Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler (New York: Encounter Books, 2018, 272 pages, $17.48).
In 1940, in the first months of World War II, the three great Zionist leaders in the world — Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, and Vladimir Jabotinsky, the leaders (respectively) of the left, right, and center wings of the Zionist movement — each undertook a separate mission to America, seeking support to create a Jewish army to fight Hitler.
Very few people know this story, which in Richman’s hands quickly turns into a gripping suspense story. It was a desperate situation, with the Nazis rapidly advancing through Europe and with Palestine closed to Jewish immigration because of the infamous British White Paper of 1939. The book is filled with heroic individuals, crucial events and meetings, unexpected reversals, a devastating sudden death (Jabotinsky’s), plenty of principled arguments and petty disputes, and all told in an easy-to-read (but scholarly and substantial) narrative that generously quotes many diaries, letters, and speeches never previously published. There is something here for everyone, from those entirely new to the material to seasoned scholars.
The story also turns out to be a tragedy, of course. The three Zionist leaders had the same goal, but at the time they made their respective trips they weren’t even on speaking terms with one another — a regrettably familiar Jewish story of division and disunity, recrimination and antagonism. Nor was the American Jewish community particularly willing to get on board — a familiar Jewish story there as well, of the assimilated Jew and his fears of antisemitic claims of Jewish war-mongering and dual loyalty. The Zionist leaders brought to American shores information about what was already brewing in Europe and about the coming dark hour, but amidst the division and mutual disavowals, the mobilization of a Jewish army simply was not to occur. We all know how that story ends, and with this book we now also must wonder, so painfully, just what could have been, had the Jews been unified, had the American Jews overcome their timid isolationism — had the Jews been able to form a proper army in 1940 and contribute to the Allied war effort.
As Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary, this is a story about an important part of the monumental effort it took to create the Jewish state, particularly against the resistance not merely of the Arabs inside and outside Palestine and of world powers but also of many Jews. It is also a cautionary tale, as timely as ever, about the debilitating effects of the rancor and divisions among the Jewish people at a time of existential threat. As Richman observes, one month into World War II Poland had been divided in two and annexed by Germany and the Soviet Union, and simply erased from the map. Surrounded by many hostile neighbors, Israel, despite its great military, must not be allowed to suffer the same fate. Let us hope that the lessons of this book will be learned, and contemporary division and disunity will not produce any future such tragedies.