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Faith in the Front Line

By Rabbi Reuben Livingstone, Jewish chaplain to HM Armed Forces.

A quarter century before the outbreak of WWI, the famous Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, with great prescience, wrote a guide for Jewish soldiers called 'Machane Yisrael' - or the Jewish Camp'. In it he reaches out with great warmth and encouragement to those who found themselves in the armed services (usually of the Czar) and seeks to provide a simplified guide and set of priorities for Jewish observance in such challenging circumstances. There is an absence of any moral judgement about the unpleasant realities of soldiering and no condemnation of those in this vocation. Rather, the emphasis is on maintenance of spiritual and moral integrity by keeping to the essential faith of our forefathers despite the often gruelling conditions of service.

The sheer numbers of Jews who fought in the two World Wars - in notable disproportion to the size of the Jewish community - highlighted the extraordinary contribution we have made. In many minds this phenomenon was one of the catalysts of the modern day Israel Defence Force. But this is to forget the very long prior history of Jewish service in various armed forces and conflicts from antiquity to the modern age. Indeed, the Torah plainly envisioned the wandering Israelite Nation as a citizen's army. The Tanach is, likewise, replete with military exploits by Jewish kings and leaders. The post-biblical festivals of Channuka and Purim are similarly rooted in martial victories which eventually came to be re-framed as spiritual triumphs. It is a lesser known fact (for understandable reasons) that many Jews fought in the Roman legions. Indeed the force sent to suppress the Judaean revolt in 68 CE- was, astonishingly, commanded by a Jewish general, Julius Tiberius Alexander, a nephew of Philo.  Professor Derek Penslar of Oxford University has documented through painstaking archival research the significant numbers of Jews who served (often as officers) in European Armies during the Victorian era; a phenomenon which he sees as a logical expression of the Jewish desire in that time to be free and equal to their neighbours. But, importantly, he also sees this as the proud upholding of an earlier historical tradition.

It is a lesser known fact that even since the founding of the State of Israel and the setting up of a Jewish Army, Jews have still continued to serve with distinction in many Western forces - including the British Armed Forces.

The Talmud is very clear that Judaism, while being quintessentially a religion of peace, is not pacifist. It encourages self defence - and, by extension, the defence of the realm in which we live. The widely adopted legal concept of a 'just war' to defend human life and rights was itself a Jewish invention.

Judaism has, moreover, always placed a great premium on good citizenship and loyalty to the state - as well as service for the wider public good. As a minority faith community we have always tended to act this out by demonstrating exemplary loyalty to the communities and countries where we have found ourselves. We need particularly to remember this history and cornerstone ethos at a time where the value of service is being challenged and undermined by an unprecedented rise of individualism, a less cohesive sense of society, and a greater cynicism in the state. 

Sadly, the significant Jewish military contribution through the millennia has become obscured by the passage of time - and by the awful persecutions and victim-hoods that we have endured. The First World War, despite its relative proximity, is no exception to this phenomenon of forgetfulness. This is, to be sure, partly due to the magnitude of the horrors of WWII - but also because no living links to the Great War remain and this allows memory to recede rapidly by attrition. The particular tragedy in this lies in the fact that the very origins of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and indeed modern Europe are actually to be found in the First World War. In many ways small and large the Shoah can be traced back to 1914.

The Torah emphatically sets down a duty of memory. We are exhorted: 'Remember the times of antiquity, understand the years of past generations'. There are numerous specific commands not to forget certain pivotal events and precepts. 

In and amongst this reflection we would do well to remember that over our long history as much as we have been farmers, scholars, merchants and professionals - we have also more than done our part as soldiers.


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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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