Of all the calumnies hurled at the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, the most bizarre must include the charge that their refusal to rape Arab women shows their racism. The argument appeared in a paper by a Hebrew University anthropology graduate student, Tal Nitzan. The paper generated loads of press and one analysis by writer Steve Plaut, who read her entire thesis and said this:
Nitzan cannot conceive of any rape that is not in and itself a form of establishing political control and defining political power. “Symptomatic rape” for Nitzan is a reflection of the intolerant distancing of the “dominant” group (Jewish men) from the “oppressed” group (Arab men and women). But she then completely turns this “thought” on its head by arguing that abstaining from rape is just as inhumane and oppressive as “symptomatically raping,” and in fact replaces it, because it just serves to reinforce the intolerant attitudes towards Arabs by Jewish soldiers, who think of Arabs as so inferior and horrid that they do not even feel a drive to rape them. Really. “Absence of rape is explained by the social condition in which there is blurring of attitudes towards gender power relations while at the same time social limits… are unambiguous and solid. (page 183)”
Nitzan’s point slithered deeply enough into the craw of U.S. campuses that visiting Israelis, even those on the left, faced such accusations. Five-year IDF veteran Hen Mazzig toured the Pacific Northwest as a representative of StandWithUs, and described his experiences in this Times of Israel blog post. A member of the Meretz party, Mazzig called himself as “very liberal,” as if that offered any defense from the violent rhetoric thrown at him (as a close observer of the U.S. campus madness, I can state it does not). Nitzan’s theory clearly gained traction among those who attended his presentations,as he wrote:
A number of times I was repeatedly accused of being a killer, though I have never hurt anyone in my life. On other occasions, anti-Israel activists called me a rapist. The claims go beyond being absurd – in one case, a professor asked me if I knew how many Palestinians have been raped by IDF forces. I answered that as far as I knew, none. She triumphantly responded that I was right, because, she said, “You IDF soldiers don’t rape Palestinians because Israelis are so racist and disgusted by them that you won’t touch them.”
This thinking comfortably aligns with Nazi propaganda, in associating Jews with sexual violence (the absence of that violence merely confirmed the thesis for Mazzig’s questioner). German publications made fear of Jewish sexuality an essential proof point for anti-Semitism. It’s Them or Us: Killing the Jews in Nazi Propaganda by Randall Bytwork of Calvin College noted,
Since Jews according to the Nazis were ugly, they depended on reprehensible methods of sexual conquest, Non-violent means such as money were common, but also violence. Streicher specialized in stories and images alleging Jewish sexual violence. In a typical example, a girl cowers under the huge claw-like hand of a Jew, his evil silhouette in the background. The caption at the bottom of the page: “German girls! Keep away from Jews!”
I stored the furor over Nitzan’s thesis in the back of mind, but the theme of how Jews treat enemy women kept surfacing as I encountered examples of Jewish behavior in times of war that, together, offered a counter-narrative.
What’s the traditional religious view of Jewish behavior in warfare? The best summation of rabbinic views that I could find came from Canadian scholar Aaron J. Sarna, who wrote,
Finally, Jews cannot go berserk in the midst of war, but must maintain their humanity because, “Your camp shall be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:14) and because man was created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). Morality in combat, known as “tohar ha-neshek,” is required, entailing: no looting, no raping, no harming innocent civilians especially women, children, and other non-combatants, no destruction of crops, no destruction of fruit trees (there are exceptions), no wanton killing (massacres), no scorched-earth policy, no destruction of water supply, no spreading of disease, no destruction of clothing, no killing of POWs, and no torture of captives (unless vitally necessary to prevent a disaster).
The real insights, the practical cultural application, arose when I started reading about Jewish behavior in World War II. Granted, I found individual stories, not a broad survey, but the narratives showed a striking consistency. Jewish soldiers, especially in the Red Army, showed great restraint in their behavior when they were surrounded by fellow soldiers who treated rape of German women as their right as a form of revenge for German atrocities. Refusing to join the tidal wave of Red Army rapes, Jewish soldiers created another reality that appears repeatedly in history books.
Anthony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 was the first book I read that mentioned Jewish military restraint toward German civilians. The 2015 book, The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-1945, by Nicholas Stargardt, presents a similar description in two passages.
One of the least famous but most common forms of safety was provided by Soviet officers determined to restore order. A Russian officer agreed to sleep in the cellar next to Hertha and Renate von Gebhardt for the first few nights to protect them. In Schwerin, the war reporter Vasily Grossman noted that, “A Jewish commander whose whole family was killed by the Germans, is quartered in the apartment of a Gestapo man who has fled. The wife and children are safe with him and the whole family weeps and pleads with him to stay when he wants to leave.”
What was remarkable in the summer of 1945 was the victors’ frequent need to start some kind of dialogue with the conquered enemy, to force individual Germans to understand what they had done. In Hertha von Gebhardt’s cellar, a Soviet soldier spent hours talking to his captive audience, frequently threatening to execute them. In another case, a 29-year-old nurse recorded how an officer, who had proved himself ‘always friendly and lovable’ to her children, came into her room, cradled the smallest in his cars and, gesturing at the other two, said ‘”‘Pretty children!—I too wife and child, one year [old]! The Germans killed them both. Like so!” And he imitated slitting the stomach open!! “SS?” I asked. He nodded. (He was a Jew).’
I like to think that the restraint, even kindness, that Jewish soldiers showed to defenseless and terrified German women stemmed from a cultural decency and discipline rooted in the religious teachings mentioned by Sarna. I can’t prove that and I suppose opposing examples can be found. Still, the pattern I noticed appears repeatedly.
The respect for human life, even in the face of the most severe temptation to extract vengeance, extended to concentration camp survivors. Brooklyn resident Martin Greenfield addressed this issue—and the mysterious but embedded force of Jewish teachings—in his book Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents’ Tailor.
As related in a mesmerizing excerpt from the book, near the end of the war, Greenfield was on a work detail sent from Buchenwald to do repairs at a battered country mansion when he found and devoured rotting food meant for a rabbit. The well-coifed lady of the household, holding a baby, objected to this outrage and quickly found an SS man to beat Greenfield. He survived and returned to the camp. As soon as the camp was liberated, Greenfield and two friends grabbed weapons and returned to the mansion, fully intending to kill the woman:
I aimed the machine gun at her chest. The baby wailed. My finger hovered above the trigger.
“Shoot her!” one of the boys said. “Shoot her!” The woman’s outstretched hand trembled in the air. My heart pounded against my chest like a hammer.
“Shoot her!” the other boy yelled. “That’s what we came here for! Do it!”
I froze. I couldn’t do it. I could not pull the trigger. That was the moment I became human again. All the old teachings came rushing back. I had been raised to believe that life was a precious gift from God, that women and children must be protected.
Had I pulled the trigger, I would have been like Mengele. He, too, had faced mothers holding babies—my mother holding my baby brother—and sentenced both to gruesome deaths. My moral upbringing would not allow me to become an honorary member of the SS.
The excerpt tells the rest of the story of the beautiful blonde woman and Greenfield’s reflection on her fate.
My own reflection is that this was a challenging blog post to write. In contrast to other more personal pieces, this one deals with historical and academic ideas. I don’t live in Israel so I have no first-hand IDF views. Take what I say as a heartfelt observation based on the evidence in hand. It makes intuitive sense to me. And on this Memorial Day in the U.S., this feels like the right time to remember the discipline and humanity of Jewish soldiers and survivors worldwide.