How World War I Shaped Jewish Politics and Identity

Image: Courtesy of Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati.

When World War I broke out 100 years ago this summer, Forverts Editor Abraham Cahan predicted “a frightful bloodletting.” Under the stark headline “Milkhome” (War), Cahan wrote: “War means a retreat backwards, a return to darkness.”

June 28 will mark the centennial of the spark that ignited that war: the assassination of the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand. Cahan opposed the war on socialist principle. In that, he resembled most American Jews, who, like the majority of Americans, opposed America’s involvement at the start.

Although American Jews may not have supported a military campaign, they became entangled in the humanitarian side of the war from the beginning. They rushed to the aid of starving Jews in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. They helped the destitute and brutalized in war-torn Eastern and Central Europe.

Finally, in the spring of 1917, when America entered the war, American Jews had to fight. More than 200,000 Jews donned a uniform, the first time Jews fought in significant numbers for the American armed forces.

The war was a defining moment that changed American Jewish identity, power and values, but it has been overshadowed by the catastrophe of World War II. Daniel Soyer, professor of American Jewish history at Fordham University, said: “In terms of the development, shape and attitudes of the American Jewish community, in some ways the First World War was as important as the Second World War.”

While the Second World War had a devastating effect on the Jewish populations of Europe, the First World War shifted the balance of power in the Diaspora from the old world to the new. American Jews emerged from World War I as major philanthropists. “While World War II shifted forever the demographic center of world Jewry, the First World War saw the shift of financial and institutional centers of world Jewry to America,” said Rebecca Kobrin, professor of American Jewish history at Columbia University.

In America, World War I gave millions of Jews, many of them immigrants, a sense not just of their Jewishness, but also of their Americanness. And it forced the military to recognize and accommodate the nation’s Jews, setting up a framework for Jewish soldiers to maintain their traditions as best as possible on training bases and during deployment overseas. The war also saw the first serious organization of a Jewish chaplaincy. Jessica Cooperman, professor of religion studies at Muhlenberg College, said that World War I institutionalized the Jewish chaplaincy and put a structure in place that could be taken up instantly following America’s entry into Word War II.

But the war’s most significant legacy was to unite disparate strands of the American Jewish community — Germans, Eastern Europeans, Orthodox, Reform and socialists — around the single issue of helping their brethren in war-torn Europe and in Palestine. That unity was personified by the formation of a group that would become synonymous with international Jewish relief work over the next 100 years: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

For the first time, American Jews were seen as international philanthropists, armed with the wealth and the initiative to help Jews overseas. The war also elevated philanthropy to a central tenet of American Judaism. Jay Winter, a professor of history at Yale University, said that the war gave birth to the idea of an American Jewish community “centered on philanthropy… more than on Talmud and on Torah.”

The creation of the Joint also signaled that a period of German Jewish dominance of communal institutions in America had come to an end. Before World War I, leaders like Louis Marshall — who was born in America to German Jewish parents — and philanthropist Jacob Schiff dominated American Jewish life. During the war, the German Jewish elite was forced to share leadership and responsibility with Eastern Europeans, even with socialists. Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, said, “One could argue it is the beginning of the end of German hegemony and the beginning of East European hegemony in terms of Jewish communal leadership.”

It began with a hail of gunfire. On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Within months, Austria-Hungary and Germany were at war with Russia, Britain and France.

The war had an immediate impact on the Jews of Palestine. The ramshackle Ottoman Empire was vast, and food supplies in Palestine quickly became scarce. European philanthropists, who normally would have provided aid, could not get money out of Europe.

Instead, aid was supplied by a new organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The Joint, as it is referred to today, was a partnership between an Orthodox group, the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews; a German-Jewish dominated group, the American Jewish Relief Committee; and a socialist group, the People’s Relief Committee. By the end of 1915, according to Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, the Joint had raised $1.5 million (about $35 million today) and distributed 900 tons of food and medicine.

Aid was even more crucial in Central and Eastern Europe, where 4 million Jews found themselves living in the battlegrounds that separated the Austro-Hungarian and German armies from the Russian army. Jews fought in all three of these armies. About 90,000 Jews fought in German uniform, 275,000 Jews fought in the Austro-Hungarian army and 450,000 Jews fought for the czar. During the course of the war, these opposing armies advanced and retreated several times over the Pale of Settlement, a swathe of land on the Western border of the Russian empire where Jews had been forced to live for more than 100 years. Towns and villages were captured and recaptured several times.

Each spasm of fighting brought with it new dangers and deprivations. After the Russian army was overrun by Germany, in 1915, the Russians began a retreat across the Pale of Settlement. Russian authorities saw Jews living in the Pale as a liability. As many as 350,000 Jews were either expelled or deported to the East under suspicion of providing intelligence to the enemy. The expulsions and deportations were accompanied by a wave of pogroms, characterized by rape and murder. Winter estimated that during the war between 30,000 and 100,000 Jews were killed.

If American Jews could be said to have sympathy for any side in World War I, it would have been for the armies of Germany and Austria-Hungary. In 1916 the German army conducted a census of Jewish soldiers, amid accusations that German Jews shirked their duty. But this was nothing compared to the generations of anti-Semitism that Jews had suffered in Czarist Russia. Indeed, many American Jews looked up to Germany as one of the more social democratic countries in Europe. And the violence that accompanied the Russian retreat only reinforced American Jewish hatred of the czar.

The Russian Revolution, in February 1917 — the entry of America into the war on the side of Britain, France, and a suddenly democratic Russia — changed American-Jewish views of the war. A community that had been largely happy for America to sit out the war now rallied to the cause.

Between 200,000 and 250,000 Jews served in the American armed forces. Hundreds of thousands more subscribed to Liberty Loan war bonds, participated in Red Cross campaigns or worked in war industries producing materiel for the war effort. During the year and a half of direct American involvement in the war, practically every American Jew had a family member, friend or neighbor who served or sacrificed in some way, said Chris Sterba, lecturer in humanities at San Francisco State University.

Some Jewish servicemen had only a rudimentary grasp of English; others had religious and dietary requirements. Sterba, author of “Good Americans,” a book that focuses on Jewish and Italian soldiers in World War I, said that even though the U.S. government did not always live up to expectations, it at least tried to respond to Jewish needs. Major Jewish holidays were observed at training camps. Jewish chaplains were authorized to serve on the front. “For the first time, ethnic needs are being seriously considered” by the U.S. military, Sterba added.

Only about 25 chaplains were appointed, and only about 12 made it overseas, but the introduction of a framework for Jewish chaplains in World War I laid the groundwork for the widespread work of Jewish chaplains during the next world war.

Cooperman said World War I also represented a moment when American Jews became more fully integrated into the rhetoric of what it means to be American. “The real effort within the United States, and particularly in the military, is to emphasize, ‘We are all Americans. We are all in this together,’” Cooperman said.

She added that the rhetoric was motivated not by a love of pluralism, but by the need to maintain the draft and to keep America’s diverse array of soldiers, many from ethnic minorities, compliant. Even so, the emphasis was on the “embrace of ethnic and religious diversity as being valuable to America and necessary to the American cause,” she said.

America’s entry into the war was followed in the fall of 1917 by a turning point in American Zionism. The Balfour Declaration, which pledged to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” turned a utopian dream into a possibility. Zionism finally had to be taken seriously. Steven Zipperstein, professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University, said that in 1917 it would have been easy to compare the aspirations of Zionists with those of people who hoped that Esperanto would one day become a global language.

“But with the Balfour Declaration,” Zipperstein said, “Zionism sets itself apart from all those other endeavors and comes to be seen as something practical.”

By the time the war ended in November 1918, the Joint had served hundreds of thousands of Jews and raised more than $16.5 million ($260 million today). Daniel Soyer, professor of American Jewish history at Fordham University, said that the act of raising money and sending aid back to their hometowns was a formative experience for many American Jews. After the war, some American Jews returned to visit relatives in Eastern Europe.

“They found conditions were terrible,” Soyer said. “People were poor and kind of backward.”

For American Jews, particularly first-generation immigrants, the chasm between their experiences in America and what they found in the Old Country only underscored how different their lives had become.

American Jewish aid continued long into the postwar period. The Joint helped repatriate prisoners of war and rebuild homes; it set up soup kitchens and orphanages, distributed food and supplies. In Poland, Ukraine and Russia, Jews were plunged into fresh misery with the Russian Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War. Once again, families were uprooted and communities destroyed. Epidemics of disease broke out in crowded, unsafe conditions. Throughout, the Joint sent food, medicine and supplies.

The war may have given Jews a sense of their Americanness, but patriotism and xenophobia, whipped up by the war effort and by suspicion of the Russian Revolution, led to a backlash against Jews.

The fears were not without basis. Many left-leaning Jews were sympathetic toward, if not outright supporters of, the Russian Revolution. Tony Michels, a professor of American Jewish history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that Soviet suppression of pogroms and anti-Semitism was attractive to Jews, as was the Soviet commitment to giving Jews equal civil, political and national rights. This small but significant pro-Communist sentiment, coupled with the activity of prominent Eastern European Jewish revolutionaries, including Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, fed conspiracy theories about Jewish plots. This was the era in America of the Red Scare. Anarchists, communists and other leftists were hunted out, arrested and, whenever possible, deported. Among the more famous deportees was Emma Goldman, who was sent to the Soviet Union in 1919.

Xenophobia fueled the anti-Semitism of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and laid the ground for Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. The Red Scare merged with anti-German sentiment and with a broader anti-immigrant movement.

“It leads to a sense of insecurity among American Jews,” said Deborah Dash Moore, professor of history at the University of Michigan. “The atmosphere of patriotism that gets whipped up by the war has as its other side a dark side, which is that it’s directed against all people who can’t prove loyalty to the United States.”

This climate of fear led to a series of U.S. government measures that closed America’s doors to immigration. The great wave of 2 million Jews who had flooded into America from the 1880s onward was brought to an end. The mold was set for what we regard as the demography of American Jewry today.

The Forverts was not immune to the backlash. Soon after the United States entered the war, in 1917, the U.S. Postal Service threatened to withdraw the Forverts’s second-class mailing privileges, which would have crippled circulation. From October 1917 onward, the Forverts had to translate articles related to the war into English so that a censor could examine them. The scrutiny continued through to the end of the war.

As bad as conditions would get, and as skeptical as he was about the war, Cahan remained convinced that Jews were fortunate to have found a home in America. As he wrote in June 1917, lamenting the militarism that accompanied America’s entry into the war: “I got here when the angel of death was the ruler in Russia — during the reign of some of the fiercest despotism and anti-Semitism. The old country was no sort of home for us. When we got here we found our true home.”

Contact Paul Berger at or on Twitter, @pdberger

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Paul Berger

Paul Berger

Paul Berger has been a staff writer at the Forward since 2011, covering crime and healthcare issues, such as sex abuse, circumcision, and fraud. He is a fluent Russian speaker and has reported from Russia and Ukraine. He also likes digging into historicalmysteries .

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