How Dogs Went From Feared Enemy to Jew's Best Friend

People of Canaan Have Long History With Beasts of Canine

Kurt Hoffman

By Benjamin Ivry

Published July 09, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

This estrangement is further documented in “Journey to a 19th Century Shtetl: The Memoirs of Yekhezkel Kotik,” originally published in Warsaw in 1913, which recounts how rich goyim used dogs to terrify Jews in the Polish shtetl of Kamieniec Litewski, in today’s Belarus:

“As was fashionable at that time, the estate-owners were fond of dogs. Each squire had different sorts of dogs… At first the squire sent out several dogs of the barking but not biting kind. They were soon followed by the other kind and finally came the real ‘biters.’ The whole pack fell upon the Jew, not letting him budge from the spot; at the same time he received a considerable portion of bites. While the cries of the Jew rent the air and he was frightened to death, the squire with all his family was standing on the porch and laughing heartily.”

This association of dogs with life-threatening experiences added further trauma when anti-Semitic persecutors likened Jews to dogs. From the early Middle Ages, according to the cultural historian Sander L. Gilman, the “demonization” by other religions of “the Jews as dogs remains constant across time.” The human rights advocate Bernie Farber, former chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, has recalled that “on Toronto’s beaches up to the mid 1950s, it was common to see signs that read ‘No Dogs or Jews Allowed.’”

Nor was the situation improved when Jews themselves called each other dogs. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, “one of the most offensive insults in Yiddish is ‘du bist a hunt mit di oyern’ (you are a dog with ears).” Being attacked by dogs and simultaneously identified as a dog helped create a conflicted relationship between Jews and man’s best friend.

Nobel Prize winner Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s powerful “Only Yesterday” presents the cautionary tale of Isaac Kumer, who arrives in Palestine as part of the Second Aliyah, finds a stray mongrel named Balak, and paints the words “mad dog” on its side; Balak fulfils these words by going mad and biting Kumer to death.

Fortunately, the relationship between dogs and their Jews improved, if too late for poor Kumer. An essay by Zalashik in “A Jew’s Best Friend?” posits as a path-breaking moment in Jewish-canine relations the 1969 publication of “Azit the Canine Paratrooper” by Lieutenant General Mordechai Gur, former chief of staff of the IDF.

Azit was a female German shepherd who later inspired a board game, a play and a film with her courage, which Gur describes as much superior to that of the Hollywood film star Lassie. After all, Lassie met “good and bad people,” but Azit had “the terrorists and the Jordanian army chasing after her!”

Azit surrounded by enemies was a metaphor for Israel’s geographic position in the Middle East. Although Gur did not specify any such intention, to choose a German shepherd dog as protagonist was significant at a time when “for Israelis, German shepherds would have called to mind images of the Nazis and the Holocaust … Gur’s choice of the German shepherd may have been designed to turn the German shepherd from a Nazi dog into an Israeli dog.”

By co-opting the canine image and transforming it, Gur achieved what had taken centuries of Jewish history to do: changed Jews’ image of dogs from feared enemies to admired friends.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.