Book Review – Racing Against History – By Rick Richman
Published by Encounter Books – 250 pp. $33.99
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
In 1939, two-thirds of the world’s 16 million Jews lived in Europe, and as the year 1940 dawned, they found themselves being rapidly enveloped by an increasingly ominous shadow. During the first six months of the year, the borders of the Third Reich rapidly expanded, as Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France capitulated in succession to the onslaught of Hitler’s armies. In the summer of that year, the Battle of Britain began, and early September saw the first of what would become nearly 60 consecutive days of relentless bombing of London by the Luftwaffe. For the Allies, things looked grim indeed, perhaps nowhere more so than for the Jewish inhabitants of the Germans’ freshly-conquered territories.
The Nazis had yet to implement the infamous “Final Solution” that would be formulated at the Wannsee Conference of 1942, but still, it was abundantly clear that the Jews of occupied Europe were in for a rough ride under their new lords and masters. It was equally clear that if the Allies were to have any hope of containing the Nazis, let along winning the war, every available resource would need to be brought to bear to combat them. In Racing Against History, author Rick Richman tells the story of a determined but ultimately futile crusade by three of the leading Jewish figures of the era to establish a Jewish army that would join the fight against Hitler.
The idea of creating an all-Jewish military formation was not without precedent. In 1917, the Royal Fusiliers raised the first of what would eventually grow to five battalions composed of Jewish volunteers. Based in Palestine and known unofficially as the Jewish Legion, their mission was to fight the forces of the Ottoman Empire. The Jewish Legion saw action in the Jordan Valley in late 1917 and throughout 1918, most notably at the Battle of Megiddo in September of that year, an engagement which was later considered to be one of the decisive Allied victories of the Great War. More than 20 years later, two veterans of the Jewish Legion would play a prominent role in orchestrating the campaign to raise a new Jewish army to fight the Nazis.
The three central actors in this little-known drama were an interesting contrast in backgrounds, personalities, and ideologies. The eldest of the three, Chaim Weizmann, was 65 years old at the time. He had enjoyed both a distinguished academic career as a professor of chemistry, and for much of his life had played an equally prominent role as a Zionist leader. Among his most significant achievements, he had successfully championed adoption of the landmark Balfour Declaration of 1917, which had committed Britain to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine.
After unsuccessfully petitioning the government of Great Britain to authorize the creation of an all-Jewish force, in January 1940 Weizmann travelled to the United States hoping to muster support for the cause. Over the next two months, he gave a number of public lectures, met with prominent American Jewish leaders such as the former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, and eventually, personally presented his case to President Franklin Roosevelt.
However, notwithstanding his sincerity, Weizmann’s cautious nature and lack of personal charisma failed to mobilize the widespread support from the American Jewish community that he had hoped for. He returned to London in March 1940, and a few months later wrote to a friend in Chicago that American Jews seemed to be “oblivious to the hurricane that is breaking over our heads.”
Shortly thereafter, Weizmann’s attempts to drum up support for the notion of a Jewish army were followed up first by Vladimir Jabotinsky and subsequently by David Ben-Gurion, both of who had served in the Jewish Legion during the Great War. Jabotinsky was a Russian Jew who had made his name mainly as a newspaper correspondent and public speaker. In contrast to the mild-mannered Weizmann, he was a fiery and forceful orator who drew crowds of thousands of people at various rallies throughout the spring and summer of 1940. Notwithstanding his ability to argue passionately and eloquently for the cause he supported, Jabotinsky’s fatal flaw was his combative personality, which frequently set him at odds with influential American Jewish leaders. Like Weizmann, his trip to America ended in eventual failure when he died of a sudden heart attack at age 59 at the beginning of August.
David Ben-Gurion, the youngest of the three, arrived in the United States in October 1940, and would remain there until January of the following year. A Russian Jew like Jabotinsky, he had grown up not far from Warsaw, and had immigrated to Palestine in 1906 at the age of 19. Just five feet tall and mainly self-educated, Ben-Gurion had neither the physical presence of Jabotinsky nor the sophisticated manner of Weizmann. Nonetheless, he was highly intelligent and fiercely determined. He landed in New York on October 3, 1940 – Rosh Hashanah – and immediately found himself in trouble with the immigration authorities because he lacked the required documentation. It was only through the quick intervention of the influential Rabbi Stephen Wise that Ben-Gurion was permitted to stay in the country.
As 1940 drew to a close, Ben-Gurion busied himself meeting with Jewish leaders and speaking to a wide variety of groups in major cities such as New York, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco. His efforts coincided with the 1940 U.S. Presidential election, during which Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term in the White House. In the aftermath of the election, Ben-Gurion became increasingly outspoken in his addresses, but ultimately, his please to create a Jewish army fell on mainly deaf ears, and he returned to Palestine towards the end of January 1941.
In retrospect, the valiant lobbying efforts made by the three men were undoubtedly overtaken by larger circumstances over which they had no control. For example, while the British were only too well aware that their survival as a nation depended on their ability to resist Hitler’s forces, they were also extremely apprehensive about doing anything that might antagonize their Arab allies in the Middle East. The formation of an all-Jewish army was seen as something that might serve as the flashpoint for prompting the Arabs to shift their allegiance to the Axis. This became a particularly important consideration after Italy entered the war in the summer of 1940, and action in the Mediterranean theatre began to rapidly heat up.
Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the three compatriots faced a different type of problem. Although the United States was home to a prosperous Jewish community numbering nearly five million, there remained a noticeable undercurrent of anti-Semitism in some corridors of American society, and this represented a potential political hornet’s nest that no elected official wanted to disturb. Adding to that resistance was the fact that many Americans were staunchly determined to stay out of the war, and this is something that would not change until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor almost a year after Ben-Gurion returned to Palestine.
Eventually, some years later, the government of Great Britain did relent, and in late 1944 authorized the creation of a single brigade of 5,000 Jewish soldiers who served in Italy as part of the Eighth Army. In an interesting twist of fate, the brigade was commanded by a Canadian-born officer, Brigadier Ernest Benjamin, who had made his career in the Royal Engineers. By that time, however, the idea of forming an all-Jewish army had become almost unnecessary, as some 60,000 British Jews, and more than 500,000 of their American brethren, had enlisted for service in various branches of their countries’ armed forces.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding their lack of success in campaigning for the creation of a Jewish army, years later Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion would all have an important impact on the future fate of their people and their homeland. When Israel declared its independence in 1948, Weizmann, who was in his 70’s and in poor health, became the new nation’s first President, and Ben-Gurion became its first Prime Minister. Even though by that time Jabotinsky had been dead for nearly ten years, his protégé Menachem Begin played a key role in leading the Irgun, the underground Jewish that battled the British covertly in the years leading up to independence. Later, Begin was also instrumental in rallying the Israeli forces to fend off the threat of attack by their Arab neighbors.
Nearly 80 years after the fact, it is now anyone’s guess as to whether the Jewish army that had been envisioned by Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion might have made any meaningful impact on the course of the war. Nevertheless, the little-known story now brought to light in Racing Against History is one that is well worth reading. This is a book that will be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone interested in the history of that conflict, and especially, in the history of the Jewish people in the pivotal years of the Second World War and its aftermath.