Generals and Prime Ministers in Israel

TroisTenors
Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

In his seminal book about the history of Israel’s armed forces, Tsahal, military historian Pierre Razoux writes:

“Even though its influence tends to diminish, the army still occupies a central role in Israeli society. To better understand its importance, we must reiterate that more than 10% of the Jewish population either serves in the army or regularly serves in the army reserves, which makes Israel the most militarized country in the Middle East. (my translation)” (p. 8).

For that reason, many important military figures also played a dominant role in public life. The names of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon are the better known in that category and easily come to mind in any discussion on that topic. All in all, few other countries can count on so many military figures in key civil leadership positions.

Which inevitably brings us to politics. Commenting on the results of the recent legislative elections for the Israeli left, Arik Henig perceptively wrote: “Since the 1977 political upheaval, Labor won the elections only twice, when it was headed by two former IDF chiefs of staff: Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999. […] When will [the people of the Labor party] they learn that the Israeli public prefers to be led by chiefs of staff?”

In other words, the Israel left needs a former IDF chief of staff if it wants to expect to return to success on the electoral battlefield.

Many will be tempted to perceive this observation as military fetishism. But it’s not the case. In a post-election analysis, Daniel Kurtzer, an academic who served as US Ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, summarized the three challenges that must be met by the Labor party, if it wants to leave the opposition benches in the near future:

“First, it must persuade Israeli voters, especially those of Russian origin, that it can handle Israel’s security challenges at least as well as, if not better than, the right. (Former military intelligence director Amos Yadlin was recruited by Herzog’s party to be its security face, but his voice was almost inaudible during the campaign.) Second, the left must induce the Sephardim to put past grievances behind and to vote with their pocketbooks. And, third, it must overcome the perception that support for peace with the Palestinians is akin to appeasement and therefore endangers Israel.”

The Prime ministership of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will not last forever and the opposition will inevitably become tired enough with loosing elections that they will decide to introduce a new figure whose presence, values and positions will fill the gap between the expectations of Israelis and the Labor party.

Much like Catholics like to observe various Cardinals to try to find out who might become the next Pope, anybody who’s minimally interested in Israeli politics and its future would be well-advised to keep an eye in the ranks of former IDF chiefs of staff to spot who might trade the image of the olive green military outfit general for the statesman persona.

Tsahal has always been an integral part of Israel’s history. And it will continue to play a determinant role in its future.

David Ben-Gurion and the rebirth of Israel

In the Gregorian calendar, which we Catholics use, May 14th marks the anniversary of the rebirth of Israel. On that day, in 1948, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel at Dizengoff House (now known as Independence Hall) on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.

Few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting this historical building. For any friend and supporter of Israel, this is a very humbling and profound experience. Mostly when you understand that, from there, Israel directly went to war against the Arab armies to guarantee its very survival.

Whatever your political inclinations (he was a left-winger and I’m a conservative), you can’t be indifferent to that giant of history. Ben-Gurion certainly was not the only one who contributed to the rebirth of Israel. But he was the man who paved the way to Independence Hall.

The best soldiers of the Red Army?

Permit me to come back on the subject of Victory Day celebrations and Russian (Soviet) veterans. I’m coming back on it because this is a neglected aspect of World War II history.

When I watched those Jewish-Israeli Soviet veterans marching in Israel last week-end, I started looking for some books or articles on this subject. After all, this blog is not called “Books and Bayonets” for nothing.

And I found an excellent article by historian Kiril Feferman about the “’The Jews’ War’: Attitudes of Soviet Jewish Soldiers and Officers Toward USSR in 1940-41” in The Journal of Slavic Military Studies (vol.27, no 4, 2014), which is edited by none other than military historian David M. Glantz.

This article covers the attitudes and motivations of Jewish soldiers who fought under the hammer and the sickle banner during WW2. Before the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, “[…] a minority of the Jewish military men held indifferent or even hostile attitudes toward the Bolshevik regime.” But that was to change.

The German attack against the USSR “[…] promptly transformed all Jewish soldiers and officers into the staunchest anti-Nazi force and hence, probably one of the most reliable groups in the Red Army. This occurred even before the knowledge of the Holocaust became widespread.”

What motivated them to act in such a way? A combination of the desire to be fully recognized as citizens of the Soviet Union, of avenging the persecution of the Jewish people by Nazis or even the fact that they simply had no alternative because they knew what would happen if they fell into the hands of the Nazis.

All in all and based on the works of other academics, Feferman observes that “[…] the Jewish contribution to the Soviet victory over Germany was not lower but probably even exceeded in relative terms that of other Soviet peoples.”

It is unfortunate, in the context of the Western discourse, that the essential contribution of the Red Army to the victory of 1945 is overlooked or undermined. It is also a fact that the Jewish soldiers contribution on the battlefield is a neglected area of collective memory.

It would be an act of legitimate and deserved gratefulness not to restrict this remembrance to a couple of days in May or in the few pages of an excellent academic journal.

Montgomery and Israel

Marshal Montgomery in North Africa during WW2. Source: http://thetim.es/1Pdl3es
Marshal Montgomery in North Africa during WW2. Source: http://thetim.es/1Pdl3es

Martin Sieff just wrote a brilliant book review in the Jerusalem Post about Monty’s Men, a reappraisal of the contribution of Marshal Montgomery’s forces during WW2 by British military historian John Buckley.

In my opinion, the most significant and insightful passage of that piece is the following:

“In addition to these stunning achievements, Israelis have never woken up to the crucial fact that Montgomery twice played a central, critical role in protecting the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine in the pre-state years. Firstly, he saved them from massacre by suppressing the 1936-39 Arab uprising, the first true intifada. Then he rescued them from total genocidal extermination by annihilating the Nazi drive to conquer the entire Middle East at the Battle of Alamein, in November 1942.”

You can understand why the book review is titled “The Yishuv’s unlikely guardian angel”.

Even though I’m a huge fan on Monty, I have to admit that my knowledge about this part of his career is lacking. And I gather I’m not the only one.

In his recent book about Orde Wingate – who is held in very high esteem in Israel for his role forming the Special Night Squads (SNS), a unit in which Wingate recruited future legends like like Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan – Simon Anglim briefly refers to Montgomery and his involvement in the military affairs of the Mandate:

“The other major factor [in fighting the Arab uprising] was the arrival in Northern Palestine’s of the British Army’s most capable and ruthless senior commander, Major General Bernard Montgomery, assuming command of the 8th Division, including the 16th Brigade, in December 1938. Montgomery’s favoured pattern of operations could have been lifted straight from Calwell or Simson: the British were ‘definitely at war’ and any return to civilian control could only follow the complete destruction of the rebels in battle. There was a resumption of cordon and sweep operations by mobile columns, with the specific aim of killing insurgents, and greater use than before of night-time raids on villages suspected of harbouring guerrillas , now involving all units, not just the Night Squads.” (p. 85).

Of course, this is not sufficient to quench my curiosity about Monty’s military role during the British Mandate in Palestine. But it’s a pretty good starting point.

And knowing that many – not to say most – of the British officials in Jerusalem were then harboring if not anti-Semitism at least a relatively high level of resentment towards the Jewish people, it’s good to know that Orde Wingate has company in Monty as friends of the Yishuv.

“Most of the Holocaust survivors were saved by the Red Army”

The Soviet War Cemetery in Warsaw, May 2015.
The Soviet War Cemetery in Warsaw, May 2015.

There is a sad tendency, these days, to rewrite history for political purposes.

In a recent book, French historian Philippe Richardot writes in his introduction: “The deciding factor of World War II is what occurred on the Eastern front” (my translation). And there is ample academic evidence to support this statement.

Alas, because of the current geopolitical context, in which many world leaders are opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is hard for many to resist the temptation to equate this situation with the intention of rewriting history.

Fortunately, there are people who are holding these revisionists to account.

Take for example this Israeli man who was interviewed by the Russian radio.

Here are two revealing excerpts of his interview:

“Most of the Holocaust survivors were saved by the Red Army. And they are live witnesses up until now. So it never happened in Israel anything like in Europe, nothing undermining the Russian part in the Second World War.

[…]

There are 39 memorials commemorating those who were responsible for this great victory, 39 memorials for the soldiers of the Red Army primarily. You don’t have anything like this in any other parts of the world. So today together with the Holocaust there is a memory of the great victory in Israel combined together.”

Scoring easy political points on the back of a leader you dislike is one thing, distorting history and betraying the memory of those who fell to ensure victory of barbarism and Nazism is another one. And it is unacceptable.

The Red Army deserves credit for the 1945 victory and we should never shy away from being grateful.

Remembering Jewish Soldiers of the Red Army

parade-031209According to a very interesting story published in the Jerusalem Post today, almost half of the Israelis polled are in favor of making May 9th, which is the day when Soviet Victory over Nazism is commemorated in Russia, a national holiday in Israel, too. Even more interesting is the fact that Yad Vashem (the Memorial and Museum to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem) evaluates that no less than 1,5 million Jews took arms and fought barbarism during World War II. Here’s the eloquent example reported by the JPost:

“Anatoli Shapiro, for example, a Red Army officer who commanded the division that liberated Auschwitz, was the first man to open the gates and inform its prisoners ‘the Red army has come to liberate you.’ His story reflects most of all the essence of the Jewish fighters, fighters who didn’t just ask to bring freedom to Europe, but fighters who fought to save their brothers and sisters.”

There is ample academic research (you could fill a few bookshelves of books about that subject) supporting the fact that, without the USSR, it is doubtful that the Allies would have crushed Hitler’s hordes. It is no less significant to recognize the service of Jewish soldiers who were part of the Red army. On May 9th, we not only salute the Soviet (Russians, Ukrainians and others) men and women who made tremendous sacrifices, the ultimate one in the case of several millions, but also these Jewish and Israeli people who also carry that involvement as a badge of honor. A national holiday is not an exaggerated way to say: Thank you!