The War and the Jews

By Israel Zangwill

[The New York Times/Current History, September 1915]

Mr. Zangwill's article on "The War and the Jews" appeared in the Metropolitan Magazine for August, and the major part of it is here reproduced by permission.


"There is no luck for Israel," says the Talmud. Individual Jews are frequently shrewd and fortunate, but as a people Israel is, in his own expressive idiom, a Schlemihl, a hapless, ne'er-do-well. Twenty centuries of wandering find him concentrated precisely in the valley of Armageddon. And here in a hundred places he must again grasp the Wanderer's staff. Symbolic is the figure of the Chief Rabbi of Serbia wandering across Europe to beg for his pitiful flock. A workhouse and a hostel at London are congested with Belgian Jews. Forty ravaged towns have poured their Ghettos into Warsaw. Prague, Vienna, Budapest, seethe sullenly with refugees. A census taken of 4,653 Jews, who fled into Alexandria showed subjects of England, France, Russia, Spain, America, Turkey, Persia, Rumania, Italy, Greece and Serbia, while another thousand had already wandered further—to other Egyptian cities, to America, Australia, South Africa, Russia. The only important section of Jewry that has escaped the war is that which has poured itself into the American Melting Pot. And not only are ten of the thirteen millions of Jewry in the European cockpit; nearly three millions are at the fiercest centre of fighting—in Poland.

Poland—be it German, Russian or Austrian Poland—is pre-eminently the home of Jewry, and Poland even more than Belgium has been the heart of hell. For two of the Powers that combined to dismember it are now fighting the third across its fragments, and Jewish populations are at their thickest along those 600 miles of border country through which Russia invades East-Prussian Poland or Galician Poland, Germany hacks her way toward Warsaw, or Austria hurls her counter-attacks.

The accident of a series of peculiarly wise and tolerant monarchs opened Poland to a large volume of Jewish immigration and even gave its Jews a measure of autonomy and dignity. They were the recognized providers of an urban and industrial population to a mainly agricultural people. Thus were they collected for the holocaust of today. For, of course, the partition of Poland left them still pullulating, whether in Prussian Danzig, Russian Warsaw or Austrian Lemberg. And not only have they duplicated the tragedy of the Poles in having to fight what is practically a civil war; not only have they suffered almost equally in the ruin of Poland so poignantly described by Paderewski, in the burnings, bombardings, pillagings, tramplings; not only have they shared in the miseries of towns taken and retaken by the rival armies, but they have been accused hysterically or craftily before both belligerents of espionage or treachery, and even of poisoning the wells, and crucified by both. Hundreds have been shot, knouted, hanged, imprisoned as hostages; women have been outraged, whole populations have fled, some before the enemy, many hounded out by their own military authorities, wandering—but not into the wide world. Into the towns outside the Pale they might not escape these were not open even to the wounded soldier. In the long history of the martyr-people there is no ghastlier chapter. Yet it is lost—and necessarily lost—in the fathomless ocean of Christian suffering, in the great world-tragedy. But while Poland and Belgium are crowned by their sorrows and cheered by the hope of rebirth, while the agony of Belgium has become an immortal heroic memory, the agony of Israel is obscure and unknown, unlightened by sympathy, unredeemed by any national prospect, happy if it only escape mockery. It is related that when one of these ejected foot-sore populations, wandering at midnight on the wintry roads, with their weeping children, met marching regiments of their own army, the women stretched out their hands in frantic beseechment to the Jews in the ranks.

But the Jewish soldiers could only weep like the children—and march on.


"You are the only people," said Agrippa, trying to hold back the Jews of Palestine from rising against the Roman Empire, "who think it a disgrace to be servants of those to whom all the world hath submitted." Today, servants of all who have harbored them, the Jews are spending themselves passionately in the service of all. At the outbreak of the war an excited Englishwoman, hearing that the Cologne Gazette, said to be run by Jews, was abusing England, wrote to me, foaming at the quill, demanding that the Jews should stop the paper. That+ the Jews do not exist, or that an English Jew could not possibly interfere with the patriotic journalism of a German subject, nay, that the abuse in the Cologne Gazette was actually a proof of Jewish loyalty, did not occur to the worthy lady. Yet the briefest examination of the facts would have shown her that the Jews merely reflect their environment, if with a stronger tinge of color due to their more vivid temperament, their gratitude and attachment to their havens and fatherlands, and their anxiety to prove themselves more patriotic than the patriots. It is but rarely that a Jew makes the faintest criticism of his country in war-fever, and when he does so, he is disavowed by his community and its press. For the Jew his country can do no wrong. Wherever we turn, therefore, we find the Jew prominently patriotic. In England the late Lord Rothschild presided over the Red Cross Fund, and the Lord Chief Justice is understood to have saved the financial situation not only for England, but for all her allies. In Germany, Herr Ballin, the Jew who refused the baptismal path to preferment, the creator of the mercantile marine, and now the organizer of the national food supply, stands as the Kaiser's friend, interpreter and henchman, while Maximilian Harden brazenly voices the gospel of Prussianism, and Ernst Lissauer a Jew converted to the religion of Love—song "The Song of Hate." In France, Dreyfus a more Christian Jew albeit unbaptized—has charge of a battery to the north of Paris, while General Heymann, Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, commands an army corps. In Turkey, the racially Jewish Enver Bey is the ruling spirit, having defeated the Jewish Djavid Bey, who was for alliance with France, while Italy, on the contrary, has joined the Allies, through the influence of Baron Sonnino, the son of a Jew. The military hospitals of Turkey are all under the direction of the Austrian Jew, Hecker. In Hungary it is the Jews who, with the Magyars, are the brains of the nation. Belgium has sent several thousand Jews to the colors and at a moment when Belgium's fate hangs upon England, has intrusted her interests at the Court of St. James's to a Jewish Minister, Mr. Hymans. Twenty thousand Jews are fighting for the British Empire, fifty thousand for the German, a hundred and seventy thousand for the Austro-Hungarian, and three hundred and fifty thousand for the Russian. Two thousand five hundred Jews fight for Serbia. Even from Morocco and Tripoli come Jewish troops—they number 20 per cent of the Zouaves. Nor are the British Colonies behind the French. From Australia, New Zealand, from Canada, South Africa, from every possession and dependency, stream Jewish soldiers or sailors. Even the little contingent from Rhodesia had Jews, and the first British soldier to fall in German Southwest Africa was Ben Rabinson, a famous athlete. In Buluwayo half a company of reserves is composed of Jews.

When Joseph Chamberlain offered the Zionists a plateau in East Africa the half-dozen local Britons held a "mass meeting" of protest. Yet today, though the offer was rejected by the Zionists, fifty Jewish volunteers—among them Captain Blumenthal of the Artillery and Lieutenant Eckstein of the Mounted Rifles—are serving in the Defense Force enlisted at Nairobi. Letters from British Jews published in a single number of the Jewish World, taken at random, reveal the writers as with the Australian fighting force in Egypt, with the Japanese at the taking of Tsing-Tao, with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea, while the killed and wounded in the same issue range over almost every British regiment, from the historic Black Watch, Grenadier Guards, or King's Own Scotch Borderers down to the latest Middlesex and Manchester creations. The Old World and the New are indeed at clash when a Jewish sailor on Passover eve, in lieu of sitting pillowed at the immemorial ritual meal, is at his big gun, "my eye fixed to the telescopic lights and an ear in very close proximity to an adjacent navy phone, and the remainder of the time with my head on a projectile for a pillow." Anglo-Jewry, once the home of timorous mothers and Philistine fathers, has become a Maccabean stronghold. One distinguished family alone—the Spielmanns—boasts thirty-five members with the forces. A letter of thanks from the King has published the fact that an obscure Jew in a London suburb has five sons at the front. And in all these armies the old Maccabean valor which had not feared to challenge the Roman Empire at its mightiest, and to subdue which a favorite General had to be detached from the less formidable Britain, has been proved afresh." The Jewish bravery astonished us all," said the Vice Governor of Kovno, and, indeed, the heroism of the Russian Jew has become a household word. More than 300 privates—they cannot be officers—have been accorded the Order of St. George. One Jew, who brought down a German aeroplane, was awarded all four degrees of the order at once. In England Lieutenant de Pass won the Victoria Cross for carrying a wounded man out of heavy fire, and perished a few hours later in trying to capture a German sap. In Austria up to the end of the year the Jews had won 651 medals, crosses, etc. "I give my life for the victory of France and the peace of the world," wrote a young immigrant Jew who died on the battlefield. A collection of letters from German soldiers, published by the Jewish Book-shop of Berlin, reveals equal devotion to Germany. And to the question, "What shall it profit the Jew to fight for the whole world?" a Yiddish journalist, Morris Myer, has found a noble answer. There is a unity behind all this seeming self-contradiction, he points out. "All these Jews are dying for the same thing for the honor of the Jewish name."


The devotion of the Jew to the British flag needs no explanation. Both socially and by legislation England has given the world a lesson in civilization. And if France only just escaped the pollution of the Dreyfus affair, if Germany and Austria are anti-Semitic in temper, all these countries have yet given the Jew his constitutional rights, and the Kaiser in particular has had the sense and the spirit to turn his ablest Jews into friends and henchmen. The appointment of several hundred officers during the war has probably removed the last tangible grievance of German Jewry. As for Turkey, she has been since 1492 a refuge of Jewry from Christian persecution, while Italy, which has had a Jewish Prime Minister as well as a Jewish War Minister (General Ottolenghi), stands equal with England in justice to the Jew. But that the Russian Jews, yet reeking from the blood of a hundred pogroms, should have thrown themselves into Russia's struggle with almost frenzied fervor, this is, indeed, a phenomenon that invites investigation, and invites it all the more because the Jews in America, remote from the new realities, continue their barren curses against Russia, and include in their malisons those who, like myself, proclaim the cause of the Allies the cause of civilization.

It would be easy to dismiss the enthusiasm of the Russian Jews as more politic than patriotic, or to say that they have made a virtue of necessity. But it bears all the marks of a sincere upwelling, a spiritual outreaching to their fellow-Russians. Such scenes as marked the proclamation of war have never been known in Russian Jewry. The Jewish Deputy in the Duma and the Jewish press were at one in proffering heart and soul to the country. From the Great Synagogue of Petrograd five thousand Jews, headed by the Crown Rabbi, marched to the Czar's Palace and, kneeling before it, sang Hebrew hymns and the Russian anthem. Their flags bore the motto, "There are no Jews or Gentiles now." At Kieff ten thousand Jews, carrying Russian banners and the Scrolls of the Law, paraded the town, and similar demonstrations occurred wherever Jews dwelt. A Warsaw writer records that the Jews wept with emotion in the synagogues as they prayed for Russia's victory. Thousands of youths who had escaped conscription offered themselves as volunteers; in Rostoff even a girl smuggled herself among them and went through several battles before she was detected. The older generation poured out its money in donatives. The Dowager Empress accepted and named a Red Cross Hospital. One wealthy Jew in the province of Kherson undertook to look after all the families of reservists in six villages, or 1,380 souls.

Something must, perhaps, be discounted for the hysteria and hypnosis of war time. And other factors than patriotism proper may have entered into the enthusiasm. The young generation had reached the breaking point. Baffled of every avenue of distinction, the most brilliant blocked from the schools and universities by the diabolical device of admitting even the small percentage by ballot and not by merit, grown hopeless of either Palestine without or the social revolution within, the young Jews hovered gloomily between suicide and baptism, between depravity and drink. Some with a last glimmer of conscience and faith had thought to avoid the stigma of Christianity by becoming merely Mohammedans; others to dodge at least the Greek Church had exploited an Episcopalian missionary. But even for these Russia refused to open up a career. To this desperate generation the war came as an outlet from a blind alley, a glad adventure. Hence the reckless bravery on the battlefield. But there was reason, too, in the ecstasy. England, ever the Jew's star of hope, was at last to fight side by side with Russia. For the Russian the alliance was a pride, for the Jew an augury of liberty. The great democracies of the West would surely drag Russia in their train. And for the elders the fear of Germany was the beginning of wisdom. The very first day of the war she had taken possession of the undefended town of Kalicz on the Russian border, and in this town, more than a third Jewish, had initiated her policy of "frightfulness." And mingling with this sinister first impression came the stories of wealthy Jews returning from Karlsbad, Wiesbaden, and other Summer resorts from which they had been ejected as "alien enemies." The Jew began to cling to the devil he knew, to realize that, after all, Russia was his home.

But when every allowance is made for lower factors, there remains a larger and deeper truth underlying the enthusiasm, the truth which it takes a poet to feel and which found its best expression in the words of the Russo-Yiddish writer, Shalom Asch, whose dramas have been played in Berlin and whose books were published in English. Germany's aeroplanes had rained down on the Pale not bombs, but leaflets, announcing herself as the deliverer of the oppressed peoples under the Russian yoke and promising to grant the Jews equal rights. To these seductive attempts to exploit the Jewish resentment against Russia, Shalom Asch answered sternly: "'The oppressed peoples under the Russian yoke' have risen as one man against the German bird of prey. * * * The Jews are marching in the Russian ranks for the defense of their fatherland. Nor is it the youth alone that has done its duty. In every town of Russia Jews have established committees; our sisters are joining the Red Cross, our fathers are collecting funds. * * * Thousands of Russo-Jewish volunteers have enlisted in France * * * even from America, where Germany has tried to exploit our sufferings, they are beginning to come. For this is not a war to defend the Russian bureaucracy which is responsible for the pogroms, but to defend the integrity of our fatherland. * * * Nor do we do our duty in order to 'earn' equal rights * * * but because, deeply hidden in our hearts, there is a burning feeling for Russia. * * * Look at America, where hundreds of societies and streets bear the names of our Russian towns. * * * No Pale, no restrictions, no progroms, can eradicate from our hearts this natural feeling of love for our country, and God be thanked for it! * * * Nobody gives a fatherland and nobody can take it away. We have been in Russia as long as the Slav peoples. The history of the Jews in Poland begins with thievery first page of Polish history. Equal rights must be ours, because for a thousand years and more we have absorbed in our blood the sap of the Slav soil, the Slav landscape is reflected in our thought and imagination. We shall fight against the system of government which refuses to recognize our equality, as we fought against it in 1905. But the Russian soil is sacred, it belongs to the peoples of Russia, and whoever dares to touch it will find in the Jew his first foe!"

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury