Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Myth of the (Non) Fighting Jew

Cross-posted to Friar Yid.

There was a line in a Haaretz article about the upcoming Defiance movie that rubbed me the wrong way. Actually, most of the article was raising alarm bells. Not because the movie won't be good, I'm sure it will be. But the focus of the piece happened to be remarking on the fact that four or five Bielski grandkids are in the IDF, and tying this in with a family military tradition:

A family of warrior Jews, from partisan to paratrooper

It's a story made for Hollywood. The grandfather fought the Nazis, the son fought in the Yom Kippur War, and last month the American-born grandson decided to make Israel home and join its defense forces.

...While Bielski's native New York may not have presented the same challenges as those suffered by his grandfather in World War II-era Belarus, the 21-year-old has decided to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and immigrate to Israel.

"I came to Israel on birthright when I was a freshman in college," he said. "I loved it. My whole family was in the army here."

Bielski finished college in three years, not even pausing to don a cap and gown. Instead, the day after his last class, he flew to Israel where an Israel Defense Forces uniform was waiting.

The scene was familiar for Elan's Israeli-born father, Yakow, who returned to his native land in 1973 with his brother after a stint in the U.S. to fight in the Yom Kippur War. Zus, who had settled in Israel for ten years after the Holocaust and fought in the 1948 Independence War , was reluctant to see his sons go.

Yakow himself is proud of Elan's decision to join the army, though he said that one of the reasons his own father had left Israel was because of all the wars.

While Elan echoed his father and grandfather's concern of seeing their children enlist in the army, he said: "I'd be proud of my kids to make the same decision I did."

Love, war, and genetics

In addition to Elan Bielski, two other descendants of the brothers are serving in the IDF, and another is now in the reserves. Bielski's twin sister also plans to move to Israel; his older sister is married in the U.S. with a four-month old named after Zus.

Two, going on three, generations of parental instinct can't seem to stop the Bielskis from joining Israel's army and society. "It's just genetic," Yakow said. We're warrior Jews."

Here's the problem: the whole piece (supported by the comments of Bielski pere and fils) suggests that only "certain families" have it in them to be warrior Jews- which, of course, means that other people don't. The reason the "fighting Jew" myth is so disturbing because it is based on a false premise, and because it libels all who do not neatly fit under it as (sterotypically?) weak pacifists.

This has been part-and-parcel of Jewish sociology for well over one hundred years, since the days when the Bund cells and Hashomer societies first started rallying Jews around the concept of self-defense and pride. Back then, their opponents were the maintainers of the status-quo and the perception that Jews were meek and submissive yeshiva students who would rather beg for their lives or offer their enemy a bribe than crush his skull with a rock- in short, the rabbinical establishment.

Ironically, in those early days of the 1880s and 1900s when the "fighting Jew"/Ghetto Jew dichotomy was being set up by ideologues and propagandists, most of the recruits coming into the Jewish Socialist and Zionist movements were from religious homes whose families did not have specific martial traditions. Yet somehow they adapted when given the proper training, motivation, and community support. The same is mirrored in the history of American Jews and the modern Israeli army- one does not need to be born into a "warrior family" to become a capable soldier or tactician. Yet today in Israel there is an unspoken assumption that the Haredim choose not to fight because they are somehow incapable of fighting- a stereotype that persists despite the existence of units like the Nahal Haredim (as if the long history between the Mafdal and IDF was not proof enough that there is no reason an Orthodox Jew cannot be a warrior as well).

One could even go back further- to use just the example of one country I'm familiar with, Poland, Jews fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Warsaw and in each of that country's Revolutions. This fighting was not restricted to secularists or those drifting from the faith (Berek Joselowicz's unit was known as "The Beardlings" because they would not shave; they also demanded the Sabbath off and would only eat kosher food); there are also cases of revolutionary rabbis. Check out this story about two rabbis you may have heard of, courtesy of an old article in Polin:

Even though the hagiographies of the hasidic leaders neglect Polish politics, there is some evidence that hasidim suppoorted the 1830 revolt. We have an account that Rabbi Menahem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk and his pupil Rabbi Isaac Meir Rothernberg, founder of the Ger dynasty, actively encouraged the Jews to aid the Poles in their rebellion and that after the Russian victory both were forced to travel to Lemberg (Lwow), then the capital of the Austrian province of Galicia, to hide from the Russian authorities. They were only able to return to Kotzk after changing their names; Menahem Mendel changed his last name from Halpern to Morgenstern, Isaac Meir from Rothenberg to Alter.

Bet you never heard about that in yeshiva. Neither, mind you, would you have encountered it in any book about these rabbis. This is part of the split Jewish tradition over how to deal with Jews that don't fit the "peaceful" paradigm- which, by the way, is itself a construct, since there are plenty of "fighting Jews" in the Torah- and afterwards! (What would you call the Bar Kochkba revolt, or the Zealots at Massada?) We would prefer to identify "tough Jews" as a vicarious exception to the meek, pious or status-quo Jews that were the standard, rather than taking an objective look at the history and consider that, god forbid, there were revolutionary rabbis or frum soldiers fighting for Napoleon.

Look forward to the twentieth century and you see the same obfuscation when it comes to Jewish criminals- plenty of whom used violence for achieving their goals. Even before the days of Lansky and Siegel, you had organized crime in Warsaw, Lodz and Odessa. Modern Yiddish writers like Sholem Asch freely depicted the "Jewish underground" in novels like Mottke the Theif, and his play God of Vengeance. For crying out loud, prostitution was a cottage industry in Jewish Buenos Aires, and there were many layers of violence involved in maintaining business as usual.

And, ironically, when Jews took a stand against these undesirable elements within their community, preying on their weakest members, it was again, the "fighting Jews" who took action. One notable flare-up was the May 1905 Alphonsenpogrom [Pimp-Pogrom], where the Jewish Bund in Warsaw went on a three-day rampage through the city's red-light district, attacking brothels and cafes. The New York Times wrote about the Socialists' assault on not only the pimps' places of business, but also their worldly possessions:

Wardrobes, pianos and mirrors were thrown out of the windows. The mob in the streets left open spaces for the falling articles and then completed the work of destruction. In one place, a quantity of valuable jewelry was taken out and deliberately smashed with stones.

The Alphonsenpogrom left 8 dead and 100 injured. (Not necessarily the Bund's finest moment, but a "tough Jew" moment? Unquestionably.) And it was not the only incident. According to Prostitution and Prejudice (the primary source for Nathan Englander's latest novel), there were others, as well. In 1903 The Jewish Vigilance Society in Cardiff, Wales, challenged their pimps in street combat and won. In Buenos Aires in 1909, the Poale Zion beat up local white slavers after an altercation in a theater of a play critical of prostitution. In 1910 some young men in Rio de Janero accosted the "pimps' congregation" on their way back from dedicating a new Torah scroll. The pimps were attacked and the Torah scroll given to "more-deserving" folks.

We don't hear about any of this controversial history because the personalities don't fit in with cookie-cutter views of secular or religious Jews, or rich vs. poor. By doing this we do our ancestors, and our descendants, a disservice. By censoring the Jewish past we impair the Jewish present, and further limit the Jewish future to take honest assessments about who we are as a people, based on factual information.

The Bielskis accomplished an amazing thing, and no one is contesting that. But to suggest that being a "fighting Jew" is genetic also means that you are passing a judgment on all the non-warriors in the Jewish family, essentially establishing a caste system between those rough-neck toughs and those meek yeshiva bochurs. The irony is that there are plenty of cases, in history and today, where the two may be brothers. Or one and the same.

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