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When Netanyahu’s father drummed a Jewish army in the US

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The news that Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki has called on American Muslims to join jihad against the U.S. reminds me of a warning I think I first heard from Rami Khouri: national conflict in the Middle East is in danger of becoming a religious one, and that’s scary. As a Jew concerned with my tribe’s responsibility in these issues, I’d point out that Israel/Zionism plays a role in this transformation. I’m not saying it’s their doing, but they play a part. In that vein I’d compare Al-Awlaki’s threats with an interesting moment in the life of Benjamin Netanyahu’s father. 

First, here’s Al-Awlaki, transcribed by CNN:

"With the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being a Muslim, and I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other Muslim," he says in the recording that runs more than 12 minutes.

"To the Muslims in America, I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful co-existence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brother and sisters? How can you have your loyalty to a government that is leading the war against Islam and Muslims?"

In 1940, Benjamin Netanyahu’s father, Benzion Netanyahu, a militant Zionist, worked in the United States to raise money for a Jewish army in Europe and Palestine. In his book Militant Zionism in America, Rafael Medoff says that many mainstream Jews and Zionists opposed the effort:

An additional concern of Dr. [Stephen] Wise and his colleagues was that the creation of an international Jewish army would provoke questions about whether Jews were loyal to the Jewish army or the armed forces of the United States. The proliferation of anti-Semitic "war-mongering" charges against the American Jewish community during the 1930s had Jewish leaders on edge. Congress Weekly, the organ of Wise’s American Jewish Congress, openly worried that non-Jews would think "that the Jewish army is intended to be composed of Jewish citizens in America, thus raising questions which did not exist of loyalty of Jews to their country." The ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] journal New Palestine likewise feared that any hints of American Jews joining a Jewish army would be "mischievous in their effect on the status of American Jews." … The British Foreign Office, hoping to exploit such American Jewish fears, at one point urged the British Embassy in Washington to circulate "the idea that the formation of a Jewish army might be contrary to American tradition."

…President Roosevelt made it clear to Wise that Washington would defer to the British on the army question since a Jewish army might anger the Arabs [whom the British depended upon for its WW2 campaign in N Africa]

Netanyahu didn’t care about the opposition. He was a Jabotinsky-ite, an aide to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist who died that year in upstate New York. Netanyahu held fundraisers for the Jewish army in New York. And in 1944, Churchill agreed to the formation of a Jewish Brigade. It played a role in helping survivors of the Holocaust emigrate to Palestine, Medoff reports. And of course many of the brigade veterans went on to join the Haganah, the new Israeli army that repulsed the Arab armies and participated in the ethnic cleansing of historical Palestine on a religious basis in 1948. Militant American Zionists also contributed to that effort, with money and weapons, often breaking the law to do so.

Let’s be clear: the appeal to American Jews to support a Jewish army was never a call on Americans to fight the United States, ala the jihadist. But many American Jews justly perceived a conflict between their national and religious identities in Netanyahu’s appeal. That conflict continues today, when General Petraeus says that the special relationship with Israel is hurting our country across the Middle East, and fostering Islamic radicalism; and the Israel lobby, now firmly ensconced in the American discourse, says that this plain fact is a lie. (They said the same thing after 9/11.)

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