in World History – the confrontation in Ukraine, the wars of Syria and Iraq (including the mass persecutions of Christians and other minorities), the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and the return of extreme anti-Semitic politics across Europe. These are earth shattering events that will affect us all whether we like it or not. We have many lessons to learn from the Great War. As George Santayana famously remarked, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We can never forget that the course of Jewish History would have been remarkably different without the Great War. This is a counter factual that I won’t elaborate on for fear of being reductive, but it’s one that I would like my Jewish and non-Jewish readers to bear in mind as they read my pieces. I also write in the hope that by reading my pieces, non-Jews may be introduced to a perspective which they may not have come across before, one that may contribute to their historical understanding of the period.

I will outline my short reasons in a series that will be released every few weeks:

1) Jews and the War PART 1

2) White Tsars, Red Tsars and Jews PART 2

About the Author
Richard Black is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford.
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