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!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • 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.