Clamoring for help

Rick Richman details the futile efforts of Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion and Weizmann to save the Jews of Europe.

VLADIMIR JABOTINSKY (center left) visits Pinsk, Poland, in 1933 with Menachem Begin (right) (photo credit: GPO)
VLADIMIR JABOTINSKY (center left) visits Pinsk, Poland, in 1933 with Menachem Begin (right)
(photo credit: GPO)
Writing a history book that appeals to average readers as well as history buffs is a difficult task. Authoring a history book about a well-known topic – in this case, the fate of the Jews in World War II – can be even more challenging, as the tragic events of that period are exceedingly well documented. In Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler, author Rick Richman succeeds admirably on both counts. Richman, a lawyer who has written extensively about Jewish history, focuses on the noble but ultimately futile efforts of three of the 20th century’s leading Jewish statesmen – Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky – to rally support for forming a Jewish army to counter the Nazi menace in 1940.
Richman sets the stage with a concise summary of the state of Jewish world affairs at the beginning of that year. Poland, which had the largest Jewish community in Europe, had been defeated and annexed by Germany and the Soviet Union. The British “White Paper,” issued in May 1939, had curtailed further significant Jewish immigration to Palestine. By mid- 1940, Western Europe had fallen to the Nazis, and the Battle of Britain, the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces, was under way. In the United States, American public opinion was unequivocally against any new immigration from Europe. The American Jewish community itself was divided into two divergent groups – Jews who held deeply Zionist beliefs and supported the development of the Jewish community in Palestine, and other Jews who considered themselves as Americans first and Jews second, who were less supportive of the Zionist initiative.
In 1940, Weizmann, Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion all came to the realization, independent of each other, that the worldwide Jewish community had to be mobilized not only to support the Jewish community of Palestine, but to organize an army to fight Hitler and the Nazis. Weizmann, then 65, was the president of the Zionist Organization. Jabotinsky, 59, headed the New Zionist Organization, which had been formed in 1935, in opposition to Weizmann’s group. Ben-Gurion, 53, was the head of the Labor Zionist movement in Palestine, and head of the Jewish Agency.
Each had disparate approaches and utilized different tactics to achieve his goals. Weizmann was a master of diplomacy and had been one of the leading forces for the adoption of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Jabotinsky was known for his eloquent speeches and personal magnetism, and had organized the Jewish Legion, which fought alongside the British in Palestine during World War I. Ben-Gurion, pugnacious and hard-nosed, was ambitious, politically savvy and a tough campaigner.
In January 1940, Weizmann arrived in New York and remained in the US for two months. He addressed crowds in New York numbering in the thousands, met with president Franklin Roosevelt and retired justice Louis Brandeis, and spoke to Zionist groups throughout the country. The primary thrust of his efforts was to encourage continued support for the building of the Jewish community in Palestine. Ever the diplomat, he did not challenge the Jews in the US concerning the terrible situation of the Jews in Europe.
By contrast, Jabotinsky, who came to the US in March 1940, was outspoken in his efforts to organize and plan a Jewish army, as he had successfully done in 1917. Many American Jewish leaders considered him blunt, right-wing and militaristic. Jabotinsky said that the times required both a Jewish army and a Jewish state. His visit to the United States came to a tragic end in August 1940, when he suffered a fatal heart attack.
Six weeks later, Ben-Gurion left London for the US, arriving in New York in early October. Like Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion’s principal goal was the establishment of a Jewish army. As well, he encountered opposition from members of the Jewish community and he criticized them for their timidity. Ben-Gurion remained in the US until January, when he set sail for Palestine.
The final section of the book describes the pivotal roles that both Weizmann and Ben-Gurion played in the creation of the state. In January 1948, Weizmann, sick, old and tired, traveled to the US, and through the efforts of Truman’s old business partner, Eddie Jacobson, met with president Harry Truman and helped persuade him to support the Jewish bid for statehood. Ben-Gurion, despite opposition from members of his Mapai party and warnings from the US State Department, proclaimed the creation of the state on May 14.
Richman tells the story of the three leaders’ journeys and draws from both published sources as well as from unpublished letters, speeches and diaries. The brief biographical sketches of Weizmann, Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion are well written and engaging and there is a wealth of useful material in the endnotes section. The author hints at parallels and similarities between the American Jewish community of 1940 and that of 2018, but does not make direct comparisons.
Racing Against History expresses the unsettled atmosphere of the time, as Jews the world over – including the Jews of America – had a disturbing sense of incipient tragedy. This gives the book a certain poignancy.
For some younger readers, especially those under the age of 40, the names Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and Weizmann are more closely associated with names of major city streets and schools, than the prominent Jewish leaders who were so vital to the Zionist cause. Perhaps this book will make their contributions better known.