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We are coming, unafraid

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In 1917 the British army took an innovative step in creating a multinational force of soldiers from all continents as part of its Middle East campaign against the Ottoman Empire. Among them were three all-Jewish battalions recruited in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Argentina known as "The Jewish Legions."

Numerous of the soldiers in the Jewish Legions later distinguished themselves in their respective fields, such as Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s second president and first prime minister respectively, Colonel Eliezer Margolin who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Jacob Epstein who became a noted sculptor, but until now less has been understood about the experience of thousands of common Jewish soldiers, who had immigrated from Russia at the turn of the century to a variety of countries and were sent to the front as liberators of the Land of Israel.

In We Are Coming, Unafraid: The Jewish legions and the Promised land in the First World War Dr. Michael Keren, professor of Political Science and Communication and Culture, and Dr. Shlomit Keren, professor of History and Israel Studies, examine the personal diaries, letters and memoirs of soldiers who fought in the Jewish Legions.

Their study reveals the soldiering experience as a critical moment in forging a new sense of Jewish nationalism -- one unrestricted by borders but bonded by a shared experience and history -- among people who had dispersed widely. “As immigrants from Russia they were reluctant to fight on the side of Great Britain which aligned with the Tsarist regime they had just escaped, but when the call came to fight for the Land of Israel to which they were religiously and historically attached for 2000 years, many of them, mainly in North America, volunteered,” says Michael Keren.

At the time immigration among Jewish people to countries like Canada, the U.S. and Britain was rampant, but Keren and Keren write that a stereotype of Jewish people as ‘slackers escaping military service’ followed them to their new homes. Despite being unable to fight because many did not meet citizenship requirements, or a lack of desire to support military efforts that allied them with Russia, the stereotype made it difficult to integrate into their new home countries.

“In the First World War, many small nationalities joined the war in order to ensure self-determination when it was over. This was also the case with the Jewish battalions,” says Shlomit Keren.

Their book introduces soldiers who describe their experience through a uniquely Jewish perspective. These include Miguel from Argentina who leaves home for the first time destined for an unknown future, a Russian Jew from Chicago who travels on a warship threatened by German submarines on a journey to Palestine only to find it much unlike its biblical image of “a land of milk and honey,” Private Berezin of the Bronx who is reluctant to bear allegiance to His Majesty the King of England, and Abraham from England who used the biblical tale of the Exodus as a reference point while soldiering in Egypt.

“The writings express a prideful excitement over such experiences as a march in uniform to the synagogue on the Sabbath, the celebration of the Passover Seder in the Land of Israel or lying in trenches across the Turkish lines during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement,” the authors write.

“What is common in the soldiers’ writings is the strong, authentic feelings Jewish soldiers had toward the Land of Israel as a result of their religious upbringing,” says Michael Keren. “The Jewish Legions erased the stereotype of Jews as people of the book who are unable to defend themselves like everyone else when necessary.”

The unique components of the Jewish battalions were down played by the War Office of the time. Despite controversy over the creation of all-Jewish battalions, the Legionnaires carried the Shield of David insignia on their left sleeve in the symbolic colours of red, blue and purple, the 38th and 39th fought in battles in the Jordan Valley in summer 1918 and the Legions were recognized in 1919 with the granting of the title “The First Judean Battalion” and a badge with the Menorah as its emblem.