In the 20th century, Diaspora Jews served in many of the great wars that dominated world history. An estimated 500,000 American Jews fought in World War II, with a Jewish Brigade and many others joining alongside in the British Army. In World War I, Jews fought on both sides of the conflict with approximately 100,000 German Jews fighting for their country and 500,000 on the Russian side.
In many ways, 20th century Jewish soldiery symbolized the complex integration of Jews into their given countries.
In some cases, it marked the next stage toward remarkable acceptance; in others, it was a great act of sacrifice that got the Jews nowhere. Yet as Derek Penslar has documented, these were the latest moments in Jewish history of Jews partaking in foreign armies.
Historians have pointed to somewhat cryptic references to Jews fighting in several armies in antiquity, such as in Persian- Hellenistic Egypt. It remains unclear, however, if these were willful decisions or forced conscriptions by conquerors.
In any case, during the medieval period, Jews clearly participated in warfare within Spain. The famed Shmuel Hanagid, for example, headed an army in Granada in the early 11th century.
It might be that Ashkenazi scholars were less enthusiastic about this project.
One of the Tosafists ruled, albeit in a one-sentence line, that it was forbidden for Jews to be members of gentile armies.
Yet as Binyamin Kahane has argued, even Ashkenazi Jews joined arms with their neighbors when attacked by neighboring marauders or armies, including cases when Shabbat desecration was mandated.
Nonetheless, it seems that Jewish warfare was somewhat sporadic. In the 16th century, R. Yosef Karo contended the he did not need to include laws relating to warfare in his practical codebook of Jewish law, which only addressed contemporary legal questions.
The Emancipation period brought the issue of Jewish conscription to the forefront, as Judith Bleich has documented. Starting in Austria in 1788 and spreading throughout Europe, many countries demanded that Jews join the army. Indeed, in the famed 1806 Sanhedrin, Napoleon required that the synod unequivocally declare that Jews are duty bound to protect France.
Depending on the country and situation, there were sometimes attempts by Jews to avoid inclusion within the army.
Many Jews feared that army life would endanger them not only physically but also spiritually, given the inability to observe Jewish ritual, ongoing antisemitic sentiments, and the fear of unjust warfare, including killing fellow Jews in combating armies. Yet by and large, governments demanded that Jews serve and they did so accordingly.
Major figures such as R. Yisrael Meir Hakohen and R. David Tzvi Hoffman argued that Jews must serve, particularly to avoid the hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) that would ensue if “the enemies of the Jewish people” argued that Jews do not obey the kingdom’s laws. Hakohen even wrote a guidebook to Jewish soldiers to instruct them how to minimize violations of Jewish law.
Many scholars saw enlistment as a regrettable situation that should be avoided if possible. Accordingly, in eras in which hiring a substitute was acceptable, some scholars like R. Meir Eisenstadt went so far as to argue that it was a mitzva to do so.
Others suggested taking advantage of exemptions or accepting government positions that did not endanger oneself, even if those jobs required Shabbat violation.
Clearly, these scholars did not view their host countries as their homeland or as being engaged in just war worthy of personal sacrifice.
Notable exceptions to this perspective, however, were taken by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century, Germany) and R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner (d. 1923, Hungary).
The former wrote glowingly of the obligation to “sacrifice even life itself when the Fatherland calls its sons to its defense.” The latter condemned draft evasion and contended that Jews must loyally follow the laws of the State, whether with their money or blood.
Such patriotic sentiments, however, were the exception to the rule within rabbinic writings, at least until World War II. Then, figures such as Rabbi Yosef Henkin argued that even prior to the draft, it was a mitzva for American Jews to volunteer against the Nazis.
One of the biggest problems that plagued 19th- and 20th-century European Jewry was the demand of governments for the official communal bodies to fulfill quotas of soldiers. Scholars such as R. Samuel Landau and R. Moses Sofer were adamant that selections should be performed through a lottery system that would not favor either the observant or the wealthy. Both scholars allowed people to hire volunteer substitutes or gain reprieves or exemptions for individuals before they had been selected.
Yet once drafted, they contended that the community could not forcibly hand someone else over in their place.
Yet such egalitarian notions were not always implemented, particularly when it came to the 19th century Russian program of conscripting “cantonists” into long-term military service. Between 1827 and 1855, some 70,000 Jews (including more than 40,000 children), along with hundreds of thousands of others, were drafted and taken to military towns or camps.
During that period, many communities hired kidnappers (khappers) to seize draftees, who were disproportionately taken from poorer families or socially marginalized youth. This phenomenon led to much popular antagonism, as well as rabbinic rebuke from major figures like Rabbi Yosef Ba’er Soloveitchik. Yet as Mordechai Zalkin has documented, some contemporaries believed that rabbis did not sufficiently protest or were complacent with a system that protected their own.
Inevitably, such brutal government systems created difficult moral dilemmas, leaving one thankful that in the Western countries in which Jews comfortably reside today, Jews may volunteer to serve or to patriotically support their soldiers from the home front. Better yet, we give thanks to God that we now have our own homeland, which we can patriotically serve and protect in both body and spirit. The writer, author of A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, directs the Tikvah Overseas Student Institute and is a presidential scholar at Bar-Ilan University Law School. Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody