Editors note: This column was inspired by Dr. Kramer’s father, and American who enlisted in the Jewish Legion. Picture below
About two thousand years ago in C.E. 135 the Jewish people in the Roman province of Judea made their second and final attempt at rebelling against the Empire and its then Emperor, Hadrian. In the grip of their belief that they were being led by their newfound messiah, Simon Bar Kochba (yet another false messiah, as it turned out), and that God was unalterably on their side, they started a war against six Roman legions. Though the outcome was inevitable the final result was shocking–even across the centuries. Hundreds of thousands died in battle and those who did not were crucified or sold into slavery.
The remnant Jews who managed to flee before the bloodbath were no longer a people with a state and a temple, but a scattered people who had lost the yen for messianism and their eagerness to fight God’s wars. They spent the next centuries beating their swords into holy books and their spears into sacred commentary. Neither did they learn war any more–until 1917.
For the next two millennia Jews lived scattered from Europe to the Middle East in countries in which they were at best tolerated and at worst persecuted. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, events in Europe–pogroms in Russia, political anti-Semitism in Germany, and the Dreyfus case in France–lent vigor to Zionism, a movement to reestablish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
With the outbreak of World War I and the choice of the Ottoman Empire to join the Central Powers it appeared to the young Zionist, Vladimir Jabotinsky, that after two thousand years, the time had come for Jews to fight again. A prolific writer and effective speaker, he had organized self-defense among persecuted Jews in Odessa and now turned his efforts to gathering support for the idea of a Jewish unit of the British army to fight against the Turks and aid in liberating Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. He envisioned thus gaining a postwar foothold in Palestine under a British presence and at the same time planting the seeds of a local defense force.
Jabotinsky continued to press for the idea of a Jewish unit as part of the regular British army. He had gained the support of Chaim Weizmann, whose career as a chemist had led to the invention of artificial acetone, a process which enabled the British to mass produce smokeless gunpowder. This contribution to Britain’s war effort led to a friendship between the charismatic Weizmann and the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour as well as other members of the British government and resulted in 1917 in the Balfour Declaration, which offered British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.