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Jewish Defense Organizations: The Jewish Brigade Group

(1944 - 1946)

The only military unit to serve in World War II in the British Army — and, in fact — in all the Allied forces — as an independent, national Jewish military formation, the Jewish Brigade Group comprised mainly of Jews from Eretz Yisrael and had its own emblem. The establishment of the Brigade was the final outcome of prolonged efforts by the yishuv and the Zionist Movement to achieve recognized participation and representation of the Jewish people in the war against Nazi Germany.

In 1940, the Jews of Palestine were permitted to enlist in Jewish companies attached to the East Kent Regiment (the “Buffs”). These companies were formed into three infantry battalions of a newly-established “Palestine Regiment.” The battalions were moved to Cyrenaica and Egypt, but there, too, as in Palestine, they continued to be engaged primarily in guard duties. The Jewish soldiers demanded to participate in the fighting and the right to display the Jewish flag.

In a letter to Chaim Weizmann in 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated that his government was prepared “to discuss concrete proposals” in the matter of the formation of a Jewish Fighting Force. While Jews were dispersed throughout the British army, the Jewish Agency wished to concentrate them into one unit, flying the Jewish national flag.

Churchill was much more receptive to the idea than his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain disapproved of an all-Jewish Brigade, fearing that it would give more legitimacy to the Jewish yearning for national independence. British policy since the White Paper of 1939 no longer favored partition, and therefore symbols of Jewish independence were not encouraged. As more and more information came to light over the tragedy in Europe, however, the British bowed to Zionist demands for a Jewish military unit.

It was not until September 1944, after six years of prolonged negotiations, that the British government agreed to the establishment of a Jewish Brigade. It consisted of Jewish infantry, artillery, and service units. After a period of training in Egypt, the Jewish Brigade Group — approximately 5,000 soldiers — took part in the final battles of the war on the Italian front under the command of the Canadian-born Jew, Brigadier Ernest Benjamin. In May 1945, the Brigade was moved to North East Italy where, for the first time, it encountered survivors of the Holocaust. In the summer of 1946, the British authorities decided to disband the Brigade.

Skills gained in the Jewish Brigade and in the British army in general was experience that would be put to use again during Israel's War of Independence. More than its military value, however, the Jewish Brigade served as a symbol of hope for renewed Jewish life in Eretz Israel. The soldiers of the Jewish Brigade met with survivors of the Holocaust in Displaced Persons camps, bringing them Jewish and Zionist culture. The Jewish Brigade was also instrumental in bringing many of the survivors to Palestine, by Bericha and “illegal immigration.”

Sources: Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education