JEWISH BRIGADE GROUP


JEWISH BRIGADE GROUP, 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. It was made up mainly of Jews from Palestine. The brigade had its own emblem, a gold Magen David on a background of blue-white-blue stripes and bearing the inscription "חי״ל [the initials of the Hebrew name חֲטִיבָה יְהוּדִית לוֹחֶמֶת – Jewish Fighting Brigade] – Jewish Brigade Group." It saw service in Egypt, on the north Italian front, and in northwest Europe, in the years 1944–46.

The establishment of the brigade was the final result of prolonged efforts by the yishuv and the Zionist movement to achieve recognized participation and representation of the Jewish people in the war against the Nazis, to lift the mantle of anonymity from the war effort made by the yishuv with its tens of thousands of volunteers, and to reinforce the yishuv's political standing and promote the aims of Zionism. The British authorities, opposed as they were to these aims, were reluctant to have Jews serving in fully fighting units and confined them to auxiliary corps, while the infantry was largely employed on guard duties in Palestine. These obstacles were overcome only after a sustained and unrelenting campaign, headed by Chaim *Weizmann in London and by Moshe Shertok (*Sharett), head of the *Jewish Agency Political Department, in Jerusalem.

In 1940 the Jews of Palestine were permitted to enlist in Jewish companies attached to the East Kent Regiment (the "Buffs"), and 15 such companies came into being. In 1942–43 these companies were formed into three infantry battalions of a newly established "Palestine Regiment"; the battalions, whose men had previously served only in Palestine, were moved to Cyrenaica and Egypt, but there, too, as in Palestine, they did not receive their full equipment and continued to be engaged primarily in guard duties. The Jewish soldiers stepped up their demands for participation in the fighting and for the right to display the Jewish flag. It was not until September 1944, however, that the British government agreed to the establishment of a "reinforced brigade" which would be fully trained and then join the troops at the front. The brigade was composed of the three infantry battalions of the "Palestine Regiment," a field artillery regiment, and various other service and auxiliary units, largely made up of the Palestine Jewish units – particularly of the Royal Army Service Corps, which had seen service in North Africa. Brigadier Ernest Frank *Benjamin, a Canadian-born Jew serving in the Royal Engineers, was appointed brigade commander; the battalion commanders were British, while the company commanders were mostly Jewish. Some refugees and "illegal" immigrants also joined the brigade, and some Jews serving in British units were transferred to it. The total strength of the brigade was approximately 5,000.

After a period of training in Egypt, the brigade was moved to Italy, where it joined the Eighth Army and continued its training until the end of February 1945. It then took up positions on the Alfonsini sector of the front, where it soon engaged in the fighting, initiating two attacks (March 19–20, 1945), and took prisoners. Moving to another sector of the front, on the Senio River, the brigade found itself facing a German parachute division. In the course of further operations, the three battalions crossed the Senio on April 9, establishing a bridgehead which they broadened the following day. The brigade's casualties consisted of 30 killed and 70 wounded; 21 of its men were awarded military distinctions and 78 were mentioned in despatches.

In May 1945 the brigade was moved to northeast Italy, and it was there that it met for the first time with survivors of the Holocaust. Rescue committees were established in the brigade units to care for the Jewish refugees, while maintaining secret contact with the Jewish authorities' Merkaz la-Golah ("Diaspora Center"; see *Beriḥah). The brigade thus became a major factor in the care of the Jewish survivors of the ghettos and concentration camps. Without neglecting their military duties, the Jewish soldiers extended systematic aid to the refugees, provided them with clothes and educational facilities for their children, guided them across the frontiers, and smuggled them into Palestine. These activities continued when the brigade was moved to Holland and Belgium in July 1945. Some members of the brigade were attached to the tracing service of the occupation authorities and in their search for surviving Jews got as far as Poland and Czechoslovakia.

In the summer of 1946, in the wake of the increasing tension between Britain and the yishuv, the authorities decided on the disbandment of the brigade; most of its men were returned to Palestine and discharged there. Apart from its contribution to the war effort against Nazi Germany, the brigade fulfilled two historic functions: it was a decisive factor in strengthening the staying power of the Jewish survivors and refugees in Europe, and the experience it gained in military organization and in battle subsequently became one of the foundations of the Israel Defense Forces. Many of the officers of the Israel army, among them two chiefs of staff, M. Makleff and Ḥ. Laskov, had seen previous service in the Jewish Brigade.

See also *Israel, State of: Historical Survey (1880–1948); Israel, State of: Defense (Ottoman and Mandatory Period); *Zionism: Zionist Policy.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

L. Rabinowitz, Soldiers from Judea (19452); Esco Foundation for Palestine, A Study of Jewish, Arab and British Policies, 2 (1947), 1020–35; Y. Lifshitz, Sefer ha-Berigadah ha-Yehudit (1947); D. Ever-Hadani, Am be-Milḥamto (19543); Y. Bauer, Flight and Rescue: Brichah (1970), index; idem, From Diplomacy to Resistance (1970), index; B.M. Casper, With the Jewish Brigade (1947); Z. Shefer, Sefer ha-Hitnaddevut (1949); Y. Allon, Shield of David (1970).


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.