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Jews are joining the fight to defend Ukraine — we’ve been here before

On February 26, just two days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel issued an invitation to its “dear compatriots, brothers and all caring citizens of Israel.”

This was an unusual invitation: it was directed to all of those “who wish to participate in combat actions against the Russian aggressor. The response sparked such “extraordinary excitement” that the embassy soon deleted the post.

Of course, the call for volunteers to battle fascism was not limited to Israeli citizens. The day after the Ukrainian Embassy’s call to arms, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy formally invited all foreigners “wishing to join the resistance against the Russian occupiers.”

Zelenskyy’s invitation went out to all those who wished to “come to our state and join the ranks of the territorial defense forces.

“A separate unit is being formed from foreigners — the International Brigade of the territorial defense of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said.

No doubt Zelenskyy had already made plans to send his address to the world when his embassy officials in Israel were already posting their call to arms. Yet the impression, even if accidental — that Ukraine had turned first to Jews for help before the rest of the world — is intriguing. This is especially true when set against the original war against fascism, one that brought into being the original International Brigades.

It was little less than a century ago that the Spanish Civil War exploded into existence — a war that drew combatants from far and wide. In response to an attempted military coup against the democratically elected government of Spain’s Second Republic — a coup aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy — thousands of men and women from all points of the globe packed their bags, made for Spain, and enlisted in the International Brigades. By 1939 and the war’s bitter end, between 35,000 to 40,000 volunteers had joined this transnational army.

Jews played a considerable and courageous role in these brigades. Of course, precise numbers are elusive. Volunteers were not asked their religious affiliation, and not all Jewish volunteers identified as Jewish to others or even to themselves. Nevertheless, in his meticulously researched account, “Jewish Volunteers, the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War,” the historian Gerben Zaagsma estimates that one of every ten volunteers — between 3,500 and 4,000 — was Jewish. (Other estimates of Jewish volunteers place the number as high as 7,000.)

These volunteers — mostly men in their twenties — largely hailed from the Old World. Many of them were already accustomed to packing their bags, having migrated westward across the continent to escape the pogroms and persecutions in the east and settling in places like Paris, Amsterdam and London. But a large contingent of Jewish volunteers also came from the cities and towns in the New World. Of the 3,000 mostly young and mostly idealistic men who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — the iconic contingent of American volunteers who fought in Spain — about 1,000 were Jewish.

Historians have long debated the reasons Jews joined the war in Spain. Did they enlist because they were Jewish? Or did they do so because of their political or ideological convictions? Wait a second: it gets even more complicated. If these volunteers were driven by such convictions, did they nevertheless come to them because they were Jewish? If they enlisted because they were Jewish, what did they mean by being Jewish?

(There is yet another layer to this palimpsest of purposes and principles. Regardless of the volunteers’ actual motives, Zaagsma argues that in the postwar period, a “decisive shift” occurred in the portrayal of Jewish involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Both volunteers and historians now tended to present their involvement as a “particular Jewish response to fascism and the Nazi onslaught.”)

In his recent and remarkable “The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War,” the historian Giles Tremlett mostly and wisely avoids these questions. Instead, he lets the volunteers speak for themselves. In a moving portrait of two Jewish brothers from Amsterdam, Piet and Emiel Akkerman, we glimpse both the need to assert Jewish courage and the need to affirm universal principles.

In a long letter sent to his mother before he left for Spain in 1936, Piet, who had been a diamond worker and labor organizer, declares, “I grew up in a society rife with injustice and oppression. I have suffered both as a worker and as a Jew. I was downtrodden, but I never bowed to those terrible blows.”

Yet Piet then shifts registers. “I have not come to Spain out of selfish interest,” he tells his mother. “I just had no right NOT to come — on seeing that in Spain lay the powder keg that was about to set fire to the entire world, that would perpetuate oppression, scientifically institute mass murder, and trample and animalize the whole of humanity.

“Once I’d seen THAT,” he concludes, “how could I NOT go? How could I hesitate, even with my scarce abilities, to help prevent another world war and to defeat fascism?” Both brothers were killed in Spain within a month of one another shortly before the year was out.

In the three weeks since Zelenskyy announced the creation of an International Brigade, between 20,000 to 30,000 volunteers appear to have answered the call. According to an article published a week ago in Haaretz, the actual number of Israeli volunteers is unknown. But one researcher believes that dozens of volunteers from Israel were already among these men and women.

As one Russian-speaking Israeli volunteer remarked, his knowledge of Russian can help the effort. But he also felt he had no choice but to join the “battle for the entire free world, against the despotism and tyranny of Putin.” As with Spain, so too with Ukraine: while the reasons are many, the moral is the same.

A professor at the University of Houston, Zaretsky is also a culture columnist at the Forward. His new book, “Victories Never Last: Caregiving and Reading in a Time of Plague” will be published in April by University of Chicago Press.

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