The War-Cries of the Jew

By E. R. Lipsett

[The Century Magazine; November 1915]

The Jew has as many war-cries as there are tongues in Europe, for he fights with them all; and then he has his own war-cry, that eternal tearful cry of his that in these days is rending the heavens over Russian and Galician Polands.

And still there is another and a newer cry coming, the war-cry of the neutral Jew. "To arms! to arms, O Israel!" has arisen, the sudden thundering cry throughout the length and the breadth of the New York Ghetto, and all the other Ghettos in the larger cities of America.

We know, of course, what are the arms of the Ghetto Jew: they are tongue and pen. By means of these it is intended to raise the Jew from the depths of his ashes and make him a live nation again. A congress of American Jews is to be called, and it is to demand, at the conclusion of the war, or before it, the return of Palestine to its ancient owners. For the Jews are a nation, and they must have a land, and Palestine is theirs.

That is to say, in brief, that while nearly three quarters of a million Jews on the European battle-fields are at one another's throats, in vindication each of a different nationality, the Jews far away from the bursting shells and glittering bayonets are calling out to them: "No, you 're all in the wrong. For you are all one. It is not for us to determine whether the Jews are a nation.

It is not for one man to tell another what he should be. One is what one feels. If the Jews feel themselves a nation, that is sufficient.

And there again we are brought back to that grim anomaly, that there should be three hundred and fifty thousand bayonets in the hands of Russian Jews ready to bore their way through the hearts of some two hundred thousand Jews in Austrian uniform, and fifty thousand more in the ranks of the Germans. And in turn there are twenty thousand Jews with Great Britain, and as many again with France, ready to die by bullet and shell sent to them by the hands of their German and Austrian brothers. In the Dardanelles we have seen two Jewish legions pitted against each other, the one gathered from Alexandria, under the Allies, the other, under the Turks, hailing from the Jewish colonies in Palestine, and each fighting round and inspired by the same flag, the shield of David.

Still, there is nothing unique in that. It is not the first time in the history of the world that races and nations have had their house divided against themselves. America, above all others, perhaps, has cause to remember that sad truth, with the scars of her own wounds from the Civil War scarcely yet faded. Moreover, in the case of the Jew at present, there is in addition to political sentiment the fundamental incentive of defending one's fatherland against an alien foe. The Jew is a man precisely like all other men in elemental passions. And a man has to be born somewhere, and the soil on which that occurs is dear to him; and grows dearer than life, dearer than wife and child, the moment another man threatens to violate it. Assuredly there is nothing new or strange in that.

But what has truly astonished the world is that the Jew should fight with such valor and devotion for Russia, on whose soil proper he may not at all be born. It has astonished even the Jews themselves, and the Russians, too. It was not the trumpeted promises at the outbreak of the war that Jews were to get their full citizen rights that drew thousands of Jewish volunteers, lawfully freed from conscription, round the Russian standards. It was not materialistic prospects that could call forth such bravery and such loyalty from the Russian Jews in arms. Let emperors and kings make war upon one another for gain and for worldly ambition; soldiers fight for something holier and loftier. There is something in the composition of the Jew, perhaps unknown to himself, that makes him abnormally loyal to the land where he happens to pitch his tent, if only for a day and a half. And it makes no difference to him how little he is wanted, how grudgingly the permission to stay is given.

At the beginning of the war a handful of Russian Jewish youths in Paris volunteered their services to the republic. They were assigned to the Legion Etrangère, a body composed of the refugees of all nationalities and exiles from Morocco and Algiers. After a time these Jews found themselves ill used by their comrades, and refused to work any longer with them in the trenches. They insisted upon being sent to some line regiment. But of course war is war and discipline must be discipline, and so a number of them were taken out to be shot. They scorned the bandage over the eyes, and as they fell they cried, "Vive la France et la Russie!"

And that was one more war-cry of the Jew. And it could have been no other's.

There would have been no such little story to tell if there had not been any Jews in the world. For the Jew is the only man of whom this could be told— the man of intense temperament, of romantic imagination, and of unyielding, undying faith in the cause he has made his.

Russia duly appreciated her war Jews. Russian generals embraced Jewish heroes, and wept tears of gratitude on their shoulders, and decorated their breasts with medals and crosses. And then they turned round and gave orders to hang from the nearest lamp-post or telegraph-pole the fathers and uncles of these heroes for being suspected of spying for the Germans. The czar himself, on his visits to the hospitals, paused before the cots of distinguished Jewish wounded, and his lovely daughters comforted them with their own hands; but the wives and the sisters of the sufferers were not permitted to come within leagues of them. For the hospitals were outside the pale, where no Jewish foot may step.

Russia had no use for Jews past the service age except for hanging; had no use for Jewish women except to pass them on to her lustful Cossacks.

It is a repetition of the story told of Peter the Great, only the edifying point is missing. The story goes: they were to chop off the hand of an ex-soldier for thieving when Peter happened to pass the place of execution. The victim appealed to the monarch, reminding him how that same hand had once in battle saved the standard from the enemy. "True," answered Peter, "and that shouldn't go without recognition." He took the doomed hand and kissed it. "And now," he added to the executioner, "go ahead with your work."

Toward last spring there was yet another war-cry of the Jew heard throughout the Ghettos of Kovno and Vilna and Warsaw. Fasting and praying have ever been the weapons of the Ghettos of Russia, and to these the people were called. The rabbis called a day of fast and prayer, after the fashion of Queen Esther, in supplication to Jehovah for the success of the Russian arms. Jews put their faith in the fast not merely as atonement, but for its direct efficacy. For the empty stomach maketh the heart penitent, and that is the time to pray. Penitence and prayer may avert the evil decree. And so millions of Jews and Jewesses, and children from the age of thirteen, tasted no food or drink from sunrise to sunset, and prayed throughout these long gnawing hours that Russia might crush her foe and shine gloriously.

The final answer to that prayer has not yet come from above. It may be a year or two more in coming, and no man knows what it may be. But Russia in the meantime has met that outburst of loyalty to her in a way that only Russia knows how to follow.

An order of the day was issued by the grand duke that all the Jews in Kovno and Courland must leave at once. Not a soul must remain. Somewhere, somehow, some Russian secrets had leaked out to the Germans. That was sufficient to place it on the Jews. Perhaps it really was some Jew. Jews must have their black sheep, though Jews themselves are too sensitive ever to admit that. At any rate, because it was thought some Jew somewhere had played false to his country, that was sufficient for all the Jews. All had to go. Go where? It made no difference. Go they must, and right away. In some cases they were given only from six to eight hours to get ready for their unknown destination. And in that short period two hundred thousand men and women, rooted to the soil for generations and generations, had to flee at the point of the bayonet. They came away with the skin of their teeth; for no time was given them to pack, and they were going into blank, cold space. Railroad trains by the dozen were made up for them, each consisting of sixty or seventy freighters and cattle-trucks, and into these they were jammed, the lame and the blind and the cripples and the dying and the insane, the sound and the infected, all together, mendicants and merchants, babies and graybeards, young women momentarily expecting to become mothers, and women torn out of child-bed. And also there were among them soldiers recuperating from wounds and waiting to go back to the front, and other soldiers too badly maimed ever to go anywhere. For days and days, in some cases for nine days and nights, these trains kept slowly moving on their long course, with that tightly packed mixture of living freight securely locked in the cars. One's brain reels at the task of grasping the misery and the bestiality of it; but on and on the trains moved, and all had to be endured. Some had the good luck to succumb on the way, and they were envied. From others their intellect took flight, and left them raving or staring maniacs. The rest were carted on and on till they reached the dumping ground, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from their homes, places where their fathers had never set foot, towns and cities whose names they had never heard. And there they had to dispose of themselves in cellars and ruins of all sorts, with nowhere at all to look to for sustenance. Nobody knew where they were or what was going to happen. Mothers lost their children, and husbands their wives, and they did not know where to look for them.

That was how the devil enjoyed himself in Russia, where he, and he alone, is permitted to go and come without passport.

It was the devil's comedy. He had his laugh in his sleeve when he saw the Jews fasting and praying for a victorious Russia. He made the Russians give the Jews this reward for it. And when that was done, the devil had his laugh aloud, till it echoed from one end of the world to the other, and the world's very foundations shook and shivered.

Still, the devil was not allowed to have it all his own way. His fine play was marred for him; for over and above the ring of his laughter sounded a note of the purest and loftiest tragedy that ever was recorded in human history.

Deputations of less unhappy Jews had hastened to make representation to the ministry at Petrograd to call off that murderous order of evacuation. The decision came late, after the trains were already on the move. Still, it was not too late. The grand duke's order was overruled, and the exiles could return to their homes. There was only one condition made, that they should give hostages from among their rabbis and other of their most important men for their future good behavior. If ever again any traitorous acts were found chargeable to the Jews, these hostages would be summarily hanged. It took them some days to make up their minds about it, for the offer to let them go back to their homes was a sore temptation to them; but it could not be. Finally they made this magnificent answer:

"We reject the Government's offer. The condition is an impossible one. It would not be consistent with the dignity of Judaism."

One does not need to be of the blood or of the faith to be thrilled with pride at that sublime stand made by men and women held by the neck to the bottom of hell. It fills one with gratitude and with hope to know that there are such men and women living in the same world with one. If Russia but realized it!

What was the disaster of the Masurian Lakes, what was the loss of those hard-won Galician conquests, what was the fall of Warsaw, what were they all in comparison with that grinding humiliation that came to Russia from the lips of those grand Jews!

It would not be consistent with the dignity of Judaism, that creed most despised by Russia, that Jews should have to give pledges for their good conduct to the country to which they are tied by birth through many generations. But it was consistent with the dignity of mighty and invincible Russia to distrust these people and be afraid of them. It was consistent with the integrity of a great power to uproot from their native soil the children of its own protection, and destroy in an hour the labors and the hopes of their lives for crimes they did not commit, and were not going to commit, if Russia herself were asked, and gave herself time for a second thought before making answer.

But the end of the story isn't yet, for the end of the war isn't yet. More Jews will bravely and unquestioningly fling their lives away for Russia, and Russia will go on in her own unthinking, unfeeling way, where her Jews are concerned, and continue driving more of them from their homes. For where suspicion finds a footing there is always more and more room made for it.

And even when the war is over and all else will be at an end, there will still be no end to the woes of Russia's Jews. They will continue growing, and growing worse. For what are at present placed as mere suspicions will then be turned into a cause against the Jews. It will be remembered against them that they could not be trusted in their own homes during the war, and they will be branded as traitors for the rest of time.

It is seeing all this, and seeing no end to it, that has finally given rise to that new war-cry among the Jews of the American Ghettos, starting from New York, and rolling on till it has reached the rest of them in Philadelphia and Boston and Chicago and elsewhere.

At first, when the European War broke out, the Ghetto Jews of New York held their breath. They wondered what was going to happen to their brethren, especially in Russia. They had their hopes. They placed no faith whatever in the grand duke's proclamation, in the name of the czar, that Jews were to come in for their full citizen rights, and they smiled bitterly at the czar's own appeal to his "beloved Jews." But they hoped that there was going to be a rebirth of Russia herself, that the war would bring out a newer and freer Russia. Russia's very alliance with two such enlightened nations as France and England was taken as an earnest for that; and in turn the latter two countries were looked upon as pledges or sureties for a freer and better future for the Russian peoples.

The Russian nation may still continue to cherish that hope. For the Jews of New York it was a short-lived one. Only too soon reports began to come in of Russia's treatment of her civil Jewish population. The New York Ghetto gave up all hope and lost all patience. They wished to keep quiet, they wished to do full honor to President Wilson's proclamation of neutrality; but blood will cry out. And, after all, America's declaration of neutrality did not include Russia's internal war on her Jews. And so the great East Side broke out openly against Russia.

Wherever two men gathered they cursed Russia, and prayed that this war might be the end of her, that she might be crushed out of all recognition. The Yiddish press, with its half-dozen dailies circulating by hundreds of thousands, and numberless weeklies and other journals, took a malicious delight in magnifying Russian defeats, and prophesying more of them and worse ones. The tables were turned, too, on France and England, especially England, by reason of her past championships of the Jewish cause. Being the allies of the arch-enemy, France and England cannot be the friends of the Jews. Stories were set in circulation of a new-born anti-Semitism in England, and of an intensified one in France, where the Dreyfus case has not yet been forgotten. From anti-Russian to pro-German was the natural evolution. To-day the New York Ghetto is frantically, fanatically pro-German. It is the measurement not of love for Germany, but of hatred for Russia. But prayers and curses and wishes and talks at meetings and editorial comments are blunt weapons. The Jews of America had real battling to do, if ever their six or seven million brethren in Russia were to be redeemed.

From time to time during these last twelve months, ways and means of all sorts came up for consideration. Toward last autumn a campaign was launched in the Yiddish press for the creation of a Jewish conference, one paper after the other taking it up. Which is to say that the Ghetto saw a good thing in it, and none of the papers could afford to keep out. This conference was to consist of a body of representative Jews from all countries, and be kept in readiness for that blessed day when the warring powers have sheathed their swords and met together to discuss peace. The Jews must not then be permitted to be overlooked. The Jewish conference would step in at the psychological moment to press the cause of all Jews in all countries and demand full citizen rights for them.

Peace was not yet on the horizon then, but of course it would not do to wait for the last moment. The Jewish conference must be gotten together betimes. Armies of interviewers were sent out by the Yiddish press to gather the opinions of the great ones in the land, Jews and Gentiles, as to the necessity of a Jewish conference. Those that could not be reached in person were circularized, and others were cabled to abroad. The answers came variously. Some were enthusiastic; others, while approving of the idea in the main, contended that the moment was not yet ripe to talk of it, and premature agitation might perhaps harm the cause. The latter were left unheeded, and the talk and the ink-spilling went on. Hester Street and Wall Street, as the landmarks between the Ghetto and the wealthy uptown Jews of German extraction are picturesquely termed, were ready to join hands together for the building up of a Jewish conference. They met and deliberated and squabbled and exchanged reproaches and came to agreements.

And while this was going on a rare new spirit was seizing upon the dense working-masses of the Ghetto. Characterized hitherto by their inertia to all things specifically Jewish, and interested only in their unions and, at most, in the politics of their ward, they have now awakened to a new life, a new dignity. "Si scorpion le tomb, is lean I mort," as they have now taken up the cry from the song of the Garibaldi's.

The unparalleled and wholly unnecessary sufferings of his people in the eastern war-zones just because they are Jews have inspired the workman of the Ghetto with a new nationalistic sense, haunting him with it for these many months and dinning it into him day by day. He feels there is something for him to do in piecing together a nation torn to tatters; and he thinks he is going to do it, and alone.

Hester Street is now going to stand on its own legs. It will not go to Wall Street with hat in hand, craving its spokesmanship and godfatherhood. And besides, Wall Street cannot come with Hester Street this time. For Wall Street does not believe in a Jewish nationality. Wall Street knows only of Americans of the Jewish faith. And Hester Street means to demand of the world a separate existence for Jews, as sure as Hester Street sees in Jews a separate race and nation. And so instead of a Jewish conference, there is to be a Jewish congress. At the moment the Ghetto is afire with the idea. The means by which it is to be worked out are so far visible to no eye. Our concern is merely to record the many war-cries of the Jews, and the latest and newest is: "A Jewish congress! a Jewish congress!"

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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