Running Off to War


Female Stern Gang fighters. (Wikipedia)

I was at a wedding not long ago of two dear female friends. The ceremony mixed together various religious traditions, including a Quaker meeting where people in the audience could stand up and speak spontaneously. After a number of people had already spoken, an old man made his way to the front of the space. He beckoned the two brides to approach. He put his hands on their heads and blessed their union in Hebrew. Even for a diehard secular like me, it was a moving moment.

The next day, over a brunch of smoked fish, I discovered that the old man was an uncle of one of the brides and also a rabbi. We got to talking about Eastern Europe and Israel and World War II.

Suddenly he said to me, “Does the name Vladimir Jabotinsky mean anything to you?”

“He was the founder of the Irgun.”

“That’s right,” he said. “I was a member of his organization. I saw him the day before he died in 1940.”

The Irgun was a right-wing Jewish underground military organization that became infamous under Menachem Begin’s leadership for its attack on the King David Hotel in 1946, which killed 91 people. The British government, which controlled Palestine at the time, considered Irgun a terrorist organization.

“Jabotinsky was an enthralling speaker,” the old man told me. “I heard him speak for two hours straight at Madison Square Garden in front of a huge crowd. I was a member of Betar, the youth group affiliated with Irgun. We had a training camp in the Catskills. Jabotinsky came to visit us. And that’s where he had a heart attack and died.”

Betar was so right-wing that for a time it adopted black uniforms in honor of Mussolini and fascism. “There were some fascists in our group,” the old man told me. “This was before it became clear what Hitler was doing.” And for some at the time, Irgun wasn’t sufficiently militant. The Stern Gang, also known as Lehi, split from the Irgun in 1940. It tried to ally with the Nazis to fight the British and then later attempted a marriage between Bolshevism and religious fervor.

Irgun and Betar didn’t just run terrorist training camps in the Catskills. Before the Nazi invasion, the Polish government, too, was providing training and support for the Irgun in the hopes that a Jewish victory in Palestine would spur mass emigration.

It’s instructive to remember this time in history when American and Polish Jews were eager to grab their guns and join a struggle in the Middle East. Some were motivated by religion. Some wanted to fight against a colonial occupier. Some wanted to establish a secular Jewish state. It was a messy situation on the ground, with many different actors.

It was still messy after 1948. Even after the birth of Israel, some Jewish terrorist activities continued. As the Israeli scholars Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger write in their book Jewish Terrorism in Israel, “Most Jewish terrorist incidents that took place after the establishment of the State of Israel were the work of social networks consisting of former Lehi members who rejected the social democratic characteristics of the new state and adhered to a combination of religious and nationalistic views.”

In other words, terrorists and other extremists helped create the modern state of Israel and continued to operate even after that state came into existence. Many modern states have similarly messy origins, though they try hard to conceal the more unpleasant aspects.

I thought about the story the old rabbi told me of his days of radicalism when I was reading a recent article in The Washington Post about a young Macedonian boy who ran away from his family in Germany to fight in Syria. His family was shocked at the son’s turn toward greater religious orthodoxy and even more taken aback when he hopped on a flight to Turkey with several of his coevals.

“The group was part of an increasing number of European Muslims seeking to fight in the Syrian civil war alongside extremist groups, some of them linked to al-Qaeda,” the Post article reads. “And security officials worry that some of these volunteers will return radicalized and determined to strike in Europe.”

True, there are al-Qaeda-linked extremists fighting the Syrian government. But the opposition is diverse. In fact, according to the BBC, there are as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups mobilizing 100,000 fighters.  And “some” volunteers will return to strike in Europe? Well, anything is possible. After all, the Jewish Defense League did commit terrorist acts in the United States, and some of its members had been radicalized in Israel.

Still, we tend to view all the Jews who went to fight for the creation of Israel according to a heroic narrative. Some of these “terrorists” even became world leaders, like Menachem Begin. As for those who go to fight in Syria, we tend to view them according to a narrative of marginalization. These fighters will be pushed further and further to the political extremes until they, like some of the mujahideen before them, turn into the ideological offspring of Osama bin Laden.

The Macedonian family in Germany arranged for their son to be kidnapped in Turkey and sent home. He was, after all, only 16 years old. If it had been my kid, I’d probably have gone to Turkey and kidnapped him myself to bring him home. I have nothing but empathy for this family.

But I’m not so quick to assume that every Muslim traveling from Europe to Syria is suddenly an al-Qaeda recruit. First of all, despite some alarmist headlines, the numbers are rather low: a hundred from France, a couple hundred from Britain. And as French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said in response to a call to detain returning fighters, “The difficulty is that they are going to fight a regime that we oppose ourselves. Some are fighting with official opposition groups. Others end up with jihadist groups that are listed as terrorist organizations.”

As in the 1940s in Palestine, some recruits have gone to Syria motivated by extremist ideologies and with the intention to commit acts of terrorism. But most have more prosaic reasons for fighting. When asked why some Australians are travelling halfway around the world to fight in Syria, Will Plowright, a visiting fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Science, replied: “Many people think that they’ve maybe been somehow brainwashed by jihadist propaganda, but that usually isn’t the case. They’re more often motivated by a desire…to help people who are suffering.”

I wish the non-violent movement in Syria had succeeded in displacing Assad. I wish that this struggle against a dictator had not devolved into a bloody civil war and a transnational conflict. I have my doubts about what will come out of the current struggle. But I also resist the narrative of the Syrian war as simply a magnet for extremists. Perhaps, like George Orwell in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War, some of those who go to fight in Syria will be cured of their fondness for what Orwell called “smelly little orthodoxies.” Who knows, one of the veterans of this conflict might even step forward at a same-sex wedding in the distant future to offer a prayer in Arabic for the happy couple. Stranger things have happened.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • Barry M. Watson

    The road toward democracy is not as easy as some in the West seem to think!

    Even the most vehement Western advocates of Democracy only
    completed the process in recent times! Some US ‘Jim Crow’ laws lasted until

    The modern state of Syria was only formed in 1946 after being under French semi colonial tutelage since WWI.

    From Syria’s inception, many factions fought for power, but eventually a one party state was formed. [Nothing unusual about that, amongst others, China is still a one party state-and supplies most of the Free Liberal and Democratic Worlds’ imports!]

    The uprising in Syria did have a basis of discontent within some of the Syrian people. However this was soon encouraged by outside players-for their own political ends!

    A vast amount of outside money was supplied to any anti Government faction, under the guise of –BRINGING FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY TO THE PEOPLE- when in fact is was a US inspired Anti Assad /Anti Iran/Anti Hezbollah policy of Regime Change!

    The upshot was Syrians killing fellow Syrians in vast
    numbers, aided and abetted by some of the world’s most extreme Jihadists!

    It is interesting to read the 2006 edition of a US travel
    publication [Lonely Planet] In the entry
    on Syria it stated-

    ‘Here’s a newsflash: contrary to what the US State
    Department may wish the world to think, Syria is not populated by terrorists,
    zealots and other bogeymen. In fact Syrians are among the friendliest and
    hospitable people in the world…………..Since Bashar al-Assad took over from his
    father in 2001. Modernization has been on the national agenda………Syria is an
    modern, efficient and very proud nation with an administration that is becoming
    more liberal and outward looking by the day. It needs and deserves travelers
    to bear witness to this fact.’

    ‘…change isn’t occurring as swiftly as many observers had
    hoped. Still you’ve got to hand it to Assad junior-he’s trying.’

  • dmaak112

    John Feffer’s defense of the Syrian rebellion belies Western efforts to undermine and overthrow the Asads’ rule. Setting aside the plots and schemes to topple the pre-Asad Syria during the 1950s, the antagonism between Syria’s interests and those of the US did not just come into existence in 1970. Hafez al-Asad followed the foreign policy that defined the Damascus-Washington relationship for a quarter century. Syria’s ties to the Soviet Union, Syria’s position on the West’s position such as the Baghdad Pact or Eisenhower’s Doctrine of 1957, Syria’s support for Palestinian guerrillas, Syria’s position of Lebanon, Syria’s role alongside that of Egypt (before Sadat) as opposing the conservative monarchial regimes that still dominate the area all preceded Asad’s rule.

    What was different under Hafez was that Syria became more of a contender in Middle East politics rather than a battleground for its neighbors’ ambitions.

    From economic sanctions to diplomatic isolation to clandestine aid to rebels, the US and its European and Middle Eastern partners worked to undermine Asad’s government. The Muslim Brotherhood insurgency received financial and material support from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and likely Israel. From 1970 to 2011, the US treated Syria as a threat to our interests. Only on rare occasions did the policy change as in the 1990 confrontation with Iraq or the 2001 terror attacks.

    As much as Mr. Feffer would like to see the foreign fighters in Syria as dreamy eyed democrats, the truth is far more complicated and sinister. There may be over 1000 bands of rebels in the revolt, but it is the al-Qaeda elements that have claimed the major role in actual fighting and organization. As these international “freedom” fighters flock to Syria, Mr. Feffer fails to describe not only who pays for their transport, but also how do they enter the country or who pays for their arms and training? The biggest donors to this “sum zero” game are the oil sheiks of the Gulf. Not known for their fighting capability (having been dependent upon British and now US military umbrella), the oil sheiks would not embark upon such adventures without prior knowledge, if not agreement, that their thrones are secured by the US or European powers. For all the bravado of Turkey, it too begged for US weapons systems and guarantees from its NATO partners before it became “the North Vietnam” to Syria’s “Vietcong.”

    What Mr. Feffer failed to present is that there is a wider reason for the unholy alliance of the US, Western European, Gulf monarchs, Middle East neighbors and religious fanatics–Iran.

    The tension between Iran and the unnatural grouping that has made possible the destruction of Syria has been commented upon. But to give it its due would undercut the “high moral” purpose that this cabal has orchestrated. Military control of countries does not solely belong to Asad, just check out Egypt or Turkey. Fear of a minority of its surrounding majority is not new either–whether by religion as in Maronite control of the presidency in Lebanon or national origin as in Amman’s constant fear of Palestinian “citizens” versus its Bedouin tribes. Suppression of civil liberties? Damascus may be should have taken lessons from Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or Qatar or….

    Bashar al-Asad is a dictator. The rebellion has devolved into a bloody and destructive war. What Mr. Feffer should ask and write about is “Was it worth it?” From a relatively quite and potentially prosperous nation (yes Asad’s family and friends benefitted most, but how is that any different from W benefiting from his father’s presidency or the expenditures of millions of dollars by the likes of the Koch brothers to insure their continued dominance of wealth) to the one that now has its cities in ruins and its citizens fleeing for safety? Will the fall of Asad end in a rebirth of freedom and democracy? The examples of Iraq, Libya and Tunisia are not poster children for either one. Will the 1000 plus bands achieve a unified state when they are not even unified in revolt? Will the religious extremists fade away? Will the interference of Arab and non-Arab entities as well as the US and Western powers stop their involvement–or will the “good old days” of the 1950s return as the cabal fight over the carcass?

    Those who travel to Syria to fight the good fight as those who openly or secretly provide financial and material support are as guilty, if not more, for the horrors that has befallen Syria. Their hands are covered with the blood of innocents as is Asad’s. But to think that those who oppose Bashar’s regime are on some higher ground is a bold face lie. A lie that is perpetuated by the media that represents the very participants that interfered. Maintain this fiction of moral primacy will extend the slaughter and devastation. Syria will then exist as now Iraq exists–a name in geography books that does not represent the reality of a fractured and failed state.

    • John Feffer

      This is an interesting reply, but it is a reply to a different article. I very specifically did not present the Syrian opposition as “dreamy-eyed democrats.” I was simply resisting the narrative that they are all extremists and that the recruits that go there to fight do so from a variety of motivations. I’ve written elsewhere about the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict….

    • johnfeffer

      This is an interesting reply, but it is a reply to a different article. I very specifically did not present the Syrian opposition as “dreamy-eyed democrats.” I was simply resisting the narrative that they are all extremists and pointing out that the recruits that go there to fight do so from a variety of motivations. I’ve written elsewhere about the geopolitics of the Syrian conflict….