Friday, June 1, 2018

Honoring Our Share in the Defense of Our Liberties -- Memorial Day 2018

Honoring Our Share in the Defense of Our Liberties --Memorial Day 2018  Over a century ago, in  1904, the Kishinev Pogrom shook the world. It shook us as Jews especially and shaped  the image we had of ourselves and the image the world had of us. It was epitomized by the great Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik in Ir Ha Haregah-The City of Slaughter, here excerpted in translation:Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs  The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs  Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,  Concealed and cowering,—the sons of the Maccabees!  The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!  Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,  So sanctified My name!  It was the flight of mice they fled,  The scurrying of roaches was their flight;  They died like dogs, and they were dead!
We Jews died like dogs.This painful jab at our collective ego, together with the myth promulgated forty years later that, during the Shoah, we went as sheep to the slaughter, gave rise, in reaction, to the Shomer, the Haganah and Palmach, Etzl and Stern, and finally, the Israel Defense Forces.(Certainly, with the rise of the State of Israel, no one doubts the courage of the Jews of Israel. On the contrary, in an instance of “ You can’t win”, they are libeled with the accusation of baby killers, on a par with the accusation of “ Christ-killer”. Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate leader of the Palestinian Authority made a point of posing with a cartoon that made just that accusation).What created that image, that attitude, the we Jews, as a people, cowered in the corners?It is true that we Jews have been a generally peaceful, even pacific, as opposed to pacifistic, people. That is, that in the history of the last 1900 or so years, from the time of Bar Kochba, we have generally not focused on defense of our own self-interests through military force, not set out on territorial conquests for ourselves, nor have we adulated military might.However, this fact gave birth to the image, as I have heard it from Jews who have served in the armed forces of the US, that “Jews serve in the PX( the base exchange) ”. Or, as  my ex-Soviet friends told me, in WWII, it was commonly believed that” Jews served in Tashkent ( running away from the front, that is) .“ Considering, that especially in World War II, Jews served in numbers far beyond our share of the general population, this a very debasing attitude.It is true that we did not, as a collective whole, for many centuries, rise in our own defense. However, instead, we rose in defense of whatever country or ruler gave us shelter or protection.When faced with a great rebellion in Judea, the Roman Emperor Vespasian picked the best man qualified to put down the rebellion --an Alexandrian Jew (and nephew of the first great Jewish philosopher, Philo) Tiberius Julius Alexander-- to spearhead the Roman offensive in its effort to thwart the Jewish uprising.  Yes, even in hated Rome, Jews served in major military units and fielded their own Jewish divisions in different parts of the empire, up until after the rise of Christianity. It was only much later that the Emperor Justinian officially closed military service for all Jews in the mid sixth century when he imposed major oppressive laws in general against Jews, laws that continued in effect in Christian Europe till the start of the modern era.The Berbers of North Africa were led by a Queen, Damiya al Kahina, who held off the onslaught of Islam and the Arabs across North Africa. These were Jewish Berbers led by a Jewish queen- that was the claim made by Arab historians of the time.In Moslem Spain, in the 11th century. the king of Granada made Samuel Hanagid( The Prince) ibn Nagrilah his vizier and general of his armies. That a Jew or dhimmi, could hold such a high public office was rare.
Jewish memory recoils at the accounts of the Chmielnicki uprising of Cossacks against their Polish Overlords, which resulted in the extensive massacre of Jews. What has been forgotten is the account of the Jewish forces  that fought to defend their Polish neighbors at that same time.Indeed, when we speak of Polish Jews, we have the image of the Jew as a poor, pitiable, and hapless “nebich”.What, then, shall we make of Dov Baer (Berek) Joselewicz of Kowno, who initially served in the Polish militia to fight the Russian annexation of Poland and then received permission from the Polish hero of liberty, Kościuszko, to form an all-Jewish unit. (Kościuszko himself was a colonel in America’s Continental Army against the British.)  Five hundred men were eventually accepted and formed  a cavalry regiment and were allowed to keep their religious customs, including eating kosher food, abstaining from combat on Shabbat when possible, and keeping their beards. Joselewicz's unit was popularly known as "the Beardlings.” He was followed in this path for Polish liberty by his son, Josef. He was honored by a postage stamp as a "A Jewish Fighter for Polish Freedom", issued jointly by Polish and Israeli postal services.In the farthest regions of the Arabian peninsula, in Hadramaut ( Death Valley) there was a group of Jews, Habanni,  who went about fully armed and untouched by their Muslim neighbors. This was as different as day and night from the humiliation with which the Jews of Yemen were treated. When King Adbullah , the first King of Jordan, wanted  personal bodyguards, he counted on a family of Habbani Jews, not on  his fellow Hashemite Bedouin, for his personal security.Those of you who have family members who served in WWII in the Soviet armed forces are familiar with the array of medals that are proudly displayed on Victory Day to mark the collapse of Nazi Germany. The numbers of those who served and who were injured or killed far outweighed their proportion of the population .Some 500,000 Jewish soldiers fought in the Red Army during World War II. Some 120,000 were killed in combat and in the line of duty; the Germans murdered 80,000 as prisoners of war. More than 160,000, at all levels of command, earned citations, with over 150 designated as “Heroes of the Soviet Union”,the highest honor awarded to soldiers in the Red Army.
In all, about 1.5 million Jews fought in Allied armies, including 500,000 in the Red Army, 550,000 in the American army, 100,000 in the Polish army and 30,000 in the British army. That amounted to one out of every 10 Jews at that time, or almost the entire population of Jews of fighting age. ( Information culled from multiple sources and  Yad Vashem)Now, for our service to America.In colonial times, the Jewish population numbered some 2,500 and was scattered throughout the country. Yet in the Revolutionary War, many Jews were in General George Washington’s Continental Army.
Lt. Col. Solomon Bush, who was decorated for bravery in battle, was the highest ranking Jewish officer, his brother, Captain Lewis Bush was mortally wounded, and he himself received a near-fatal wound.  Francis Salvador was nicknamed the “Paul Revere of the South” because on July 1, 1776, he mounted his horse and rode 30 miles to warn the settlers that the Cherokee Indians, incited by the British, were attacking the frontier.Mordecai Sheftall acquired the reputation as the “great rebel” in fighting the British in the South.In the War of 1812, Jews were involved on land and sea in fighting the British. Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy served as a sailing master who directed the line of fire during battle. Levy is credited with bringing about the abolition of corporal punishment or flogging in the Navy. During his service in the Navy, he was court-marshaled and found guilty six times by anti-Semitic naval officers and, each time the verdict was overturned. He was finally promoted to the rank of commodore.  During the Civil War, six Jews  were recipients of the prestigious Medal of HonorIn World War I, there were more than 250,000 Jews who answered America’s call to action: over 3,500 were killed; over 12,000 were wounded; and they received over 1,100 decorations for bravery. The finest tribute paid to the Jewish fighting men in World War I was given by General John J. Pershing: “When the time came to serve their country under arms, no class of people served with more patriotism or with higher motives than the young Jews who volunteered or were drafted and went overseas with our other young Americans to fight the enemy.”During World War II, over 550,000 Jewish men and women responded to America’s call.  About 11,000 were killed; over 40,000 were wounded.  (Source: Seymour “Sy” Brody, of Delray Beach, FL,  author of “Jewish Heroes of America” )It continues to this day.Thousands have fought in the 16-year-long war that began with the 9/11 attacks, and currently, there are 15,000 American Jews serving on active duty and an additional 5,000 serving in the Guard and the Reserves. 56 Fallen Jewish heroes gave their lives in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (  as noted in “Yes, American Jews Do Serve” by Anna Selman, November 28, 2017 want to conclude with a word from my father, who wrote of Jewish courage in the aftermath of the Holocaust:“We consider a hero not to be the one who defeats the enemy, but the one who defeats himself. (Pirke Avot IV) . . .. We cannot allow ourselves, especially after these years, to define our values by those of the other nations. Nothing is as dangerous to a nation as to have its values dictated by its enemies. ... That which has come to us from Prussian Germany is neither good nor new. It is as ancient as Hellas.“. . .We cannot allow ourselves to adopt this way of thinking. We cannot allow ourselves to be overrun by murderous impulses. When it comes to our rights, our freedom, our life, we can take up arms as cannot other people.  But the anti-militarism is so deeply ingrained in the Jew, that even when he is in uniform, he is civilized, while the German, in uniform, was not civilized. Our inner drive is towards peace, and our dream is a very different dream than that of the Teutonic Knights.The greatest of all is Peace, and the Torah was given in order to promote peace in the world, as it says, “Derachecha darchei noam vchol neitivoteha shalom.” Her paths are pleasant and all her ways, Peace.”( Rabbi Dr William Weinberg, published essay 1947, Austria)We pray that we will see a world in which no one sends his babies and infants into live fire to provide dead bodies for the media, in which no one sacrifices his people’s food and medicine in order to build weapons of mass destruction. We also know that this will not happen by mere platitudes and  songs of ” Give Peace a chance” but only by the courage of the kinds of men and women whose memory we honor this weekend.Amen

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