Nearly two hundred men and women left Mandatory Palestine between the years 1936–1938 in order to defend the Second Spanish Republic. Despite the expressions of solidarity with the Spanish Republic, most of the political parties in the Jewish Yishuv were against sending youth from Palestine to join the International Brigades. The goal of strengthening the Jewish presence in Palestine was given priority over and above international solidarity or the anti-Fascist struggle. Therefore, most of the volunteers were Jewish members of the Palestine Communist Party.
This article relies on autobiographical writings, individual testimonies and personal correspondence, analysed here for the first time. It is here that the private voices of the Jewish men and women who left Palestine in order to fight against the nationalist rebellion in Spain ring more clearly. The paper examines the history of these Jewish volunteers, their motivations, and the process that they went through from the time they left Palestine until they became active members of the International Brigades.
As Communists, most volunteers who left Palestine to fight in Spain tended to emphasize the international solidarity of the working class and similar universalistic motivations. The idea of affirming their Jewish identity was alien to them. Reading their letters and testimonies, however, it becomes clear that their ethnic identity as Jews was certainly a key factor in their decision to risk their lives in the Spanish fratricide.
Whilst the desperation of key international Zionist leaders, such as Chaim Weizmann, to field a fighting force against the Nazis consisting entirely of Palestinian Jews is evident in their correspondence, it is difficult to ascertain just how significant the practical contribution of the Jewish Brigade was to the Zionist project. The political effect of activities such as facilitating illegal immigration and, post-war, quietly training Jewish underground forces in Palestine cannot by their very nature be evaluated. Yet perhaps the Brigade’s most important contribution to the embryonic state of Israel was the huge leap in political and cultural strength that boasting such a force represented.
Constructions of Jews in twentieth-century Europe have been riddled throughout with inconsistencies and contradictions. However, some themes have been surprisingly persistent, none more so than constructions of Jews as weak, effeminate and cowardly. Schaffer looks at one significant set of responses to such characterizations, specifically at the rise of the ‘muscle Jew’ in Jewish and non-Jewish thinking. After the term was coined by Max Nordau at the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of the ‘muscle Jew’ came to represent a dominant current of Jewish identity reformulation. More recently, a series of scholars have come to understand the idea as a manifestation of Zionist ideology, a statement of a nationalist desire for Jewish reinvention in the face of endemic European antisemitism. By using the example of British Jewish service in the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War, Schaffer argues rather that the idea of the ‘muscle Jew’ can be better understood as a reflection of Jewish desire for European integration, an attempt to present Jewish soldiers as equal to their non-Jewish equivalents. Moreover, he contends that the ‘muscle Jew’ needs to be understood as an idea rooted in the longue durée of Jewish history, one that represents only one strand of Jewish self-imagining.