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Book Review


Michael Keren and Shlomit Keren, We Are Coming, Unafraid: The Jewish Legions and the Promised Land in the First World War. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010. Pp. v + 191. $39.95 (hardcover).


     Consider the following scenario: In 1918 a Ukrainian-born Jewish man living in the United States entered a recruiting office on 42nd Street in Manhattan and enlisted in the British Army. After taking an oath of allegiance to King George V, he marched in a parade in the Bronx, boarded a ship headed to Boston, and stopped briefly at a royal recruiting depot in Windsor, Nova Scotia before arriving at a training facility in Plymouth, England. Michael Keren and Shlomit Keren have traced the story of the 38th, 39th, and 40th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers, or the Jewish Legions, which trained in Plymouth and fought for Great Britain during the First World War. By summer 1918 Jews from England, the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Palestine were fighting alongside General Edmond Allenby in the Jordan Valley.

     The authors devote little attention to the strategic, operational, or tactical levels of Britain's military campaign in the Middle East. Rather, Keren and Keren offer a socio-cultural analysis of the identity (trans)formation of a handful of common soldiers. The authors gained access to the lives of this heterogeneous cast of legionnaires by mining a rich array of "life-writing material," including letters, memoirs, and diaries. Individual chapters chart the experiences of a Warsaw-born Pole living in Argentina, a Ukrainian singer who fled for New York City, a Russian Jew living in Detroit who joined the Jewish Legions as a teenager, and a British Army chaplain originally from Latvia. While the "life-writing material" provides the book its core, an over-reliance on block quotes and lengthy excerpts from primary sources diminishes the authorial voice.

     What makes for clumsy reading at times, however, also provides the substance for a provocative argument. The authors argue that members of the Jewish diaspora forged on the crucible of war an identity as Jewish soldiers. The foundation for such an identity was "existential Zionism," or an "identification with the cause of the redemption of Zion that is more related to religious sources than to ideological formulations" (169). At first, Palestinian Jews, who envisioned themselves as the leaders of the Zionist movement and the embodiment of the "New Jew," derided the Legionnaires as schneiders unable or unwilling to modernize their religion and raise their political consciousness. Despite contemporary observations to the contrary, the authors argue that a powerful Biblical symbolism provided cohesion between the foreign Legionnaires and Palestinian Jews.

     Many readers will question if a rigorous analysis of a small number of texts can lead the authors to make any claims to representativeness. Can the experiences of less than a half-dozen members of the Jewish diaspora, most of whom left Palestine after the war, signal the rise of existential Zionism? If not, the authors offer a solid foundation and sophisticated methodological framework that will benefit future scholarship. Keren and Keren blend two historiographies that have only recently begun to intersect: the "new" military history and cultural history. The authors ably connect the social dimensions of war and the cultural process of identity formation through the framework of existential Zionism, unearthing hitherto neglected details of the British war effort. They show that the British military created a dictionary of "military Hebrew" to communicate with the Legionnaires. British military rituals, which became infused with Biblical stories to bridge the gap between Palestinian Jews and the larger diaspora, also facilitated the rise of existential Zionism.

     But the authors do not demonstrate whether the development of existential Zionism was an organic or imposed process. The authors provide much evidence in favor of the former, emphasizing the importance of song, particularly the Zionist hymn "Hatikvah," as an integral component existential Zionism. One soldier visited Jewish graves and reflected upon the need to attach greater meaning to their deaths. Others turned to religion to fill a spiritual void that accompanies many soldiers who fight foreign wars. Still, many leaders consciously fused military rituals with Biblical symbolism to create existential Zionism. For instance, a Jewish chaplain used the story of Nob from the Book of Isaiah to stake claim to Palestinian land and construct the identity of Jewish soldiers. The authors demonstrate that the chaplain, like his mentor Rabbi Kook, "considered the First World War a gigantic struggle between nations, the outcome of which would bring about the redemption of the Jewish people" (117).

     Finally, the book will force readers of all levels to consider how best to conceptualize the experiences of the Jewish Legions. Keren and Keren portray the Legions as a "multinational force." Indeed, the Legions were the physical embodiment of the nodes of connection linking the world historical experiences of Jews from Argentina, North America, Eastern Europe, and Great Britain with other groups of soldiers from South Africa, India, Egypt, and Australia who bore arms for the British during World War I. Perhaps the story of the Jewish Legions is more complicated than the authors realize–a transnational story that transcends national identifications. Although the authors do not articulate as much, they unearth the links between the Jewish diaspora, the British Empire, and the extraterritorial effects of European nationalisms that plunged the world into global conflict. We Are Coming, Unafraid takes the reader back to a time when national boundaries were porous and in a state of constant renegotiation. After all, when was the last time one could enter a recruiting office on 42nd Street and enlist in the British Army?

Matthew Shannon is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his B.A. and M.A. in history from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and was the 2010-2011 Thomas J. Davis Fellow in Diplomacy and Foreign Relations at the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University. He can be reached at


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