Rallying Round the Flags

Jews and the Military: A History

by Derek J. Penslar

Princeton University Press, 376 pp., $29.95

“Never before in history,” Derek Penslar observes, “had so many Jews been mobilized for battle” as in World War I. There were “over one million in the Allied forces and some 450,000 among the armies of the Central Powers.”

Inevitably, large numbers of Jews wearing the uniform of one country ended up killing large numbers of fellow Jews wearing the uniform of another. In his account of Jewish suffering in the battleground areas of the Pale of Settlement, the Jewish writer S. An-sky reports of a Jew “who had bayoneted a soldier, who, just before expiring, gasped the Sh’ma. His killer, so the story went, went mad.” 

This oft-retold tale is much older than World War I, Penslar informs us. He traces its origins to a speech delivered in 1857 by Esdra Pontremoli, an Italian rabbi and educator:

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About the Author

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.


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