It must be a source of pride and albeit, a source of wonder as well, that the State of Israel has fielded one of the finest military formations in the history of the modern world. No, we are not as big as the Chinese Army, nor do we have a navy that rivals even that of much larger sea-faring states, nor is our air force numbered in the thousands of various types of aircraft known to the air forces of the NATO nations. But, we do have a particular quality that most of these others lack in abundance( can one really write “lack in abundance, or is that way too much of a metaphysically incorrect grammatical incorrect quandary?). We have a distinctly Jewish military. I am not forgetting the thousands of Beduin, Circassians, Druze and others who wear the uniform of Israel, but even in ancient times, our armies included non-Jews.
I am not, for even a moment denying or denigrating that hundreds of thousands of Jewish combatants that served in their own states’ armed services during the past century. Even though Jews served in the armies of European nations previous to the last century, it was only in the 20th century where the laws against Jews serving in military arms was totally eliminated. For hundreds of years, Jews were denied the right to bear arms both in organized militaries or even as private citizens. Indeed, in the 19th century, the Russian Czar ordered the conscription of all Jewish men over the age of thirteen for 25 years of military service which usually led to their conversion or death. My own paternal grandfather, like many Jewish boys at that time, had their trigger fingers cut off so they couldn’t fire a rifle, or they were hidden by their families or pronounced dead, even fake funerals were held.
Needles to say, the Jewish capacity to bear arms was treated as a joke by the anti-Semites and the Jews themselves even created terminology that made great fun of the gentiles adoration for military pomp.
During the First World War for the first time, Jewish men in their thousands of numbers served on both sides of the conflict. German Jews fought against American Jews and I am certain that this led to great anguish among many of them on both sides. There are horrific tales of Jewish soldiers from opposite sides having to kill one another and even stories about how some soldiers, upon hearing pleas and prayers from Jewish combatants on the other side crying out in Yiddish or Hebrew for mercy and being, in many cases, spared from the bullet and bayonet.
During the Second World War, over one million Jews served in all branches of the Allied armies. In fact, 550,000 Jewish Americans served in the US military-the largest percentage per capita of any single ethnic group in the USA, almost 10% of the entire Jewish population of the country. Hundreds of Jewish servicemen and women won the highest military decorations of their respective countries.
But all this failed to represent what had been suppressed and forgotten for centuries-the fighting spirit of the Jewish people. The armies of Joshua, King David and King Solomon were as fierce and as powerful as any other of their times. David’s soldiers built an Israelite Empire that stretched from the Euphrates River in the north to the wadi El Arish in northern Sinai. Joshua’s forces put flight to the armies of the walled cities of the Canaanites, the 300 men under Gideon fought the Midianites and the force of Barak and Deborah was never defeated in battle.
The guerrilla bands of the Maccabi’im defeated the larger and more heavily armed force of the Syrian-Greeks and gave rise to the second Jewish commonwealth under the rule of the Hashmona’im.
Not once, but three times we made the rulers in Rome tremble with fear and trepidation. The Great Jewish War of 66-73CE made the emperor of what was the mightiest power on Earth recall his legions from Spain and as far as Brittania, to put down the revolt of the Jewish people. A smaller insurrection took place in the years 110-112CE which was quickly put down by the legions of Rome. Even then, after the slaughter of a million Jews and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, in 132CE, our people rose yet again to fight Imperium Romanum. The army of Shimon Bar Kochba, held off the Roman war machine for three years-even restoring Jerusalem into our hands and, unbelievably, attempting to rebuild the Temple.
Yes, we were ultimately defeated, but the Bar Kochba Rebellion so bankrupted imperial Rome that it never fully recovered. However, the last Jewish fighting force of antiquity, alas, became, until modern times, the last independent Hebrew army till today.
True, Jews fought in the many underground movements in Nazi occupied Europe and the uprising in Warsaw and the bravery of the Jewish partisan units in Eastern Europe gave the myth of Jewish cowardice a devastating blow. Even the Minister of Propaganda of the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels, wrote in his diary at the conclusion of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, when the German casualties were tabulated penned, “One sees what Jews are capable of when they are armed.”
The renaissance of Jewish heroism in battle has been borne out by the outstanding record of the present Israel Defense Forces. From the very first days of our return homewards, we have recognized the need for self defense. With the beginnings of the mounted shomrim (guards) of the late 19th century, through the beginnings of the underground organizations that fought the illegal British occupation forces and defended our new settlements from Arab brigands, we have put paid to the mythology of Jewish hesitance in battle. No people in history have fought for their freedom as we have. We made the great empires of the ancient world quake in their boots. We have bested armies far larger than our own, ones even more well equippe at that.
We have resisted the urge to lay down our arms and throw our hands in the air in defeat against the evil terrorism that surrounds us and we have told the world from the pulpit of the United Nations that we will defend ourselves, by ourselves. That the day of the fearful Jew is over. Anyone who wants to fight with us now, knows where to find us. We have returned to fighting under a flag adorned with the Shield of David and our sons and daughters who wear the uniform of Israel, no matter which branch, take the oath to protect our homeland with their lives.
I realize that this article is not as comprehensive and complete on the topic of Jewish military prowess, that will have to wait for another day and a lot more research. Suffice to say that it is a source of inestimable pride that we, as citizens of Israel and Jews world over, can take in the fact that as Jews, as Israelis, we stand ready to defend our national honor for all time. In Israel, we know that our security is guarded by the cream of our youth and for World Jewry, they can take solace in the fact that they will always, in times of trouble, find one spot on this planet where they will always be welcome.
Oh, I must ask forgiveness of another great fighting force, the United States Marine Corps for borrowing from their own slogan-The Few, The Proud, The Marines. Semper Fi, or as we say here, Tamid Ne’eman (Always Faithful).