One hundred years ago in August 1917, the London Gazette published an official announcement that “a Jewish regiment” had been established. Based on the international regiments of small oppressed nations in Europe that had fought in foreign armies against great empires during the 19th century, it heralded the Israel Defence Force in 1948. Its formation marked the success of attempts by Chaim Weizmann and Vladimir Jabotinsky to symbolise the rebirth of a Jewish nation.
Most Zionists did not wish to take sides during World War I as it was unclear who would be victorious. However Turkey’s entry into the war in November 1914 suggested that a British military force would probably invade Ottoman-controlled Palestine from Egypt. Weizmann and Jabotinsky understood that the presence of a Jewish army at the war’s end would be a bargaining-counter in the diplomatic tussle to secure a state of the Jews.
Within weeks of Turkey’s entry into hostilities, mainly Russian Jews were expelled from Palestine to Egypt since the Tsar was the ally of Britain and France. Many were housed at Gabbari camp near Alexandria. Jabotinsky and Yosef Trumpeldor, a Jewish officer who had served in the Tsar’s army, swiftly created a police force to ensure order. Many from this motley group placed their signatures on a document in March 1915 which stated: “At Alexandria, a regiment of Jewish volunteers has been formed. It places itself at the disposal of the British government in order to participate in the liberation of Palestine”.
This approach was opposed by many in the British government, not least by Herbert Asquith, the Prime Minister, and Lord Kitchener, the Minister for War. Neither wanted a Jewish regiment nor wished to launch an offensive in the east.
Although the Jews were permitted to form a Zion Mule Corps which saw service at Gallipoli, doors in Whitehall were firmly bolted to Jabotinsky’s proposals for a Jewish military force.
By 1916, the political landscape assumed a different hue — the war was not going well and the United States had kept out of the conflict. Lord Kitchener was lost when HMS Hampshire was sunk off the Orkneys by a German U-boat in June and David Lloyd-George replaced Asquith as prime minister in December. The British suddenly became interested in a written declaration of recognition of Jewish national interests in Palestine – and the formation of a Jewish fighting force to aid the allies.
In early February 1917, Sir Mark Sykes, a Conservative MP and diplomat met Zionist leaders and hinted at what was now possible if “international Jewry” offered its undivided support to the war effort. Weizmann pandered to this delusional belief in the power of the Jews to secure his diplomatic goals. But unbeknown to Weizmann and his colleagues, Sykes had already signed an agreement with the French to divide up the Middle East after the conflict’s successful conclusion.
The war in the Middle East was not going to plan. Successive British attempts to take Gaza failed. At a breakfast with Weizmann in April 1917, Lloyd-George asked what use could be made of the remnant of the Zion Mule Corps. It became clear that he was particularly interested in enlisting the tens of thousands of Russian Jews, congregated mainly in London’s East End, into the British army. While British Jews were serving King and Country — why not their Russian cousins, living in the capital?
Leading Zionists including Sokolov, Nordau and Ahad Ha’am had hitherto opposed the formation of a Jewish military force. In addition to compromising the movement’s neutrality, they feared Turkish reprisals in the fashion that had been visited upon the Armenians — massacre and persecution.
British Zionists such as Harry Sacher and Leon Simon believed that Weizmann had been seduced by Jabotinsky’s ‘jingoism’. The Zionist Federation indignantly opposed the very idea of a Jewish regiment as did Lord Rothschild, later the recipient of the Balfour Declaration.
Even David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who had been expelled by the Turks, worried about the possible consequences of the existence of a Jewish army on the side of the allies. Both eventually joined the Jewish Legion.
The fear that a specifically Jewish regiment would impinge on their loyalty to the British crown affected many communal leaders.
A JC columnist wrote at the time: “Jewish public opinion is aghast at the thought that has been thrust upon them without previous consultation either with them or with the recognised leaders of Anglo-Jewry. They regard it as a deep grievance that one or two individuals should have influenced the authorities in that direction.”
Many Russian Jews in London thought differently. The February revolution in Russia had overthrown the Tsar and in those few pre-Bolshevik months created a genuine openness. Despite bitter memories of pogroms, should Russian Jews in the UK therefore return and join the armies of the new Russia on the Eastern front? Or enlist in a Jewish army and fight in Palestine?
The anti-Zionist, Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, considered himself a patriotic Jewish Briton and vehemently opposed the Balfour Declaration. While the cabinet rebuffed his attempt to prevent any declaration, it did accede to his opposition to a battalion of British Jews. “Friendly alien Jews” was another matter — and such battalions would be added to the Royal Fusiliers. British-born Jews themselves could apply to join or be transferred. The poet, Isaac Rosenberg, wished to join, but was killed in action before he could do so.
An Irish Protestant, Lieutenant Colonel John Patterson who had commanded the Zion Mule Corps was appointed to head the 38th battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. Someone with a considerable knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, he viewed himself as a latter-day Yoav — the biblical figure who had been appointed by King David to command his army.
Jews from the UK eventually comprised almost one third of the five battalions of the Royal Fusiliers — now known to history as the Jewish Legion. It was however more the symbolism of a Jewish army than the few minor military clashes in the Middle East in 1918 that impacted on Jews worldwide.
The co-ordinating group, meeting at Jews’ College, which appealed to Russian Jews in this country to decide – Russia or Palestine – was called the “Committee for the Jewish Future”. Clearly a prescient and appropriate title.
Colin Shindler’s latest book, ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’, is published by Rowman and Littlefield