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Jews and the Military: A History

by Derek J. Penslar

University of Toronto professor Derek J. Penslar would like to challenge a central idea in Jewish history: that Israeli willingness to fight represents a break from Jewish behaviour in the diaspora. In Jews and the Military, Penslar discusses how Jewish people around the globe and throughout history served proudly in their countries’ armies, and posits that the centrality of the military in Israeli life is a logical progression of Jewish history.

The author establishes early on the importance of military participation: if the armed forces represent the “most powerful institution within the modern state,” then the ability to fight alongside one’s peers is critical to being part of a society. In this way, military service has offered Jewish men the chance to prove that they deserve the same rights as their fellow countrymen. And while Jews in the military have faced difficult religious questions, such as how to keep the Sabbath and maintain strict dietary laws, this has not prevented them from enlisting.

Penslar provides sketches and personal narratives of Jewish participation in conflicts ranging from the Franco-Prussian War to the Second World War. To counter old stereotypes of an unwillingness to fight, he explains that draft dodging among Jews was only high in countries where men of all backgrounds avoided enlisting. In fact, Jews were just as likely to be caught up in national pride, although high levels of service in technical positions likely gave the impression that they were missing on the front lines.

Jews and the Military includes material that may not be common knowledge even for those familiar with a given conflict’s history, such as the high Jewish volunteer rate in the Spanish Civil War. The last chapter, on how Jews around the world fought (physically or financially) in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, is also fascinating. It would definitely aid the reader to have some understanding of ideologies such as Zionism and Revisionism, but for a book with an academic purpose, Jews and the Military is nevertheless remarkably accessible.